There was a time when a successful movie promotion consisted of giving away plastic cups and toys with the purchase of a burger and fries.
While fast food tie-ins are still a major part of generating hype for a new film, today Hollywood seeks larger and more creative means to create buzz. Call it organic, viral or guerrilla marketing.
The latest incarnation came this week when 7-Eleven transformed 12 of its convenience stores into caricatures of the Kwik-E-Mart as part of a promotion for "The Simpsons Movie."
The promotion further blurs the line between reality and fiction.
It used to be that marketers tried to work real-life products into movies and TV shows. While that still happens, today some highly known fake products are creeping into reality.
One of the first was the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a seafood restaurant chain that came out of the hit 1994 movie "Forrest Gump." The first restaurant opened two years after the movie premiered. There are now 21 outlets in the United States and seven abroad including locations in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Cancun.
Items from the "Harry Potter" books and movies have also jumped from fiction to reality. A candy from the books — Bertie Bott's Beans — are now available from jelly bean manufacturer Jelly Belly.
The 7-Eleven stores that have been turned into Kwik-E-Marts are stocked with products from "The Simpsons."
There are boxes of KrustyO's cereal, Buzz Cola, pink doughnuts and special edition "Radioactive Man" comic books. 7-Eleven also renamed its Slurpee frozen drinks as Squishees. One key "Simpson" product, however, is missing: Duff beer.
"'The Simpsons' 7-Eleven campaign feels wonderfully fresh to me," said Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade Marketing Group. "'Simpsons' fans are already buzzing about it."
7-Eleven only converted 11 stores in the United States and one in Canada, but still managed to create a strong buzz, Neisser said.
"For 'Simpsons' fans, this is an inside joke on a colossal scale," he said. "Among 'Simpsons' fans this conversion is sure to enhance their perceptions of 7-Eleven as a cool place to shop. What it is really clever about this is the blending of reality and fiction."
The Art of Hype
The marriage of movies and completely unrelated companies is nothing new. Fast food chains for years have offered collectible toys or plastic cups to mark a movie's release.
"James Bond" movies have always featured fancy cars and the series had a major tie-in with BMW a few years back. When the latest "Shrek" movie came out, the producers teamed up with Energizer batteries to market the film. "Shrek" had also joined with Burger King for its first two movies and McDonald's for the latest one.
The number of promotions is also growing.
When "Spider-Man 3" was released, it had several different tie-ins.
Baskin Robbins launched a limited edition ice cream that included extra cream in the form of a web. Sony Ericsson launched special phones that included "Spider-Man" games, movie clips and wallpapers.
Even the U.S. Postal Service is getting in on the action, recently converting 400 mailboxes to look like R2-D2 from the "Star Wars" movies. The change was in honor of the franchise's 30th anniversary. A special stamp was issued to mark the occasion.
Not all marketing schemes go smoothly though.
Last summer's action film "Snakes on a Plane" tried a new promotion that sent people to a Web site so they could send their friends a phone message. The movie's star Samuel L. Jackson would call and in a partially personalized recorded message urge people to see the movie.
But the system overloaded and in many cases phones rang but the message was missing.
The most famous promotion mishap occurred in January in Boston where citizens and police mistook dozens of blinking electronic devices showing a crude cartoon character for bombs. The campaign for the Cartoon Network's "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" backfired miserably. Police shut down bridges and the entire city of Boston went on terror alert.
In the end, the head of the Cartoon Network resigned and Turner Broadcasting and an advertising agency involved agreed to pay Boston $2 million in compensation for the emergency response. The Cartoon Network is a division of Turner Broadcasting, whose parent is Time Warner.
Neisser said he didn't foresee any such problems with "The Simpsons" promotion.
"No one is going to freak out and call the cops when their 7-Eleven is suddenly a Kwik-E-Mart," he said. "My guess is that many won't even notice but those that do will feel like insiders, which is one the true measures of a successful guerrilla effort."
Seeking New Ways to Grab Attention
These marketing techniques are aimed at cutting through all the clutter in the traditional marketing areas of TV and radio, said Kevin Corbett, a professor at Central Michigan University's School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts.
But he said what was truly unique about the 7-Eleven campaign was that it jumped back to one of the oldest forms of advertising: storefront ads.
Many stores still use sandwich board-style advertising, he said.
"In an age where the costs of promoting and marketing a movie can be greater than the actual production costs, these 'old-school' marketing techniques are kind of interesting," Corbett said. "Whether or not they're effective is another matter."
Stephanie Sigg, a freelance art director who worked for a number of ad agencies and other places in the entertainment industry, said advertisers were now trying to create "brand experiences." She said people were looking for new ways to activate and entice an audience.
Will a campaign at 12 stores really draw millions of people to the movie?
"I think this effort is designed to get the hard-core "Simpsons" fans excited and in seats opening weekend," Neisser said. "If they go in droves, they can then spread the word to the less enthusiastic fence sitters."
Several of those fans were packed into a New York 7-Eleven Monday afternoon buying any product they could. The store ran out of the KrustyO's by 1 p.m.
Jill Duboff of New York spent $18.09 on "Simpsons" goods in the store near Times Square. Her purchases included some Buzz cola and copies of the "Radioactive Man" comic book.
"I'm so happy. I'm such a huge 'Simpsons' fan," she said on the way out of the store.
So will this promotion make her more likely to see the film?
"I would have seen the movie anyway," she said, "but I would not have shopped at 7-Eleven otherwise."