Rant: 'Limitless' Viral Video Spreads, But Fails to Promote the Movie
by Alex Billington
March 18, 2011
Most people know I'm a huge fan of viral marketing, which has had its ups and downs recently, with The Dark Knight viral being one of the greatest ups, and lack of quality virals being the down. But this is a weird story. I was shown an awesome video on YouTube tweeted by @DanaBrunetti just the other day. It shows a man with an iPhone and electronic device he built that allows him to take over the video signal, effectively "hacking" into any Times Square screen he wants and putting his video up instead. It spread quick and even sparked a debate about it being fake. But get this - it's actually a viral video… for a movie! But which one?
It wasn't until I received an email this afternoon from Relativity that I learned this video was not only fake, but actually a viral for Limitless, that Bradley Cooper flick about a pill that makes you smart. Now, I wish I had the poor box office to back me up, as Limitless could still be a hit this weekend, but I seriously doubt it. So why was this viral an epic fail? As a self-proclaimed fan and expert in virals, I'm the first that should be able to pick up on them; I even sometimes get caught up in video game or TV virals. But after watching this video numerous times, sending it to friends, posting it on Facebook, I never once thought about Limitless at all. Or any movie for that matter. Apparently there was an ad somewhere on or in the video? I didn't see it.
Here's where it gets really interesting. Not only was this revealed in the email today, but apparently it's old news. Yea, the NY Times wrote an entire article about it, so did THR. How the heck did I miss these? Ohh right, because I already disconnected that awesome video from having ANYTHING to do with entertainment or movies at all. I expected to see articles on Engadget or Mashable or Geek.com, as I wanted to know if that technology really exists (and how the heck I can get my hands on it). But isn't that part of the success? The fact that I'm even writing about it now should be an important part of its success, since I am bringing even more attention to the video and Limitless. Here is how the creators explained the concept (via NY Times):
The two men, founders of a viral marketing company called Thinkmodo, are tapping into a growing desire among marketers to attract and keep the attention of online viewers with videos that get shared on social Web sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The strategy for Thinkmodo is to make videos that viewers will think are clever and authentic without overtly pushing or mentioning a product, Mr. Percelay said.
"We're pushing the engagement of an idea which leads you then to the product," he said. "It just is a whole new mind-set where you don’t have to wrap everything up in a bow and if you don't, people are going to be a lot more interested in you and what you're selling and what your message is."
He makes a good point and I agree with that, but they're going about this entirely wrong. I didn't get "lead to any product" at all. This is exactly the lazy marketing he's talking about! No one knows the video has to do with anything until, oh right, you read a huge article telling you EXACTLY that. When I first got the email, I didn't believe it. I believe more that they bought it after it became a success and are now claiming it ties in. They have no proof otherwise! As producer Dana Brunetti joked to me when I sent this to him, "I'm going to announce that Rebecca Black is a viral video of mine for my next movie, but not saying which." It baffles me that they're even using the view count on YouTube to show how much this is a success. I can pretty much guarantee that 90% of the 1,437,052 viewers did not know this was for Limitless and STILL don't know it is.
As someone who watched the video over and over and even got excited sharing it with others, I still consider this one of the biggest viral marketing failures. If you're going to promote a product, don't forget to actually promote that product, or at least tie it in somehow - and definitely don't do it in reverse, after the fact. What the hell does this even have to do with Limitless? Some awesome could-be-real technology about taking over video screens has nothing to do with a pill that makes people smart. Plus, did they really think all of these obviously coordinated articles in mainstream media would be the end "viral" result they were looking for? I don't think it's going to make a difference at all. In fact, I'm not going to be seeing Limitless this weekend.
Despite all of this criticism, there is one area where this is a success. What they have gained is additional word of mouth thanks to this exact kind of article. But that means jack shit. Some marketing person can go home happy today knowing they sent off a report to their boss with the YouTube view count and a bunch of links to sites that wrote about it. Hooray! But that doesn't mean your movie is going to be a hit. Money well spent? Hardly. I love virals and I continue to support them, but the backlash this reverse "unbranded viral" is receiving from me alone is enough to prove it didn't work as a promo for Limitless. Our friends at Movie Viral covered it briefly in their post, too: "Unbranded marketing is always a dangerous road to travel…"
What I've learned reading and researching is that this video is the first major movie-focused "unbranded viral", as in creating a viral that has no brand connection or identification. I like that concept, it opens up the possibilities to so many great ideas, but this is an example of that kind of marketing failing. Or at least having a complete opposite effect and not actually properly promoting and building interest. They can't just announce on the day of release that this was connected to a movie, it doesn't work that way. At the bottom line, how can they consider this effective if a huge supporter of virals (me), who saw the original video and loved it, turned completely against the entire viral and the movie after finding out what it was "really" for?
And Thinkmodo, if you want to actually run a viral that effectively builds good buzz for a movie, please get in touch as I can certainly help with that, or just look at how 42 Entertainment does it. I know it's being a bit hypocritical and supportive of the viral to include the original "hacking" video below, but I really wanted to include it anyway, because despite its totally bullshit connection to Limitless, it is still an awesome video.
Update: I also found out that Relativity released a "follow-up video" showing how the guy did this, but he says it was just NZT, the "drug" from the movie. The point of the viral was to gain viewer's interests with this first video, then follow it up with the "how to" video we were supposed to also watch (I didn't even know it existed). At the end of that video, they show a trailer for Limitless, so it does all eventually connect, if you watch that one. But up until then? Nothing. And it's obvious from some of the comments below that a lot of other people had a similar experience. I commend Relativity for being bold and trying this, but I still think it's a complete failure. Only time will tell in seeing how well Limitless does at the box office this weekend.