How to Create a Viral Campaign: Lessons from Deadpool

The marketing campaign for 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool, staring Marvel’s vulgar, smack-talking anti-hero by the same name, kicked off in March 2015, nearly a year before the film’s release. It began with the movie’s lead, Ryan Reynolds, tweeting out a photo of his character recreating Burt Reynold’s 1975 Playgirl centerfold, complete with a fireplace and a bearskin rug. With over 55,000 retweets, it was an image that would set the tone for the entire marketing campaign: irreverent and funny on a viral rage.

Fox had steep odds to overcome with Deadpool: a $58 million budget (pennies in the realm of Marvel superhero movies), a February opening (a relatively slow time for moviegoers and a stark contrast to the May and July openings of Marvel’s other major comic book films), and, most of all, an R rating earned through the film’s profanity-ridden, violent, and racy nature featuring a both rude and crude main character.

But Deadpool beat the odds, smashing records and exceeding everyone’s expectations. The movie pulled in over $130 million its opening weekend, the biggest ever for an R-rated film. And, it shattered Fox’s $70-million opening weekend revenue projection.

According to Marc Weinstock, president of domestic theatrical marketing at 20th Century Fox, it was the film’s unorthodox marketing methods that helped reach audiences beyond the typical superhero crowd.

“We had a fantastic superhero movie on one end and a hilarious comedy on the other, and we knew if we did our job right we could bring in both audiences,” he said.

So, beyond the viral tweet, what did they do differently?

Old classics, reinvented.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Deadpool’s marketing campaign put a unique spin on one of the movie industry’s most played-out marketing techniques: billboards. Cheeky, sarcastic, and on-point with the movie’s message, Deadpool’s marketing team took an old classic and injected it with new life.

Deadpool added a unique touch through promotional partnerships, specifically, a parody PSA titled “Gentlemen, Touch Yourself Tonight” featuring a suited-up Reynolds explaining how to “touch yourself” to check for testicular cancer. An email marketing campaign included a “Twelve Days of Deadpool” email newsletter sent to Deadpool’s core email list detailed Deadpool’s most exciting moments of 2015.

New techniques, amplified.

In addition to revamping old school advertising techniques, the Deadpool marketing team focused their energy on creating a vulgar, viral, and ultimately victorious social media campaign.  Videos pushed through social channels and quickly went viral. Reynolds used the character’s flippant tone on Instagram and Facebook to push out new promos. A fake Tinder profile for the character was deployed. Custom emojis were created.

In the weekend before movie’s release, the marketing team stepped up their game with guerilla marketing tactics and shameless over-promotion. That Friday, Reynolds took over a taco truck to serve chimichangas, the character’s favorite food. On Saturday, which coincided with the day before the Super Bowl, Fox and Marvel took over a local bar adjacent to Levi stadium, renaming it “Sister Margaret’s bar,” Deadpool’s hangout spot in the movie. In the week leading up to opening weekend, five TV networks ran custom ads for the movie during three-hour blocks, tailored to the demographic of the programming being run. The day before release, Betty White released an eleventh-hour video review, playing off of the character’s strange affinity for The Golden Girl’s late Bea Arthur. Fox’s marketing team did everything they could to make sure audiences knew the movie was coming, and to push them in to the theatre — and it worked.

So how can you apply it?

Following the success of the marketing campaign and, subsequently, the move, Weinstock mused that Deadpool’s marketing was the “template for the future.” Reynolds posted an Instagram  picture of himself with Fox’s marketing team, which he said “changed the game.” And while PG-13 videos and profanity-ridden tweets may not be the best model for your business to follow, there is something to be learned from Deadpool’s unabashed and unanimously successful marketing techniques. What’s the takeaway? Know your audience. Promote and over-promote. Use a voice — your brand is a story. Try something new. Offer variety. Put a spin on old advertising platforms. And, if you find yourself reverting to the old and tired, think to yourself: “What would Deadpool do?”


Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

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