LA Times called it "One of the most interactive movie campaigns ever hatched by Hollywood", and the Cannes Lions awarded it the Cannes Lions Cyber Grand Prix Award and a Cannes Lions Silver Cyber Award. Such was the mind-boggling conceptualization of this campaign that even understanding how the various parts worked together takes time, let alone thinking how the campaign team must have executed it. The Dark Knight's "Why So Serious" campaign hatched new frontiers with respect to immersive, transmedia campaigns and created a level of anticipation and buzz that was never seen before, and hasn't been even since.
If you are a fan of Nolan's Batman trilogy, you will know that in the Batman universe, there was at least 1 year gap between the time when the first movie takes place and the second one does. However, the actual time between the 2 movie releases was around 2.5 years, and in order to fill this void, Entertainment 42, an event marketing company in association with Warner Bros conceptualized a campaign which spilled into the real world, working across media and channels. It lasted for 15 months, drew in 11 million participants across 70+ countries across the globe, most of whom rallied for Attorney Harvey Dent, solved clues that were provided in order to track the Joker's whereabouts, and even turned vigilantes like Batman at times! Let's look at this timeline to see how this exciting campaign unfolded:
May 17, 2007 - Website Launch
On May 17, 2007, a website called ibelieveinharveydent.com was launched. However, it wasn't promoted as of yet. It was just the first piece in this big, long trans-media puzzle that would play out for the next 15 months.
May 19, 2007 - Comic Book store owners claim vandalism
2 days later, several Comic Book store owners across the country 'claimed' that they had found some strange Joker playing cards inside some of their comic books with 'Ha Ha' scribbled all over, and they said they had no clue how it got there. Remember, up until now, it wasn't officially announced who will be the villain in The Dark Knight (2008). This was an unofficial teaser. Also, these cards had the website ibelieveinharveydent.com written over them, leading fans to start visiting the website.
The Big Reveal on IBelieveInHarveyDent.com
Fans visited the website, only to find Harvey Dent campaigning for the District Attorney's post. However, when they started moving their mouse cursors around, they realized it was erasing pixels and revealing something hidden underneath. It wasn't a Harvey Dent campaign website - it was just a cunning ploy by the Joker to announce his arrival!
Strike the iron when it's hot - 26th July 2007, Comic Con San Diego
Comic Con San Diego is the biggest congregation of fandom culture. If we discuss the adoption curve, the top 2.5% of the adopters are called the 'Innovators'. They are far ahead in the game, and can influence the opinion of their friends, peers, and even the media. These are the ones that we can associate with the Comic Con attendees. People who attend Comic Con San Diego are the ones that social circle and community looks up to when it comes to all things Comics. They are the ones who own rare collectibles, can correlate various comic characters within a DC or Marvel universe with relative ease, and have seen re-runs of every great franchise more times than they'd care to count. Most often than not, they will have their Comic Books signed by the authors themselves.
Huge lines leading up to the Comic Con Convention Center, San Diego
Warner Bros. and Entertainment 42 played it extremely well by choosing Comic Con San Diego as their next activation. After all, there couldn't have been a better place in the world even if the would have tried to find! At various strategic locations (there is usually a HUGE line leading up to the Comic Con Convention Center), people dressed as the Joker's henchmen distributed 'Jokerized' $1 bills. These bills had coordinates, and a date and time. It led the fans to a place where the Joker did a big reveal - a phone number displayed in the sky, which would give people their next clue. Simultaneously, Joker revealed his website - whysoserious.com!
Joker's Henchmen hit the streets of San Diego, and World Wide!
When the fans dialed the number that had flashed in the sky, they heard a hostage's voice which ended with Joker urging people to become a part of his crew, and to start occupying some of the most famous landmarks across the world. Fans dressed as the Joker spilled out on the streets, from South Asia to the Middle East, and from Europe to America. Gotham had really come alive!
To supplement this, a Gotham Times and a Gotham Cable Network provided various additional clues leading to tons of websites and even recruitment emails such as email@example.com! And at this point of time, a teaser of The Dark Knight was launched at the San Diego Comic Con!
A corrupt, complicated Gotham, and The Joker Cake
Several additional clues led the fans to 10 websites belonging to the Dept. of Justice, the Police Department, and various other entities within Gotham. However, The Joker had already taken over some of these website. It had some true and some falsified information about several city officials including policemen. Some websites had audio which provided clues around several case file numbers which the fans could use to dig the dirt on corrupt officials and write to Harvey Dent. On plugging everything together, fans were able to get clues of 6 locations, and these turned out to be bakeries. On reaching there, they received a special Joker cake, which had cellphones hidden inside them!
In parallel, several websites for Gotham's schools and hospitals opened up, creating a backstory that drew people in and connected the thread between the first movie and the upcoming one. One of the schools spoke about a damage that resulted out of the train slipping from the tracks and hitting the school building, which was basically in reference to the climax of the Batman Begins.
Harvey's Plea and Elections
All this while, the Joker was taking control. But with these phones, the campaign team shifted the focus towards Harvey. Through recordings inside the phone, and other channels like websites, emails, and text messages, Harvey Dent urged the 'Gotham citizens' to take back Gotham from the clutches of Joker. Several hundreds of thousands of fans wearing 'I support Harvey Dent' t-shirts stormed out on the streets of many a cities across North America.
To make things more participative and interesting, Gotham City officials sent fake mail-in voter cards to the fans, which the fans could fill out and send back. Fans again rallied out on the streets to show their support to Harvey Dent for being elected as the District Attorney.
The voter registration card and information
ClownTravelAgency.com - The next Big Clue
As a part of one of the many clues, fans were introduced to clowntravelagency.com, a website apparently owned by Joker. The website didn't have any information for a long time, but one fine day, it started getting populated with several locations. These locations were bowling alleys, and on using the code combinations provided on the website, they found packages containing some more locational clues. It led them to a trailer of The Dark Knight - but not so soon! It turns out that the Joker had already gotten there first and embedded his laughter and some layovers.
The Final Act
For one last time, the fans were asked to gather at a special location, where they saw the Bat projection on one of the high rises. But once again, The Joker had the last laugh as the trailer ended with the Joker scribbling all over the Bat projection, and leaving 'Ha Ha' marks all over the building.
A week later, The Dark Knight released to what turned out the highest opening day collection ever up until 2008, and it was the highest grossing movie of 2008 world wide by a huge margin.
Trans-Media lessons from the Why So Serious Campaign
If you felt like you were a part of this campaign just by reading the timeline, imagine how invested millions of fans across the globe were, who spent months chasing these clues and actually taking to the streets to show their support. This campaign created an unbelievable level of engagement that is yet to be seen anywhere else. It not only filled a void between the 2 movies, but also did a fine job of introducing the main villain in an inimitable style. Even before seeing the movie, people knew what was coming.
This campaign set the standards for excellence in trans-media marketing, because it had all these elements:
There were a set of connected characters that were a part of the larger Batman universe. Fans knew about Harvey Dent, and the Joker either through mentions in other Batman movies or the comics. Also, the central character Batman made several appearances throughout this campaign, thereby lending a binding thread.
There was a shared setting (Gotham), and a common frame of reference for all the Batman fanatics to play by. This ensured that everyone felt right at the center of everything that was happening rather than trying to read more or get additional context. If the fans had to spend time understanding things from scratch, it wouldn't have been as effective. The continuity was maintained across media, with everything from phones, websites, social media, fake newspapers, to the real world locations building off of each other.
In an era where someone closes a website if it doesn't load within 3 seconds, holding the attention of fans and keeping them engaged for 15 months was a mammoth task. There were several payoffs, both small and large, to keep fans engaged throughout this journey. Each clue led to a reveal which ultimately led them to the next clue. It all kept repeating until the week before the movie.
The results of this marketing campaign trickled all the way to the success of the movie. I am a huge fan of this Nolan trilogy and would love to conclude with something heartfelt, but for once, I will choose to go with numbers. Some of these are a recap of what you have already read above, whereas some are new -
Biggest opening day for any movie up until 2008 with a collection of $66.4 million, surpassing Spider Man 3's opening day of $59.2 million
Highest grossing movie of 2008 with a total worldwide collection of $1,003,045,358
All pre-booking shows sold out, including shows as late/early as 3 AM!
Most advance booking ticket sales, ever (until 2008)
11 million participants in over 70 countries across the world
1 Epic Movie - The Dark Knight!
1 Greatest Villain - The Joker!