The perplexing public-service announcements began turning up two weeks ago, splashed across bus-stop advertisements in America's 15 biggest cities, including Los Angeles. "Bus bench for humans only," the ads' banner copy proclaims, accompanied by a rough rendering of an outer space alien that has been crossed out, "Ghostbusters" style, with a strike-through circle. "Beware! Non-human secretions may corrode metal!"
If you happen to be among the tens of thousands of inquiring minds who have called the posted telephone number (listed beneath the ominous-sounding imperative: "Report non-humans") or punched its URL -- D-9.com -- into an Internet browser, you may already know the ads' true purpose. They are part of a viral marketing campaign for Sony Pictures' documentary-style sci-fi thriller "District 9," which arrives in theaters in August.
"We wanted to do something provocative and that would create a stir," said Marc Weinstock, Sony's co-president of worldwide theatrical marketing. "But we had no idea to what extent we'd connect."
Sony's president of digital marketing, Dwight Caines, said: "In two weeks, there have been 33,000 phone calls. Two thousand five hundred people left voice messages about alien sightings. And 92% of those calls come from cellphones, indicating that people are opting in, on the spot, in the streets."
By their very nature, viral movie marketing campaigns rely upon a temporary suspension of disbelief. After initial confusion wears off, as the operating principal goes, people will agree to play along with what is essentially a massively scaled practical joke -- and by extension, tell a friend about it and go see the movie -- predicated on the understanding that there will be a big "reveal" to make it all worthwhile. Ever since the viral marketing impact of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," which had movie fans wondering whether the low-budget indie horror flick was actually a documentary gone horribly wrong, virals have been the stuff of fanboy dreams and movie marketer reverie in terms of low-cost, high-yield buzz.
"District 9's" stealth campaign, however, has already accomplished what a wildly diverse array of virals unleashed on an unsuspecting public this year could not -- stand out from the pack.
The beachhead for its high-minded, meta-narrative promo push is the movie's website, listed on bus benches, bus shelters and billboards.
D-9.com not only streams the movie's trailer (which has been viewed 21 million times since May 1, another indicator of robust viewer interest) but also serves as a primer to the self-contained world of "District 9," detailing security guidelines for humans and "non-humans."
"The concept for this movie is unique, and we wanted to do that justice," said Caines. "In a world where aliens existed, what's the first thing a government would need to do to manage their existence on this planet? You see regulations and restrictions, curfews, news of where you can and can't go."
Playing out both on- and off-line as well as across the social networking platforms Facebook (on which the group has 2,100 followers) and Twitter, the campaign has caused a stir among movie bloggers.
"The billboards, benches and websites are a great way to advertise movies, because it gets people talking," explained Nick Butler, editor in chief of MovieViral.com, which has been following the film's promotions for nearly a year. "What we see with 'District 9' is a combination of real-life experiences mixed in with game experiences that involve websites and Twitter. It is a very successful viral campaign."
To hear marketers explain it, everything is organic to the movie's plot. Filmed in a quasi-documentary style, "District 9," the $30-million special-effects-heavy film from newcomer Neill Blomkamp, follows the social and geo-political repercussions of aliens crash-landing in Johannesburg. There, they are governmentally sequestered in an apartheid-style homeland, treated like refugees and forced to work for humans.
"District 9" producer Peter Jackson took pains to elucidate the differences between the movie and another mock-documentary sci-fi thriller popularized by a much-blogged-about viral campaign. "It's a unique take on the science-fiction genre," he said. "It has dramatized sequences and uses home movie clips. But it's not like 'Cloverfield.' It doesn't remind you of anyone else's movie."
Nor does its publicity. The movie's off-line promotions employ signage that deliberately echoes "Whites only" placards once seen in the South as well as cultural touchstones from "District 9" Blomkamp's upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa. "Warning: Restricted area for humans only," reads an ad painted on a New York City wall.
Still, for whatever buzz the campaign has generated, some film fetishists point out the marketing hasn't been without certain hiccups. Chief beef: Over the course of its 10-month existence, "D9's" viral has gone dormant for long periods, disheartening self-professed fanboys keeping tabs on the movie's roll-out. "This viral started in August '08, then came an almost nine-month period of no updates," said movieviral.com's Butler. "People who follow viral campaigns like I do like to be constantly trying to find something. There always has to be a challenge."
As well, members of moviedom's blognoscenti caution that unless marketers continue to innovate ever-flashier, more user-engrossing campaigns, virals run the risk of becoming as stagnant as traditional promotional methods.
"The strength of viral marketing is that it engages the younger viewers who are sick of traditional advertising," said Sean Dwyer, editor of FilmJunk.com.
"But as soon as viral marketing becomes old hat, the advertisers will be right back where they started."