Anderson Cooper salutes him as a “news legend.” Wolf Blitzer calls the journalist “one of the most influential anchors in broadcast history.” Chris Cuomo from the “New Day” desk adds: “On camera, he’s the best. But off camera, he’s a bit of a [bleep]!”
Three trusted CNN anchormen in praise of an extravagantly blow-dried faux newscaster from 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” As becomes quickly apparent, the mockumentary clip produced by the comedy video website Funny or Die has nothing to do with regular programming. It’s part of a months-long, saturation promo blitz for “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” which at last arrived in theaters this week.
Since September, Will Ferrell has spent more time in character as the vainglorious, flute-playing, Scotch-swilling newsreader than he has filming both “Anchorman” films combined. And in the process, he has fairly eclipsed similar efforts by Sacha Baron Cohen, who insisted on promoting his films “Borat,” “Bruno” and “The Dictator” exclusively in the guise of those films’ respective characters.
But in the final lead-up to “Anchorman 2’s” release, even the most casual observer could see Burgundy’s buffoonery had become serious business.
Paramount, the studio distributing “Anchorman 2,” took the lead on pre-awareness efforts, choreographing such branded tie-ins as the satirical Burgundy “memoir” “Let Me Off at the Top: My Classy Life and Other Musings” and a marketing deal with Jockey underwear (“Give your little anchorman the support he deserves,” the ad copy reads).
Supporting these initiatives has been Funny or Die, the comedy website founded by Ferrell and Adam McKay, the writer-director of both “Anchorman” movies. Through Funny or Die’s finesse with viral marketing and social media propagation, the Burgundy character — and, by extension, the $50-million sequel in which he appears — has achieved remarkable “stickiness” in the collective imagination. Even if, at times, the marketing push seems dangerously close to overwhelming moviegoers with Burgundy’s sheer ubiquity, McKay and Ferrell’s efforts as advertising creatives-cum-movie machers has no Hollywood precedent.
Ferrell has kept a breakneck pace, popping up in an unending series of ever more unlikely situations that span the cultural gamut. In recent weeks, the actor — as Burgundy — turned up in Winnipeg to call the Canadian curling trials for channel TSN. He traveled to Boston to address students at Emerson College, which rechristened its journalism school “The Ron Burgundy School of Communication” for a single day (prompting opprobrium in the Fourth Estate and backlash among faculty). He even anchored an actual evening news broadcast in Bismarck, N.D.
Ferrell’s situation-specific jokes? They were written by him and McKay.
Among several marketing initiatives for the film masterminded by Funny or Die, the three-minute CNN segment required executives from the site to assure the cable news network that Blitzer, Cooper and Cuomo’s journalistic integrity would withstand the joke.
“We talked to the higher-ups at CNN to make sure what we were doing would come across clearly as fiction, where their newscasters wouldn’t look bad,” said Chris Bruss, Funny or Die’s vice president of branded entertainment. “If you look at the piece, it’s about Ron’s buffoonery, not that these guys were up to anything unsavory.”
McKay and Ferrell co-founded Funny or Die in 2007. Streaming a variety of hilarious video shorts starring the likes of Zach Galifianakis, James Franco, Jim Carrey and Mila Kunis, the humor portal boasts more than 60 million pageviews per month, a Twitter following of nearly 7.7 million, 3.9 million Facebook fans, its own dedicated commercial production division (called Gifted Youth) and a reputation for soft-selling branded entertainment that has struck a generational nerve.
But according to Dick Glover, Funny or Die’s chief executive, the site began hatching a supporting strategy even before the movie had been filmed.
“We said, ‘What can we do to help?’” Glover recalled. “Because we’ve done this kind of thing for so many other movies — including a bunch for Will and Adam — we said, ‘Let’s be in on it from the start.’”
The willingness to synergize with studio marketing initiatives resulted in Funny or Die’s biggest coup: a series of 70 commercials for Dodge starring Ferrell as Burgundy that have helped increase year-over-year sales of its Durango SUV by 59% in October when the ads began airing.
As part of a deal struck between Paramount, the auto manufacturer and the ad firm Wieden + Kennedy, the commercials were written and directed by Funny or Die personnel and have now been streamed online more than 17 million times. They feature a mustachioed Ferrell variously insulting a horse, throwing eggs at a Durango and hurling insults at ballroom dancers.
Funny or Die also generated the jokes and premise for “Scotchy Scotch Toss,” an “Angry Birds"-like mobile app and online game in which the goal is to flick an ice cube into Burgundy’s cocktail glass.
What does it have to do with the movie? Everything in terms of awareness and nothing in terms of “Anchorman 2’s” plot, which finds the chauvinistic ‘70s anchor struggling to keep up with a shifting cultural landscape as he makes the jump from local news to a national 24-hour cable news outlet.
To hear it from Bruss, who also functions of president of Funny or Die’s commercial production arm Gifted Youth, the idea was to seize on the popularity of the original “Anchorman” — a modest hit upon its release that found a cultish popularity on DVD and cable — and drive pre-awareness for the sequel without using any footage from the film.
“Ron Burgundy may be more famous than Will Ferrell,” Bruss said. “You can lead with Ron and you don’t have to worry, Will people know who this character is? The appetite for the character never waned. He’s one of the most famous movie characters of the last two decades.”
Which explains why we have Burgundy in a bathrobe on the cover of January’s Dog Fancy magazine (display copy: “Dog Lover Will Ferrell & ‘Anchorman 2' co-star Baxter”), peering seriously from the label of Ben & Jerry’s limited batch ice cream flavor Ron Burgundy’s Scotchy Scotch Scotch and interviewing future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning on ESPN.
While Paramount spearheaded those initiatives, Funny or Die used its home page and digital clout to push the boat out. “Whenever Will did anything, we leveraged all our social media and were the first to post it to our site,” Bruss said.
In October, reflecting on his long working relationship with Ferrell that began when both men worked at “Saturday Night Live,” McKay addressed the shared vision that has sustained them through five films — not to mention what would turn out to be a grueling promotional campaign for “Anchorman 2.”
“This is comedy. It should be fun,” the director said. “It can be stressful, but why in God’s name would you want to be miserable? We just try and make each other laugh.”