The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.
You know what we don’t get a lot of these days? Successful viral marketing campaigns. Long gone are the days when Bradley Cooper would shill some new drug in a video that turned out to be an ad for his next movie. Remember the I Love Bees campaign for Halo 2? The Great Mooninite Panic of 2007? People are just too wise to fall for those stunts now. Perhaps this is for the best. Once everyone caught on, they kinda stopped being fun. This week, though, the marketing folks behind Robert Eggers’ new Viking movie scored a viral slam-dunk. Problem is: They may not have been trying to.
It started a few days ago when people began tweeting photos of the posters for the film located in New York City subway stations. The posters looked like all the others for the movie, except for one glaring omission: the title. None of them said they were for The Northman (though they did mention Eggers’ involvement no fewer than three times). Anyone not keen enough to recognize Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Anya Taylor-Joy in all of their Viking getup probably wouldn’t have known what the movie was, or even that it was an ad for a movie at all.
The internet, doing what it does, immediately started chiming in with alternate versions of what the posters could be advertising: Finding Nemo 3, Tarzan, an ABBA movie. Frankly, it was the most I’d heard anyone talk about The Northman in weeks. It got written up in The Independent and in Vulture, which asked a series of commuters what they thought the movie might be about based on the nameless ads. Best response: “Like Waterworld 2 or something. Postapocalyptic, but it’s tribal, so it kind of has this vibe from Neanderthal, Viking eras. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s like Atlantis or something. There’s definitely war and some colonial objectives.” (It’s actually Eggers’ take on Hamlet.)
Whether intentional or not (a representative for Focus Features, the film’s studio, did not respond to an email seeking comment), the posters have created something of a buzz. It may not make much of a difference, but now people are talking about the movie for reasons other than “Oh, it’s a new film from the guy who did The Witch and that one where Robert Pattinson got blackout drunk on turpentine” or “Is that the dude from True Blood?” And for a movie that’s still something of a niche product, no matter how big the names involved are, this level of awareness can only help.
It also serves as a reminder that marketing can be fun. In the last five to 10 years we’ve become accustomed to targeted ads on Instagram, Google, and other platforms. Everything feels a little too curated—and, frankly, creepy. Cool-hunting used to be an analog process. You had to go to a bookstore, record shop, or movie theater to check out something new. In its heyday, viral marketing captured that with secret websites and USB drives left in bathrooms. But once the jig was up, people lost interest. Now services like Spotify and Netflix can tell folks what they might like with decent accuracy. There’s far less serendipity. Seeing a movie poster with no name that the internet transformed into a brief meme brought a little of that providence back. If it was an accident, it was a happy one.