Hyping Joker -- Without Exploiting Heath's Death

Warner Will Walk a Fine Line as It Markets Batman Flick 'The Dark Knight'

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain," declares Aaron Eckhart in the forthcoming Warner Bros. summer blockbuster "Batman: The Dark Knight."
The late actor Heath Ledger plays one of pop culture's most iconic villains in the upcoming Batman movie.
The late actor Heath Ledger plays one of pop culture's most iconic villains in the upcoming Batman movie.

Unfortunately, in the case of his co-star Heath Ledger, both possibilities came true simultaneously. And because of that, some rather intense marketing headaches developed for Warner Bros.

After the Oscar-nominated Mr. Ledger was found dead from an accidental prescription-drug overdose Jan. 22, he was lionized by the public and press as having been heroically fearless in his choice of roles -- and, at 28, taken far too young. But not, of course, before he had chosen to play one of pop culture's most iconic villains, the clown-faced, schizophrenic mass murderer the Joker, in "The Dark Knight."

His passing left studio executives with a conundrum not experienced since James Dean died before the release of 1955's "Giant": How to market around Mr. Ledger's death without sacrificing the $200 million picture or appearing crassly exploitative. Watch the Heath Ledger story on the 3 Minute Ad Age video report.

The answer: Hype with the Joker, but sell with Batman.

'Pulse check'
While the studio declined to comment on its marketing plan for the film, its promotional partners or even its official licensees of "Dark Knight" products, interviews with numerous marketing executives reveal a fascinating and, at times, counterintuitive strategy.

For example, several weeks after Mr. Ledger's death, Warner marketing execs conducted what is known in industry jargon as a "pulse check" on the film's awareness and interest levels. While the term took on a macabre tone given Mr. Ledger's passing, the film's vital signs were more than healthy -- they were stellar.

Insiders at the studio said that after the global media onslaught surrounding Mr. Ledger's overdose, awareness for "Knight" was at virtually 100%, and interest in seeing the film jumped roughly 20% to equally robust levels, easily making "Knight" one of the most anticipated films of the summer, secondonly to "Indiana Jones."

While "Dark Knight" enjoys a $150 million marketing budget, considerably less than that might actually be enough to sell it.

Explained one Warner marketing insider: "With each successive 'Harry Potter' [film], the media buy has actually gone down; we basically just wave an ad with the date in front of em, and they show up in droves." The global crush of Ledger press, coupled with the fact that the franchise had already been re-established with 2005's "Batman Begins," means that "absolutely the media buy for 'Dark Knight' could go down as well."

Plenty of Ledger
Ignoring or downplaying Mr. Ledger's role in the film didn't make sense, so creative materials give him ample space. The latest trailer is "wall-to-wall Joker," said one longtime Warner marketing executive.

Among the film's confirmed promotional partners are confectioner Hershey's, handset maker Nokia, breakfast giant General Mills, clothier Giorgio Armani, Domino's Pizza and even a Time Warner rival, Comcast, the nation's largest cable company.

Several of those promotional partners have been used in viral marketing campaigns that prominently feature the Joker -- but mainly in the service of hyping the picture and burnishing their brands rather than directly selling their products.

For example, Nokia phones were an integral if subtle part of the "Dark Knight" viral-marketing campaign conducted for Warner by 42 Entertainment, a Pasadena, Calif.-based company that specializes in alternative-reality games for motion pictures.

"Dark Knight" fans who went to whysoserious.com in December could find themselves invited to a treasure hunt. Instructions then directed them to 35 bakeries in 25 cities across the nation. After asking for an order left for "Robin Banks" (the Joker's favorite activity), they received a cake with a Nokia cellphone in it, which was used to send them more clues, prizes and, of course, garner scads of local media attention.

Joker bowling bags
Similarly, an April viral promotion via the website clowntravelagency.com directed people to bowling-alley lockers throughout the U.S. and in cities around the world. Those who got there first discovered limited-edition Joker bowlingball bags containing a ball with a telephone number scratched into it and, again, a Nokia phone with a note saying to call the number immediately.
A report in the New York Post about Mattel's Joker action figures 'flying off the shelves' at a local Toys 'R' Us was pooh-poohed by retail and manufacturing executives as having ignored several key facts.
A report in the New York Post about Mattel's Joker action figures 'flying off the shelves' at a local Toys 'R' Us was pooh-poohed by retail and manufacturing executives as having ignored several key facts.

"While hundreds are playing, millions are watching," said an executive involved with the marketing of the film. The contests and the brand of the phone were widely covered, dissected and discussed on movie websites and local media.

Although Warner would not confirm a final list of promotional partners for "Knight," interviews with marketers show the studio did, sometimes even before the Ledger tragedy, go out of its way to make sure its massive footprint belonged to Batman, or Bruce Wayne, rather than the Joker.

For example, a spokeswoman for Hershey's confirmed that special dark-chocolate Reese's Peanut Butter Cups will be introduced in the coming weeks, to emphasize the "Dark Knight." It will also re-color Reese's Pieces in Batman-themed gray, black and white as replacements for the usual orange and yellow. An Armani magazine ad campaign will feature Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne donning the label's high-end clothing.

The studio has shown similar restraint with licensed products. Warner Bros.' Consumer Products has licensed "Dark Knight" apparel with companies such as Berkshire (hosiery), ACI (L.A. Gear shoes), Armitron (watches) and Fruit of the Loom (T-shirts), as well as value-price electronics maker Digital Blue, which will be selling "Dark Knight"- branded digital cameras at retailers such as Target, Toys "R" Us, Sears and Kmart. Armitron and Fruit of the Loom declined to discuss any changes to their licensing plans brought on by the death of Mr. Ledger. But Digital Blue CEO Tim Hall said the use of Mr. Ledger's image or the Joker's on its "Dark Knight" line of products was quickly nixed after his death.

Holding back
"We had a series of Joker-designed cameras," Mr. Hall said, "and while the Joker is an incredibly important character in the film, after the really sad tragedy with Heath Ledger, we came to decide not to take them to market.

"Depending on the comfort level of Heath Ledger's family, we may work with Warner Bros. to bring them out later," he added. Will speculators and collectors drive up the price of those Ledger-inspired Joker products that do make it to market? Possibly, but not likely, given the vast quantities of toys produced.

A report in the New York Post about Mattel's Joker action figures "flying off the shelves" at a local Toys "R" Us was pooh-poohed by retail and manufacturing executives as having ignored several key facts. For one thing, there are no known shortages of the Joker figure, they said, and if there were, they would be attributable to summer-movie toy shipments just now arriving at stores, not a lack of overall supply.

And as to the Joker toys allegedly flying off the shelves, Toys "R" Us spokesman Bob Friedland told Ad Age that what's been ignored is that "the entire line of ['Dark Knight'] action figures is selling equally well." In other words, consumer demand for the Joker has been equal to that of other "Dark Knight" characters, such as Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent and, no doubt to the great relief of Warner, Batman.
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