Marketing a Fictional Universe: Which TV Shows and Movies Do It Best?
These days, most movies and TV shows sell promo merchandise to fans—T-shirts, coffee mugs, prop replicas, and countless other goodies. But some take that extra step to really immerse their viewers in these fictional universes, often in fun and inventive ways.
In-universe marketing can be as elaborate as a full-blown alternate reality game or as simple as a fictional website that exists in the real world. For fans, it’s an exciting way to interact with a brand beyond the confines of the source material. For marketers, it’s an opportunity to deepen brand loyalty in existing customers and to attract new ones.
We’ve talked about in-universe marketing before—highlights include Castle, Chuck, and the upcoming Monsters University film. But there are dozens, if not hundreds, more examples of this from television and film alone. Here are a few of my favorites from TV:
An Observer at an All Stars baseball game.
FOX’s sci-fi series features a team of FBI agents who investigate fringe science and other weird stuff—like the Observers, bald men in black suits who show up at significant events in history (and who appear in the background of every Fringe episode).
During Fringe’s first season, the Observers began popping up across the FOX network, including in the audience of American Idol, at various live sporting events, and in a commercial for Glee. No announcers or audience members ever acknowledged the Observers’ presence, and FOX remained coy about the whole thing. But fans appreciated the fun nod to the show, and a few dedicated FOX viewers probably wondered why they kept seeing close-ups of the same bald guy everywhere.
NBC’s comedy about a study group at a community college has often used Twitter to its advantage. In one episode, the characters mention a Twitter hashtag, #AnniesMove, while helping a friend move in. TV viewers who looked up the hashtag on Twitter during the episode found the characters chatting about and posting pictures of the episode’s events in real time.
Furthermore, for the opening of the show’s second season, NBC staged a “Twittersode,” which basically meant that the characters once again returned to Twitter, this time for a half-hour tweet fest centered on the study group’s preparations for the start of the next school year.
Another NBC comedy, The Office, provides a plethora of in-universe content for its fans. There’s Creed’s weird, random blog called Creed Thoughts. Various characters have Twitter accounts. After Erin and Kelly formed a pop group called Subtle Sexuality in season six, the music video for their song “Male Prima Donna” rose to number four on the iTunes charts.
Plus, if you enjoyed watching Jim and Pam fall in love during the early seasons, you may have come across their wedding website or Pam’s baby blog. In one episode, the couple stayed at Schrute Farms, and to help Dwight boost the bed-and-breakfast’s reputation, they left a positive review on the farm’s TripAdvisor page. And then hundreds of fans added their own reviews of the fictional getaway, too.
Jim and Pam’s review of Schrute Farms on TripAdvisor.
As I said, this is only a tiny sampling of brands bringing people and products from fictional universes into the real world. I’m sure you’ve come across more examples—and we’d love to hear about them! What TV shows or movies have the best “in-universe” marketing? Have you ever looked up a fake phone number or web address and discovered that it was real? Or bought sweet merch because a fictional character owned it?
Drop us a comment and share your favorite examples!
Header image credit to Rachel Hamsmith. Other photos are low-res screen shots from YouTube and TripAdvisor.