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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:

Fringe

Observer at baseball game

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.

Community

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.

The Office

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 TripAdvisor review

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.


Rachel Hamsmith

When not writing for the blog, Rachel is a data entry specialist at QLP. She spends most of her free time consuming a variety of geeky TV shows, movies, and books, as well as funny cat videos and other Internet oddities. Otherwise, she moonlights as an editor for a literary magazine and tries to spend as much quality time as she can with friends and family. You can also connect with Rachel on Google+.

Comments

  1. Cybernetic SAM

    This In-universe thing these Networks did is so awesome. It is really clever and really fun to be able to pretend for a moment and really be apart of your favorite show or network. It is just another way technology has taken it to “11″. By that if you had told me 15 years ago we would be able to interact like this I wouldn’t believe how COOL social media would become and so quickly! Remember when we thought the height of interaction with technology was the choose your own adventure books? need I say more!? GREAT POST Rachel!!!!

    • Rachel

      Haha, I loved choose your own adventure books! And you’re right, it really is amazing to think how far technology has come in the past few years. Thanks for the comment, Sam! :)

  2. Eric

    Although I’ll admit Fox’s “Fringe” use of, I don’t know, human product placement – call it that – was clever, it makes me feel like they’re using their entire network and any opportunity possible to sell something. The tongue-in-cheek, funny Trip Advisor review from “The Office” is the kind I’d prefer, where, on my own time, I could look it up because I was honestly interested, rather than having the network “Fight Club” it in, almost subliminally. Interesting post, Rachel.

    • Rachel

      “Human product placement” is a fun way to describe it, haha. And while I’m not one to defend FOX’s advertising decisions — they canceled a lot of my favorite shows, so it’s hard to love them — I think the Observer thing was actually quite subtle. Mostly because no one on the network acknowledged those random appearances, so anyone watching who had never heard of Fringe would probably have no idea this guy was even part of a TV show. It felt more like a nod to the fans than anything else, in my opinion.

      I do love that TripAdvisor review, though — can’t argue there. :) Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Eric!

  3. Mikey

    These “in-universe” advertisements are usually pretty interesting. Personally, I applaud the effort that the show runners usually go to in making them, and they can help to add another layer of immersion into the show while simultaneously advertising their product. Now, I’ve never seen Fringe (or Glee, and I make a point to not watch football), but I thought that the usage of the Observer was especially neat. Just a nice little, relatively subtle bit of crossover promotion and advertisement, and sounds a heck of a lot less intrusive or annoying than those little adds they like to have running on the bottom of the screen during shows. Great post, Rachel!

    • Rachel

      It was definitely much less intrusive than those bottom-of-the-screen ads! I hate those. And I agree, it’s great that show runners even consider doing in-universe marketing like this — it’s such a fun bonus, especially for big fans of whatever show is doing the promotion.

      Thanks, Mike! :)

  4. Wash

    I always find alternate reality games and stuff like this really entertaining (fake company websites, etc.), so I’m glad to hear about more of them!

    Also, I’ve never seen Fringe, but I’ve heard good things. Am I missing out?

    • Rachel

      Fringe is great! The first season is slow-going, and I have mixed feelings about the current (final) season, but I still consider it one of my favorite shows. The sci-fi and mythology is fantastic, and the character interactions are at the heart of everything, which I love. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. :)

      Thanks for reading, Wash!

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