Brands Get Scary

It’s still a couple of months until Halloween, but you’d never know it looking at some of the marketing efforts turning up online. Major brands are taking a supernatural approach to drumming up product sales.

I first noted this trend last fall, when M&M’s launched the 50 Dark Movies online game to promote its M&M’s Dark Chocolate Candies. Players were challenged to identify 50 creepy films portrayed in vignettes in a custom-made painting. Addictive, memorable, and highly relevant to the product (which has sustained the dark theme double-entendre), the effort was probably a colossal success.

Perhaps it even played a role in prompting Toyota-owned Scion to go even darker than usual this year. To promote the launch of its newest vehicle, the Scion xD, the automaker commissioned the creation of, a microsite that launched in June.

There, the vehicle is personified by the monstrous character of xD. Through a series of online games, he wages war against Sheeple — intended to represent conformists – while highlighting choice features of The Deviant. The five-door xD, like the Scion brand, is positioned as going against the grain. The story of the Book of Deviants kicks off with a memorable call to action: “Send the Sheeple from the streets and find them in the highrises. Knock the stuffing out of them and collect their blood. It can be used to your benefit. Turn that awful bleating into awesome bleeding.”

Charming, right? It surely doesn’t appeal to all audiences. But Scion isn’t trying to reach all audiences. Little Deviant isn’t something its target audience of young, urban consumers who thrive on individuality and the unconventional are likely to forget. The interactive rich media microsite, rife with advergames that don’t push the hard sell, was promoted through a print ad and online banners. I’m willing to bet the majority of its users will have found it through their tuned-in friends.

Things are getting creepy on the product development side of our industry as well, with offerings like Pretty Freekin Scary, a satirical new line of products from American Greetings Corp. Announced in June, the line of accessories and greeting cards depicts the life of Freekin, an undead boy, and his friends, Pretty and Scary. In addition to a Web site that offers access to his room and school locker, cool but misunderstood Freekin has his own MySpace page, blog, and newsletter.

Although the characters skew young (according to his profile, Freekin is 14 years old), one look at consumers’ reactions online indicates the line could have mass appeal. Freekin already has over 2,200 MySpace friends, including alternative rock band Evanescence.

The popularity of macabre films, video games, and crime dramas that top ratings lists and spawn countless spinoffs are a clear indication consumers of all ages eat this stuff up. The darker the better, it seems, where modern entertainment is concerned. Marketers are wise to exploit this, so long as it doesn’t alienate a sizeable percentage of their customer base.

To manage the risk inherent in a dark campaign, manage the associated media buy. Go with placements that are contextually targeted to locate potential customers with a taste for the sinister while staying out of reach of those likely to take offense. The Web provides a remarkable ability to run simultaneous campaigns targeting completely different consumer groups and allows planners and buyers to do so precisely and affordably.

Approving violent but ultraviral marketing efforts such as Scion’s needn’t require a complete change of image or strategy (though there’s clearly enough mileage in this genre for a brand to go quite a distance). It does, however, require an understanding of consumers’ appreciation for the unusual.

It just so happens that, these days, the unusual has the most impact when it takes the form of the undead.

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Vector graphic of a megaphone spewing out business themed items, such as a laptop, tablet, pen, @ symbol and smartphone