Uncovering Sarah Marshall

Everywhere I turn these days, I come across another dig at Sarah Marshall. I don’t know much about the girl or what she did. Somebody really seems to hate her.

It says so on city buses and billboards in excess. Take a look for yourself. The signs display messages like “I’m so over you Sarah Marshall,” and “My Mom always hated you Sarah Marshall,” in black graffiti scrawled across a white background.

Things aren’t any better for this girl online, given the scene at ihatesarahmarshall.com. There, 26-year-old Peter Bretter, a television composer, does his best to defame her. It seems he was dating Sarah, an attractive TV starlet — until she dumped him for a British rock musician. Peter is responsible for all those billboards, too. He paid for them with the money he got for selling Sarah’s engagement ring, which he never got a chance to give her.

If this all sounds pretty melodramatic, it’s because it’s the premise of a new Universal Pictures film, aptly titled “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” The movie won’t be released for a few more weeks, but if it’s half as clever as the marketing campaign Universal crafted to promote it, we should be in for a treat.

The megalith of an entertainment company has spared no effort or expense to pique consumers’ interest in Sarah Marshall and uncover the story leading to her ex-boyfriend’s plight. A colossal offline media buy that reflects the characters’ actions in the film acts as an effective teaser, but the wiles of its marketers are in even better form on the Web. In addition to the official film site and the ihatesarahmarshall.com blog, Universal has registered and posted a Sarah Marshall fan site on behalf of those who feel the actress is getting a bad break from Peter’s “offensive” graffiti ads. Reader comments, whether supplied by the film’s marketers or not, are true to the ruse.

What’s nice about this marketing effort is that it’s a teaser campaign with a purpose. The ads reflect the film’s plot and provide more of a consumer payoff once the advertiser is uncovered. The campaign also makes the most of consumer-generated media with a blog and a Flickr group, both of which encourage comments and contributions from consumers. A YouTube video offers further insight into the story and why Peter is so darn bitter.

The initiative also incorporates a paid search component — essential to the successful execution of a teaser campaign (the ads don’t do much good if consumers can’t figure out what they’re for, now do they?) Terms like “I hate Sarah Marshall” reveal sponsored links to the film’s official site, with copy mimicking the text seen in the offline ads (“I’m so over you Sarah Marshall”) to drive more qualified clicks.

We’ve seen a good many interactive marketing efforts on the part of entertainment and film production companies in years past. Indie flick “The Blair Witch Project” launched an online viral campaign of then-mythic proportions, while Warner Brothers’s password-protected alternate reality game (ARG) reflecting the computer-hacking plot of the movie “Swordfish” remains a stellar example of sharp strategic minds at work.

My sympathies, Sarah Marshall, for finding yourself in such prestigious company. The odds are good that Peter’s message will be heard far and wide, by countless consumers eager to take a side. You don’t stand a chance.

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