The Unnerving and Creepy Viral Marketing for "Smile" Is One for the Books

The new movie “Smile” is now out but while the movie is getting semi-decent reviews, the far more interesting part of the movie isn’t the movie itself, it’s how they marketed it.


If there are two things I really like it’s a good marketing campaign and alternate reality games or “ARGs.” When the two are merged together, you get the fantastical intruding into the real world.

For those unfamiliar, an “ARG” is more like a game a content creator is playing with you. It’s a form of storytelling that is more than just telling you a tale. The creators lace the story with secrets that can be found outside of the main method of delivering the story. For example, you might be watching a YouTube channel featuring a great story being told over the course of many videos, but while that’s happening, Twitter accounts featuring the characters within the story might be sending out messages that may lead you on a hunt for more information to a secret website. Turning on subtitles may give you a deeper understanding of the world’s lore through secret clues.

The purpose is to make the story you’re being told more 3D. It gives you the impression that the creator’s world is actually happening around you and/or that there’s far more under the surface than what you’re being told.

ARGs have been used to great effect for a long time by internet creators. As I speak, some incredible things are happening in the realm of ARG storytelling, especially in the horror community. The horror genre of entertainment utilizes ARG-style storytelling to great effect.


Horrifying tales such as Alex Kister’s “The Mandela Catalogue” and Kris Straub’s “Local 58” are superb examples of a genre called “analog horror” that take ARG storytelling to new levels of creepy.

It’s not uncommon for major studios to engage in viral marketing either. Bungie’s ARG marketing for Halo 2 was legendary as it featured an interactive tale about a rogue AI plaguing a poor woman’s website dedicated to her love of bees.

For “Smile,” Paramount Pictures treated the movie like its own ARG, and if you’re a sports fan you might have noticed it. During a baseball game in Oakland, the camera found a woman who was smiling and unmoving. She was staring straight at the camera, almost as if she was smiling right at you, the viewer.

Similarly, at Yankee’s stadium, a man sat behind home plate in a blue shirt smiling and unmoving for a very long time.

Soon, people began noticing these “smilers” in other places. One even appeared in the background of the Today Show. It got people talking about the creepy occurrences and what they might mean.


Of course, it didn’t take long for people to find out that it was all in promotion of “Smile,” a horror movie about a strange mental possession that causes those infected with whatever it is that’s infecting them to smile like a lunatic.

My loyal readers will know me as a guy who is borderline obsessed with good storytelling, so much so that I’ll write entire diatribes when I see a bad one forced on the people. My love of good storytelling also gives me a huge appreciation for this 3D method of marketing. Had they not planted those people in those crowds then I might not have had any interest in seeing the movie.

Now I do.



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