Clueless ... Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou (sporting hairstyles in sympathy with the Mona Lisa) in the blockbuster film condemned by the Catholic Church and albinos.
A FEW WEEKS ago, the face of a mysterious woman loomed over Sydney's Central Station, her enigmatic eyes peering out above a screen of numbers and letters. Below, the tiny figures of actors Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou fled from the face of the mighty Mona Lisa, with a billowing cloud of blood-red code threatening to devour them. Along the wall, the image was repeated, over and over.
These posters are one brick in an aggressive marketing campaign orchestrated by Sony Pictures for its leviathan film The Da Vinci Code, which opens across the world next week. Although the film's story centres on ancient mysteries, behind the hype lies a very modern and mainstream sales strategy.
If you haven't heard of Dan Brown's novel that shares the name of the film, it's likely you've been residing in a Himalayan monastery. Released in the United States in March 2003, the book has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, including 1.5 million copies in the small Australian market. The book traces the story of a Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon, and his French sidekick, cryptographer Sophie Neveu, who uncover a secret that a crooked cabal within the Catholic Church has suppressed for centuries.
The film will be unleashed across the world over a two-day period, after opening the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday (French time). It will attract major stars there and bask in the prestige of being the opening film, doubtlessly netting it many column-inches.
Perhaps more intriguing than the Ron Howard-directed film itself is the campaign behind it, built on a veneer of reticence. Last week, Sony Pictures in Australia, when it talked at all, talked the campaign down. Neither the filmmakers nor the actors have been available for interview, and no critics have been granted a preview. What better way to create a buzz than starve the media's hungry maw?
On the surface, the campaign looks fairly low-key, although the novel-turned-movie has been surrounded by a swathe of free publicity generated by court cases against the author and the ire of the Catholic church. Scratch the surface, though, and underneath is an expensive and elaborate marketing strategy.
In Australia, the strategy has included posters, television commercials and internet tie-ins, with all manner of companies clambering on the brand bandwagon. Sony Ericsson placed its phones in the film and is using that to hook in other consumers to a related promotion. NSW Lotteries has created a Da Vinci Code scratchie and Channel Seven has promoted the film on its travel show The Great Outdoors.
At the epicentre of the campaign is the medium that played host to the legion of conspiracy theories the book spawned - the internet. In a project that reportedly cost millions, Google has created an online puzzle campaign that runs in three countries: the US, Australia and Britain.
The game is a 24-day brain-teaser that includes symbol logic, chess-related codes, city map jigsaw puzzles and riddles that ask the player to use Google's search, maps, SMS or video functions to solve them. In the US, the prizes are lavish, including first-class trips; the Australian grand prize is a shade more humble - an electronics package, including a computer. Naturally, interested game players must sign up for a Google account.
The managing director of the Sydney marketing agency DMC, Piers Hogarth-Scott, says these kinds of online puzzles - called alternate reality games or interactive fiction - are an elaborate way to persuade audiences to interact with the brand for a sustained period. "They might not be buying ads, but this is mainstream marketing," Hogarth-Scott says. "Think of it as a teaser website that goes much further than that and engages people for much longer. It forces audiences to be engaged with the campaign for a period of four weeks or eight weeks."
The alternate reality game is a strategy pioneered by films such as The Blair Witch Project and the Steven Spielberg movie A.I., which engaged with audiences long before the buzz word "engagement" was adopted by the advertising industry as a replacement for the current model of annoying us with interruptive ads. Typically, alternate reality games ask the online community to generate its own information, thereby tapping into another marketing trend: user-generated content. The clunky term is used to describe the world of blogs and websites such as myspace.com where consumers get to have their say, put their photos online and even post films and ads they have made.
"It's usually impossible to solve the mystery alone," Hogarth-Scott says of the alternate reality game. "I tried [with The Da Vinci Code game], and I didn't get far, because it's very tricky. A collective effort is usually required, so the game gets self-organised on the internet."
The longer you spend playing the game, the more time you spend with the brand and the more delighted the marketers become. A digital marketing expert, Jean-Claude Abouchar, of Capture Communications, is impressed by the campaign, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. "As usual, Google's brilliance is in its simplicity. The campaign is basically a puzzle challenge. So it's immediately accessible and plays to the strengths of the novel - a series of puzzles solved by the protagonist.
"Google comes out the winner in this deal. They gain a whole new range of users and the ad revenue that comes from serving ads to those users who have to use their Google Account service to take part. The agreement is the ultimate win-win situation for both companies, who have played to each other's strengths."
The marketers behind The Da Vinci Code are following in the footsteps of shows such as Big Brother and Australian Idol by demanding audience participation through the internet and mobile phones, says Jon Anderson, the Australian marketing manager of the rival United International Pictures.
"There's been a question mark over just how young this movie will play," he says. "The book had a strong brand out there among older readers but I would say definitely this campaign would be to get in the teenagers and the young males ... to give the film a contemporary feel and to make it into something of a cultural event that they can take part in."
Anderson says the film season is dominated by blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible III that become events in themselves; everybody wants a piece of them, from the media that feed off the star personalities to the companies investing in promotional deals. He says the film is playing in that space and working off an already established fan base. Such movies typically make most of their money in the first weekend, so marketers need to get the most bums on seats as quickly as possible.
"You only get one bite of the cherry," Anderson says. "The Da Vinci Code needs to maintain its share of voice. It's stuck between Mission: Impossible III and X-Men: The Last Stand, so you can't afford to say, 'Oh, it's going to be OK, people will come.' What if they don't? Who wants to be the marketer who failed to let everyone know that the film is opening this weekend?"
A neat narrative has been spun around the success of Dan Brown's book. The book sold by word of mouth, the folkloric story runs, propelled by enthused fans in book clubs who shared the novel among themselves. That publishers encourage this myth shows the same kind of faux reticence the film campaign has taken for its signature.
Random House Australia's head of publicity for international books, Karen Reid, calls the book "a publishing phenomenon, a word-of-mouth bestseller". What no one wants to acknowledge is the hefty American pre-publication campaign, which included a $500,000 television ad, cross-promotions and an unprecedented 10,000 cheaply printed copies of the novel handed to American booksellers at the end of 2002. Off the springboard of the US publicity drive, the novel began to walk off shelves in Australia.