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    Marketing lessons learned from horror flick Smile’s creepy MLB guerrilla activation

    Sure, it spooked. But will Paramount execs be smiling over the results? 

    Something sinister happened last week at MLB games across the country. 

    Fans seated behind home plate – in direct view of broadcasters’ cameras – donned creepy, unflinching smiles for the duration of the game. Some stood and stared ahead while they smiled, while others remained seated. Some wore tee-shirts emblazoned with the word “smile.”

    They appeared at a handful of prime-time games aired nationally on Friday, September 23, including the Mets vs. A’s, Yankees vs. Red Sox and Dodgers vs. Cardinals. 

    The internet, predictably, had some thoughts. 


    Turns out it was all a marketing stunt for Paramount’s forthcoming horror flick ‘Smile,’ which will hit theaters nationally on Friday, September 30. 

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    While the public had mixed reactions to the clips, experiential and guerilla marketers are largely impressed. “Unlike so many past stunts, this one worked on multiple levels, engendering curiosity that drove social sharing which generated broadscale awareness on the cheap,” says Drew Neisser, founder and chief marketing officer at the marketing agency Renegade. 

    The stunt certainly built awareness. Not only did the smilers – all of whom were paid actors – receive major air time, but they generated press coverage across sports, entertainment and news media, which Neisser says “suggests the producers had their PR act together.” 

    Beyond the press coverage, social media did what social media is wont to do: it brought the content to a new level. Clips depicting the unsettling smiles garnered thousands of ‘likes’ on Twitter. Meanwhile, four TikToks alone generated more than 18m views of the stunt, catalyzing more buzz about the new film online. 

    The gen Z-saturated video content app is an especially strong medium for reaching ‘Smile’s target audience, considering that the average age of horror film audiences are younger than the general moviegoing population (27% younger for paranormal flicks and 5% younger for sci-fi titles), per data from Movio. 

    Part of the appeal, suggests Adam Salacuse, founder and president of experiential marketing agency Alt Terrain, is surely due to the fact that the activation married entertainment with “something [else] people are passionate about: sports.” 

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    While the press and social media success of the activation is laudable, Neisser argues that the campaign proved effective primarily because it cut to the heart of the message. “The medium and the message fused,” says Neisser. “These creepy smilers in seemingly random places are the stuff of nightmares, which is precisely what delights horror film fans. In a sense, the smilers are both the promise and the product.” 

    Others echoed the sentiment: “This creeped people out, just as the movie is designed to do,” says Dan Lucey, chief creative officer at Havas New York. “This stunt demonstrated how unnerving it is to witness someone with a blank stare and unflinching smile. What a great tease for the movie.”

    Of course, hitting the nail so squarely on the head is easier said than done.

    “I get multiple calls each day from clients looking to get this exact result,” says Alan Wolan, chief executive officer at New York City-based guerrilla marketing agency GoGorilla Media. “Unfortunately, the good ideas are few and far between. For every stunt like this which works, there are a thousand which fizzle out with no press attention.” 

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    Ultimately, brands need to do a cost-benefit analysis to determine if it’s possible to get viral traction at a low cost, says Wolan. “Luckily, this stunt was probably very cheap to activate. But in the absence of the ‘big idea,’ it’s probably better to stick with more traditional, nontraditional guerrilla media tactics.”

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    And while marketers are wowed, the real proving grounds lie ahead. ”The ultimate measure of this stunt’s success,” says Neisser, ”will be opening weekend box office receipts that I expect will make Paramount execs smile.”

    At the time of writing, Paramount has not responded to a request for comment. 

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