In the grainy, black-and-white video footage, a terrified movie crew runs from something in the woods, their handheld camera shaking frantically. This was followed by a trickle of other videos and news briefings that appeared on early Internet forums during the summer of 1999, amping up the hysteria—was there a witch in the Maryland woods hunting down film students?
Sixteen years after its premiere, there’s no question that The Blair Witch Project was a horror film and not a documentary, as its shadowy marketing suggested. But in the run-up to the movie’s release, as dial-up Internet users pored over the grainy snippets of video, there was a palpable sense that the horrors on screen might be real.
Coproducer Mike Monello helped manufacture that mythology, which turned his $23,000 indie horror film into a $248 million smash hit worldwide. As the unlikely Don Draper of postmodern advertising, he was one of the first to reap the benfits of viral Internet content’s commercial potential.
While collaborating on the movie with directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, Monello turned bits of Blair Witch’s phony “found” footage, with its chilling central narrative—the woods, the witch, the disappeared film students—into a viral sensation by carefully cultivating an online community long before anyone was trying to harness Internet fandoms for marketing purposes. Aside from huge box-office numbers, Blair Witch also cemented his place as an icon of guerrilla marketing.
Like the film, Monello’s promotional campaign played with the boundaries of truth and fiction to get its message across. But at the time, Monello didn’t see the tactic as guerilla marketing. And although he went on to found an ad agency, Campfire, based in large part on Blair Witch’s marketing success, Monello doesn’t think the same tactics could work again. We’re just months away from the release of Paranormal Activity 5, after all. And beyond “found footage” horror becoming a certifiable trope, there are countless other examples of cultural phenomena that are eventually revealed to be nothing more than marketing campaigns. We’ve become accustomed to finding such branded “content” all around us.
So what would the Blair Witch of today look like? “I don’t think it looks like Blair Witch,” Monello said. We know that trick—which leaves people like him looking for new ways to target us.
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Guerrilla marketing is an act of disguise. “It’s an effort to advertise to people that doesn’t feel like advertising,” explained Michael Serazio, a professor at Fairfield University and the author of Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing. You may know it by other names—product placement, viral marketing, culture jamming, even online sponsored content—but Serazio says the fundamental idea is always the same: “The advertising message is like a guerrilla warrior, slipping across these boundaries that it used to be kept within.”
This strategy works, the professor continued, because “audiences are reflexively cynical—we’ve been trained to spot the bullshit.” In the places where guerrilla marketing appears—online, in urban graffiti, or even in the mouths of friends recommending products—“the audience doesn’t have their bullshit detectors up.”
The term itself was popularized in the 1980s by the late Jay Conrad Levinson, who worked at ad agencies including Leo Burnett and JWT on such iconic campaigns as the Marlboro Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Levinson’s book Guerrilla Marketing, first published in the early 1980s, has sold millions of copies and spawned dozens of sequels.
But advertising that goes after “conventional goals using unconventional means,” as Levinson once described guerilla marketing, isn’t all that new. In true ad man form, Levinson simply put a snappy name on an old idea. The true father of guerrilla marketing may have been Thomas J. Barratt, who joined the British Pears soap company in 1864. There, he pushed soap ads—and the advertising industry—in new directions. Barratt notably hired the first-ever paid female spokesperson, actor Lillie Langtry, and, more subversively, he imported 500,000 French coins and stamped them with “Pears Soap.” The coins circulated as British pennies, carrying the company’s message with them everywhere they went.
Barratt even acquired the iconic painting Bubbles by John Everett Millais for a marketing stunt. The work depicts an angelic child gazing up at a delicate soap bubble, and in a move reminiscent of the contemporary street artist Banksy, Barratt had a bar of Pears soap painted into the picture. The stunt piggybacked on the artwork’s power, putting advertising where none had expected it.
As advertising in mainstream media channels became big business over the early 20th century, marketers got clever. In the 1950s, soap operas were called that “because they were originally developed by detergent companies,” which created the shows as highly targeted vehicles for their ads, Serazio said. He also cited the paid-for addition of Reese’s Pieces to the 1982 movie E.T. as a landmark example—one of the first public instances of product placement in a mainstream movie. The practice has since become the status quo in media, from television to video games to rap songs.
These stunts have something in common: They intentionally confuse fact and fiction, art and message. They commodify spaces that aren’t usually seen as commodified—at least at the time. The danger of guerrilla marketing is that it might work once, but that doesn’t mean lightning will strike again.
“On some level, advertising always wants to colonize the next frontier,” Serazio said. “But then that frontier burns itself out. We’re used to advertising there, so it’s no longer effective.”
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Monello’s miracle play for Blair Witch was to seed an online community—an early form—with shaky, spooky video footage that seemed real enough, leaving audiences to answer the question of its authenticity for themselves.
After shooting on a shoestring budget, Monello and his team landed some of their edited tape on Bravo’s Split Screen, a niche show about moviemaking. The show teased viewers to go on its website and debate the mythology. The small site “all of a sudden got flooded with people who wanted to know more,” Monello said. When the burgeoning Blair Witch community started to become a distraction from the TV show, Bravo advised Morello and his team to do something groundbreaking: Invent their own digital forum.
“Truthfully, at first putting up the site was a little bit of a burden, a distraction from the edit,” Monello said. But the activity soon became part of the filmmaking process. “We took part in discussion board, people came in, started speculating and asking questions about the mythology. We updated the site slowly,” he continued. The fan community grew, and thanks to some well-placed radio call-ins, the film was accepted into Sundance, where it was met with unprecedented crowds—of locals, not Hollywood people.
The project became subversive not only because it manipulated the truth, but because the marketing turned online fans into the film’s advocates. Rather than following the top-down model of most mainstream media at the time, Blair Witch built from the bottom up. Allowing audiences to participate in the film was revolutionary. “There was deep interaction there, and the audience was central,” Monello said. “It was much more like performance than it was like media.”
“When I look at the early stuff that we were doing, that’s content marketing!” Monello said. “It doesn’t look like it, but that’s what it was.” A similar approach to advertising now drives much of the recent growth and investment in new media business. BuzzFeed, Vice, Gawker, and even Conde Nast have launched boutique studios to create custom-made ads that look as close to editorial content as possible.
In 2007, Monello officially launched Campfire to continue the Blair Witch–inspired digital storytelling tactics that he found Hollywood just wasn’t interested in. The company has created fan-activating campaigns for franchises such as Game of Thrones, True Blood, and American Horror Story. But the strategies learned from Blair Witch aren’t just cookie-cutter. After all, the advertising has to seem just close enough to the real thing to make sense. “Everything is made uniquely for that brand,” Monello said. “We use whatever content formats make sense to reach the audience.”
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As consumers, our eyeballs are being bombarded with marketing messages. “My parents 50 years ago didn’t see 3,000 ads per day,” Serazio said. “It’s safe to say that a lot more advertising is being forced upon us.” Thus, the demand for and the challenge of guerrilla marketing. If, as with antibiotics, we’re becoming immune to these encoded forms of advertising, marketers will have to be ever more creative with how they mask their products.
The breakdown in traditional media economies, such as the fall of print advertising rates, has also forced advertising into new formats. Sponsored content in newspapers and on websites may have seemed unlikely when Blair Witch hit theaters, but it’s now commonplace. “All of the media producers have to get paid somehow,” Serazio said. “So advertisers try to find a way to sneak into these spaces that they haven’t been before.”
However blasé we are toward ads, they will always manage to find new ways to reach us. Take music, for example: In 2014, the U.S. government created a Spanish-language pop song called “La Bestia,” or “The Beast,” as a message about the dangers of riding the dangerous freight train that runs through southern Mexico as a checkpoint on the path to the U.S. border. The song has become a hit, without any mention of its political origins. Guerrilla, indeed.
The success of Blair Witch—or Pears Soap, for that matter—can be seen in anything “that takes people by surprise,” Monello argued. Striking that emotional chord is a moving target, and likewise, there are few guidelines to just how to deal with the truth in this advertising. “I really felt like I was stumbling into where there were no rules,” he said. Although much of the media industry has followed his lead, in many ways that lawlessness remains.