The 2009, Sci-Fi hit District 9, goes down in history for its clever marketing campaign. Though the film and it’s marketing legacy is practically a decade old, to this day, it still holds a special place in the movie marketing vault. It may seem easy to market a movie that involves aliens, but this film takes a much different approach that had never been used before. Before we get into the marketing techniques themselves, let me refresh your memories on the plot of this view-changing film.
In 1982, a massive star ship bearing a sickly alien population, who the humans nicknamed “The Prawns,” appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. Humans initially welcomed the aliens, but after 28 years, humans turned to dislike their presence on Earth. As a way to keep the aliens separated from humans, the once refugee camp where the aliens were located, turned into a militarized ghetto called District 9. Here, the aliens were left to live in poor conditions and treated like prisoners. In 2010, the munitions corporation, Multi-National United, worked to forcibly evict the population further away from humankind. The purpose of this was to prevent aliens from interfering with the lives of humans. The main character, Wikus van der Merwe, is in charge of evicting the aliens until he is exposed to a life-altering alien chemical while on the job.
The film used a variety of filming techniques, particularly the “found-footage” technique which made the film very approachable to modern audiences. This filming perspective was used to make the film appear like a documentary. Though not the whole film is shot in this perspective. For example, we first meet Wikus when he is helping film the documentary and introducing viewers to what he does at MNU. Once he is infected with the alien chemical, the filming technique smoothly transitions from documentary focus to a regular film perspective. The documentary clips come back towards the end of the film, to let everything come full circle.
District 9‘s marketing campaign was plastered all around the world in 2009. This film went all out on creating a viral marketing campaign that exploited the fact that aliens weren’t allowed in or on any human facilities. The main plot focuses on the question of social justice, primarily based on how poorly the prawns are treated by humans. Through history we have seen this type of treatment by humans, so the marketers emphasized how this would play out when aliens came into the picture.
The key ideas for the marketing tactics focused on using MNU as a way to advertise that the prawns are not allowed in human areas. Through their successful viral campaign, the film gained a lot of attention and did extremely well during its release. Here is what District 9 marketers did!
You may be thinking that posters are the oldest trick in the book when it comes to marketing, but District 9 put this overused idea to rest. These posters weren’t just any movie poster with the film cover plastered on it. Instead, people questioned whether these posters had to do with a film or a real-life event. Let’s be real, how often do we see giant posters around town telling us to watch out for alien activity? Never, unless you were around at the time of District 9‘s release.
The posters, which displayed three primary colors – red, black, and white – were very eye-catching from near or far. They were first displayed at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con, where District 9‘s cast and directors had a panel. At the event, the “For Humans Only” posters displayed across the center. People were initially drawn by these posters and wanted to know more about the film. Which is when the initial buzz for the film started.
After Comic-Con, the signs appeared in various locations around the world. Each sign was designed with the purpose of being placed in a specific spot. For example, a bus stop with the sign would read that this bus stop is “For Humans Only”. Same for the highway billboard ads which told drivers that “Picking up Non-Humans is Forbidden”. This clever idea was a hit! Especially since many people actually called the number on the posters and left messages that they spotted alien activity in their area. With people playing along, they were getting more and more excited to learn more about what District 9 was all about.
When it comes to releasing clips directly from the film, District 9 marketers took a different approach. They wanted to follow the same method of making MNU appear as a real corporation. That’s why they incorporated clips from the film and transformed them into “warning” ads from the corporation. A series of videos were released online that start off with a warning that there is alien activity in viewers areas. All the videos warned humans to stay as far as possible from aliens and to report any “non-human” activity to MNU headquarters. This warning was followed by clips from the film that depicted the aliens as harmful beings.
The purpose of the viral videos wasn’t only to create buzz, but also introduce viewers to MNU. Since each warning video was made by the corporation, they also painted this picture that their purpose was to “keep humans safe by keeping non-humans separate”. One video involved a level 5 warning, where a non-human had escaped District 9. Humans were told to lock all windows and stay indoors. This was a clever technique as the videos were not part of the film. Marketers had to go out of their way to create media campaigns that made MNU feel as real as possible. In the film, we learn more about how MNU isn’t the protectors they paint themselves out to be, but the realistic ideals of the viral videos are what got people talking. They also led viewers to the next marketing tactic, the film’s website.
District 9 marketer’s expanded their viral marketing campaign by creating a variety of web pages. On Sony Pictures website, they have a special page dedicated to the film. During the time of the film’s release, the page had multiple trailers and a countdown. To make MNU look realistic, Sony created a separate site for the corporation. Unfortunately, this site is no longer available online, but its legacy is still talked about online through a wiki fan-page. As the world’s second largest weapon’s manufacturer, MNU’s site looked legit. MNU was clearly the antagonist of the film and a huge part of the film’s plot.
The MNU web page was where viewers could learn more about the corporation. The front page had a countdown, viral videos, and categories. Besides MNU advertisements, the page had a tab for careers. How much more believable could the site have gotten? Based on the picture above, I would think this site was built for a real company, not one from a movie. The professional yet eye-catching appeal was a successful idea to get people interested in MNU and the August 14, 2009 film release.
Besides an MNU site, marketers also created an anti-MNU blog run by the main alien of the film, Christopher Johnson. The blog called “MNU Spreads Lies” actually fits into the plot of the movie. According to the story line, Johnson was arrested in 2007 for running the site and became one of the most wanted aliens because of it. That’s why marketers put up this site to give a little more insight into this character and the lives of the aliens.
Much like other viral marketing campaigns, District 9 marketers took to social media to promote the film. They did an excellent job with this tactic by following the same idea they had with the web pages. This fluency made the viral marketing campaign behind the film even more believable and exciting to fans. First, marketers created Facebook and Twitter pages as a general film page. The truly exciting aspects of social came from the creation of social accounts for MNU and Christopher Johnson.
MNU’S social accounts, like Twitter, focused on posting about laws against non-human citizens (aka the aliens). They also held various contests, like asking for fans to submit their fan-art for a chance to win. They always specified that only “non-humans” could enter. One other thing the MNU accounts did was answer fan questions. For example, a fan asked about District 9 residents using twitter, which the MNU account responded is illegal and they must contact the number listed to report this activity.
Christopher Johnson’s social accounts followed the same tone as his web blog. The twitter account called @MNU_Lies holds all of Johnson’s tweets. Most of the content deals with his responses to fan questions. He tells people how he is exploited by humans living in District 9. Christoper’s page is a great place for people to learn more about the unfair treatment of aliens. His call for social justice is heard through every tweet.
For the Sci-Fi movie that it is, District 9 had a worldwide gross of $210,819,611. The critical reception for it was phenomenal with many fans liking the film and rotten tomatoes giving it a 90. Even people who aren’t Sci-Fi fans came to enjoy this film for its inventive plot line and CGI work. The film’s director, Neil Blomkamp, went on to use his impressive CGI ideas in other successful films like Chappie. The film was even nominated for the Golden Globe for best screenplay and for multiple Oscars, including motion picture of the year.
In my eyes, the marketing campaign for this film was very successful. The techniques that marketers used in 2009 weren’t as common or popular as they are today. They were original and worked to engage fans in any way possible. We see many films today focusing heavily on viral campaigns like the Deadpool films. Since everything and everybody is on the internet, the best source to market a film on is this outlet. Between creating social accounts, websites, and “non-human” posters around the world, I feel this campaign stuck to its central theme. By exploiting the idea of “non-human” citizens, people’s interests were caught.
As someone who isn’t the biggest Sci-Fi fan in the world, I became a huge fan of this film when I watched it back in 2009. To this day, I’m still impressed with the film and its marketing campaign. That’s why I’m giving this film a firm 9/10!