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It’s a film packed with misshaped, fearsome creatures intent on capturing the terrified screams of innocent children. Bizarrely, this has become one of the most loved children’s films of all time. Now the sequel is sinking its claws into young adults with a masterfully targeted ad.
It’s been almost 12 years since Monster’s Inc. hit our cinema screens, introducing us to a world of creatures and beasties that were as loveable as they were lethal. Prequel Monsters University, due to be launched in the summer, looks set to star many of the characters that made the original film so popular, but none of them appear in the brilliant new teaser.
In fact, it isn’t even an ad for the film. Instead it promotes the fictional university in which the action is set. So why, without any of the much-loved stars appearing, has this clip been shared over 40,000 times?
Oddly, it is the absence of the characters that makes the clip work. It isn’t immediately obvious that the ad is set in the Monsters world, making for an exciting unveiling that turns Nostalgia for the original film into excitement about the upcoming release.
Of course, it’s not easy to manipulate Nostalgia as it relies on stimulating personal memories that might not cross cultural or generational boundaries. One of 2012’s most shared clips resurrected a much-loved children’s entertainer and auto-tuned archive footage of him to create a musical walk down memory lane.
Mister Rogers Remixed put the words and footage of long-running show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood through the mixing desk to create a modern, bass heavy track that would probably have had the late host covering his ears. Gathering over 1 million shares, the ad for the PBS network aimed to remind today’s generation of adults of the educational benefits they enjoyed on the threatened network.
Rogers was the obvious figurehead for such a campaign, as his show ran for over 38 years, creating a massive audience who grew up with fond memories of the softly-spoken host. Had the ad used a shorter running show, or a less popular character, it is highly unlikely that the audience would be so excited by their re-appearance. It is also telling that 94% of the conversation surrounding the clip took place in English, as the show was only aired in North America. It’s remix didn’t stimulated much excitement elsewhere.
It’s not just characters that can make audiences misty-eyed. Samsung’s latest smartphone ad channels earlier technology, as it ties in Disney’s next big movie, Wreck it Ralph. Starring the bad guy from an old video game, the phone is used to interact with Ralph, echoing scenes, styles and actions that will be familiar to an older generation of button-bashing gamers. Similar tricks have been used by adidas and Volkswagen to reach out to Star Wars fans.
Monster’s Inc. certainly didn’t have the long-running popularity of Mister Rogers, so the ad was cunningly placed to find those who would have the fondest memories of it. With such a gap since the original, the fans have now grown into young adults old enough to be at university or starting out on their careers.
By running the ad commercial breaks of the Rose Bowl - the Super Bowl for American college teams - the ads was guaranteed to reach an audience of students, prospective students and recent graduates, who remember the original and would be excited to hear about the prequel. The ad succeeded in reaching its audience, but how did it get them so excited?
In the same way that old friends re-tell the same tales of a misspent youth, we love to be reminded of the things we used to enjoy. It can be dangerous to utilise an audience's happy memories to promote something new and different. Monsters University cleverly uses the style and feel of the original, without re-deploying any of the settings of characters from the first film. This enables audiences to remember their fondness for the original and look forward to rediscovering the Monsters world, creating an appetite for more material and stimulating conversation.
The surprise isn’t within the content - it's the content itself. The clip is a spoof of the overly-earnest recruitment ads that colleges often run during the Rose Bowl. As the first few seconds of the teaser are monster-free, it would sit unambiguously alongside the serious ads until the first scaly creature appears. This does a lot to amplify the Nostalgia element, surprising the audience with a fondly-regarded face while also acting as the punchline to a joke poking fun at the real university ads.
As well as the subversive gag about serious university ads and the cheesiness of them, the Monsters University teaser has an in-built sense of the surreal. A gigantic, horned and purple beast hangs out in the library, while blob-like creatures play hackeysack on the college lawns.
The clip may not generate the highest of sharing numbers, but it’s likely that the numbers will be very targeted, seeing lots of like-minded young adults sending the clip along with messages about their fondness of the original.
By keeping up the pretence of the college ad, the clip fit with, and subverted, the real ads while also functioning well as a standalone joke online. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice visual clues in the footage, but its brilliant realism acts to keep the audience from thinking of animated monster movies.
A smart campaign that stirs up interest in the expanded Monsters world, the campaign stimulates enough interest to get users sharing, talking and discovering the setting for themselves on a cleverly crafted, fully functional website for the Monsters University.
Had the ad thrust audiences into the new film, it would fail to generate surprise and could even generate a backlash as audiences have their re-worked favourites thrust on them rather them being allowed to discover them for themselves.