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The Story Behind ‘The Grinch’ and the Weirdest Marketing Campaign of the Year

In the middle of a nondescript restaurant, J.R. Smith is getting ready to eat a sandwich. He’s already taken off his shirt (of course) when he gets a call from … the Grinch. The perpetually cynical, green creature—now voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch—wants to talk about Smith’s infamous miscue from Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, when he didn’t realize his Cleveland Cavaliers were tied with the Golden State Warriors and brought the ball out from under the hoop to the 3-point line, where he was met by an exasperated, arms-flailing LeBron James.

 

“Dude,” Smith says, addressing the storied Dr. Seuss character over the phone like a regular old friend. “It was last year, let it go.”

“You’re right,” the Grinch responds. “No turning back the clock now, huh?” J.R. Smith hangs up the phone. Totally owned, he no longer feels like eating the sandwich.

The NBA and its players are no strangers to Hollywood, where cross-promotion with the league has flourished for years. The 2009 NBA playoffs, for instance, featured four cobranded spots for upcoming films: Fox’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Sony’s Angels and Demons, Universal’s Land of the Lost, and Columbia Pictures’ Year One. On its face, these four movies—a superhero flick, another Dan Brown novel adaptation, a Will Ferrell action-adventure vehicle, and a hackneyed caveman comedy, respectively—didn’t have much in common. But they all, in theory, broadly appealed to the NBA’s biggest viewership: adults aged 18-34, often considered the most important demographic for advertisers to reach, especially at a time when our consumer habits in media are increasingly ubiquitous. Teaming up with the NBA is just good business.

But targeting NBA fans to sell a new Wolverine movie is one thing; a straight-up children’s movie is another. But that’s exactly what Illumination Entertainment—the Universal animation wing responsible for the Despicable Me franchise, The Secret Life of Pets, and Minions—did. After the Los Angeles Lakers’ win over the Dallas Mavericks on Halloween night, JaVale McGee addressed reporters at his locker room in a custom-made Grinch costume tailored to his lanky 7-foot frame. “Shout-out to The Grinch, shout-out Universal, shout-out to my agent,” McGee told reporters. “Yeah.”

Illumination also worked with ESPN Creative Works on two more NBA spots, featuring Joel Embiid and Draymond Green, which included the same sort of Grinch smack talk as the Smith ad. It’s easy to see why these specific players were chosen: They frequently light up social media, whether it’s through their questionable on-court decisions, memeable moments, or tweets about cognitive real estate properties. What’s a little more perplexing is why an animated film geared toward kids collaborated with a brand with a fan base comprising mostly adults.

But The Grinch’s dalliance with the NBA is just a sliver of the movie’s odd, primarily adult-centric marketing. In the weeks leading up to the movie’s release last week, here’s how Illumination promoted the movie: with collaborations with the DNA testing company 23andMe, the dog product site BarkBox, Wonderful brand pistachios, China Glaze nail polish, a PUR cosmetics line, Chex Mix, Bloomingdale’s, and the cashback website Ebates; a limited-edition, Grinch-inspired menu at IHOP; a series of cynical billboards localized to several different cities (signs reading “I’m sure you’ll catch the next one” littered the New York City subway, while ones reading “Rent is so cheap here” popped up in San Francisco); and perhaps most confoundingly, two songs by rapper Tyler, the Creator: a contemporary, hip-hop-infused update of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and an original track, “I Am the Grinch.”

Now, some of these advertising campaigns make thematic sense. BarkBox seems like a random choice, until you remember the Grinch’s very good dog, Max, and the essential part he plays in the story. And the Grinch-inspired IHOP menu, featuring green pancakes and mint hot chocolate, was clearly concocted with children in mind. “IHOP has been known as a gathering place for families and friends, young and old. Bringing these two together really was the perfect match,” IHOP spokeswoman Stephanie Peterson told me over email, before distilling the collaboration in a sentence that’s as surreal as it is synergistic: “The goal was to infuse the spirit of WhoVille into the dishes that guests crave every day to create something truly memorable this holiday season.” (As for anyone dismayed by the downright greenness of IHOP’s Grinch pancakes, Peterson assures they’re merely the result of mixing green icing with buttermilk batter: “We wanted to have fun with the menu and the only way to truly connect with the movie was to be as green as the Grinch himself.”)

But on the whole, you wouldn’t associate the Dr. Seuss tale of a grumpy, cave-dwelling, Christmas-hating creature with DNA testing, cashback sites, a rapper who was banned in the U.K. for “posing a threat to public order,” or even Basketball Twitter. And yet. The Grinch’s marketing campaign has been unique, not just in its execution but in the ways in which Illumination has tried to reach as many people outside of the film’s target demographic as possible.

“Studios don’t necessarily need to focus on one audience,” Rami Levi, associate creative director at VaynerMedia, told me. “They can talk to as many demographics as they want, as long as they do so authentically.”

While Levi admits character familiarity likely helped The Grinch reach more people than usual, its marketing push—which included a lot of play on social media, where a semiactive Grinch Twitter account chastised things as random as Sunday Night Football—spoke to the ways in which brand and consumer communication continues to evolve. “The way movies have been marketed from previous years has shifted, because the way that we are communicating today has shifted,” he said. “It’s imperative to ensure you’re evolving with the market of attention—even on the platforms themselves. On Instagram, for example, Instagram stories are more effective at getting consumers to, say, swipe up to buy a ticket than a standard link-in-the-bio Instagram post.” With an effective dose of virality—see: the billboard memes and the NBA spots—and myriad Grinch merchandising in online and physical spaces, the movie positioned itself for success, if only because the marketing around it was so oddly ubiquitous. It is a kids’ movie—but its omnipresence blurred that distinction.

Of course, not all movies—animated or otherwise—will necessarily be marketed this way going forward. Not all studios, for starters, may be willing to spend as much money as Universal did promoting The Grinch: Deadline reports a global advertising valuation of $80 million, which would be $5 million more than the movie’s actual production budget. And as Levi notes, what worked for The Grinch this year isn’t necessarily a blueprint that could work in the foreseeable future, as consumer habits continually shift.

“Marketing will continue to shift as consumer attention shifts, so it is a bit tough to say what we will see more of in the future, but I do think that this campaign for The Grinch was launched to hit many different consumers during many different touch points of their lives,” Levi said. “I think you’ll see studios continue to situate the movies themselves within a broader universe of equally meaningful movie-related content.”

Seeing future movies follow in The Grinch’s footsteps feels like a safe bet, considering the movie’s early box office returns. In its opening weekend, The Grinch hauled in $66 million domestically—good for the third-highest opening for an animated film in November. If Illumination’s last five years at the box office are any indication—combined with the fact that the animated movies that had marginally better November debuts than The Grinch were The Incredibles ($633 million) and Frozen ($1.27 billion)—a $600 million–plus global haul by the end of its run could be the movie’s floor rather than its ceiling. As comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told me, The Grinch has the added benefit of being familiar IP for generations of moviegoers. “The story of the Grinch is one that evokes nostalgia, holiday fun, and is multigenerational in its appeal, as parents hand Dr. Seuss’s classic tale down to their kids either in the form of the original book published in 1957, the 1966 TV special, or the year 2000 big-screen adaptation,” he said. Dergarabedian pointed out that Illumination has emphasized the cross-generational nature of The Grinch with its tie-ins and by, well, forcing multiple generations to interact with it. Helping matters, of course, is that you can find vestiges of Grinch marketing virtually everywhere. “The abundance and ubiquity of the Grinch marketing campaign is almost overwhelming,” Dergarabedian (rightly) added.

The biggest box office obstacle facing The Grinch is the influx of movies coming out over the holiday season: The next two weeks alone will see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Robin Hood, Creed II, Widows, The Favourite, and Ralph Breaks the Internet arrive in theaters. But that’s where the scattershot marketing campaign could work in the film’s favor. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, 18 percent of Grinch opening-weekend moviegoers were ages 18-24—a 6 percent spike from that for Illumination’s previous release, Despicable Me 3. So while the movie will face a plethora of box office competition over the next few weeks, its decision to target adult markets at least provides The Grinch some footing to compete with the films that are more adult-centric. If yet another iteration of Robin Hood seems unappealing, how about that low-stress movie featuring a Christmas-hating Benedict Cumberbatch that JaVale McGee seems so fond of?

While The Grinch hasn’t received the kind of critical adoration that even the worst of Pixar’s efforts get—it has a suboptimal score of 50 on Metacritic and a 56 percent “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes—Illumination is still well on its way to another huge box office haul. And while kids were sure to drag their parents to watch The Grinch regardless, its seemingly random, but carefully calculated, marketing made sure everyone—be it NBA fans, Bloomingdale’s shoppers, or subway commuters—knew it was playing in theaters. And that’s the point. After all, on Monday morning, Pixar released the first teaser trailer for the much-hyped Toy Story 4, but by the end of the day, the internet couldn’t shut up about … Detective Pikachu. In an era of unceasing appetites and fleeting attention spans, perhaps a movie’s best bet is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, even if it happens to be at J.R. Smith’s expense.

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