Creepy SMILE Campaign: Niche Marketing Done Right

Spooky season is in full swing, and some very creative marketing campaigns are taking full advantage of it. If you’re too chicken, now’s the time to turn back. Carry on, if you dare…

If you’ve kept any tabs on the box office this year, you’d know that Hollywood surprisingly saw a long string of horror movie hits. Why? Perhaps we were all bored after the horrors of the past two years started to die down, or maybe we just needed to be distracted from the Don’t-Worry-Darling-Chris-Pine-Spit-Harry-and-Olivia-and-Jason-Salad-Dressing drama. Who’s to say? 

Now, I happen to be a lover of the horror and thriller genres. I like watching movies where you don’t know what the hell could happen next because life is crazy and things don’t always end how you expect them to. Sue me. With that being said, I stay pretty up-to-date on what’s hip-happening in the realm of spooks. 

One new horror movie, in particular, made viral tidal waves across the world, resulting in a $166 million worldwide profit on a $17 million budget. Parker Finn’s Smile is unique, unnerving, and spine-tinglingly sinister. In short, the movie features possessed individuals who carry out disturbing deeds while donning a crazed, dead-eyed smile. (Pretty chill, right?) 

However, that’s not what got everyone buzzing about the film across all forms of social media. 

Picture this: you’re at a baseball game for your favorite team. Let’s say, the Dodgers. You’ve got your perfectly buttered popcorn, and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is playing over the speakers. Life is good. 

And then, you make the mistake of looking at the big screen as Freddie Freeman is lined up at bat. There, sitting right behind home plate, unbeknownst to Freddie, is a person donning the most maniacal, sinister grin you’ve ever seen in your life with a bright shirt that reads, “SMILE.” 

Don’t worry, the person isn’t actually possessed (although I don’t know what possessed them to agree to hold a smile in place for over 40 minutes at a time). They’re just a hired actor for part of an elaborate creative marketing campaign promoted by Paramount Pictures. Actors for the campaign showed up at other locations too—NBC’s Today show, for example. 

The studio deliberately placed these unnerving individuals in public spaces in hopes of catching more attention. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Director Parker Finn said, “I've got to say, Paramount marketing has been very clever with some of the tricks they've had up their sleeves for this film. This is something that had been discussed a little while back and we were all kind of like crossing our fingers that somebody might notice."

And notice, they did.

The campaign almost immediately went viral when people took to Twitter to post their Smile actor sightings. As it turns out, people tend to do a double take when they realize the person next to them with the deadpanned, frozen grin isn’t just trying to be friendly. 

Beyond simply making everyone collectively need to change their pants, Paramount Pictures also launched a website called, where anyone can publicly post the smiles they see out and about. They’ve even provided a Smile hotline (201-365-4067) where you can “report” the smile you’ve seen.

Sure, maybe creeping out a wide audience and disturbing people who were just trying to enjoy a nice baseball game wouldn’t be considered the best marketing strategy in most cases, but for a horror movie like Smile, it was perfectly nuanced. It got people talking for all the right reasons, even if they didn’t like it. 

With the rapid growth of digital technology over the years, advertisers and marketing companies have had to start thinking outside the traditional advertising box. As more and more brands jump on the digital marketing campaign train, it becomes increasingly difficult to make yourself stand out. For a product like a horror movie, this provides the perfect opportunity to challenge the boundaries of creative marketing. 

There are many creative guerilla marketing campaigns that have successfully caught the public eye. Guerilla marketing is a very niche form of marketing that involves using unconventional methods to evoke surprise, wonder, or shock. Think: Deadpool’s Tinder account or the IHOP to IHOB discourse. (Did they really think that was a good idea?) Success is usually measured by how much buzz the trick gets, which also increases brand awareness as a result.

Smile is a movie that intentionally uses an expression – a smile – typically associated with friendliness or joy to evoke feelings of dread or fear. It turns the symbol upside down, which shocks and unnerves its audiences. Why shouldn’t its marketing do the same? 

Smart marketing is crucial for the horror movie genre in general because the films need to be exposed to audiences outside of the typical horror movie goer. (Sorry to all those scaredy-cats out there.)

Ari Aster’s Hereditary launched a similarly creepy guerilla marketing campaign when the movie first came out in 2018. The attendees of a midnight screening awoke the next morning to find creepy dolls waiting outside their hotel doors. This marketing ploy in combination with the quality of the film itself led to $13 million at the box office its first weekend. Smile, on the other hand, debuted at $22 million—a rare metric for the horror movie genre. 

So, yes, the Paramount Pictures marketing team probably gave a few innocent people nightmares (collateral damage at best), but it was ultimately a sacrifice worth taking. High risks earn high rewards. Well played, Paramount. Well played.

At Marketwake, we don’t just talk about things that go bump in the night. We also talk about Game of Thrones, memes, and all things digital marketing. Ready to make your own waves? Visit our website to learn more about our creative services.

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