"The Virginity Hit": Bold Marketing Moves Generate Interest
“Dad, what’s a virgin?,” Fred Lopez’s 6-year-old son asked him after seeing the word on a billboard advertisement.
While some parents would avoid that kind of question altogether, Lopez turned it into a teaching moment and explained it to his son in the most appropriate way you can to somebody who still watches “Sesame Street.”
Some people find it ingenious and others think it’s in bad taste, but one thing is certain—the marketing campaign for the new Will Ferrell/Adam McKay produced film “The Virginity Hit” has generated a definite buzz throughout L.A. ever since the ads first started popping up on billboards and bus shelters
The elusive billboards, which at first glance seem like public service announcements, read “STILL A VIRGIN? FOR HELP CALL 888-743-4335 TOLL FREE” in bold black and red lettering on a stark white background. The Columbia Pictures movie, filmed in a mockumentary style, tells the story of three high school boys on a quest to help their friend lose his virginity.
Some people have expressed their disapproval of this type of in-your-face marketing strategy, especially because of how it unfairly targets impressionable younger people outside of the film’s intended college-age demographic.
“In high school it’s, ‘Oh, you’re still a virgin? Oh, you’re not cool,’ and then this just enforces that,” Atarah Dymally-Williams, who is not a parent, but does have younger cousins, said. “You would have no idea looking at that ad that it’s for a movie…it’s irresponsible. I think it speaks to how our society has just degraded over the years—that anyone would think it’s OK to put that up as an ad.”
Others, like father Fred Lopez, find the ads funny and curious in spite of the controversial nature of the content.
“Now that I know it’s a marketing campaign for a movie, I think it’s ingenious…however inappropriate it may be. But I think it’s clever—it’s really clever,” he said.
“I’m going go to TheVirginityHit.com now just to find out what it’s about, so it is effective. And your child is going to ask you what a virgin is instead of someone else if they’re a 6-year-old or a 5-year-old, and that’s OK – it’s an opportunity to communicate with your kids.”
According to KTLA, the toll-free number advertised on the billboard received more than 70,000 calls in the first five days after they were posted. After dialing, callers reach a menu of options asking them to select a number based on their personal needs. A charismatic teenage male instructs callers to “press one if you’re a virgin; press two if you’re friends with a virgin; press three if you don’t know if you’re a virgin or not.” Then, in a whisper, the voice says, “press four if you want your virginity back."
USC Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing, Marlene Towns, calls the movie's marketing campaign a “teaser style of advertising.” The form, characterized by the use billboards and bus shelters, is considered traditional outdoor advertising, but the content has the element of shock value, which makes it closer to guerilla-style marketing—or the use of nontraditional techniques, such as street teams, to promote a product.
Towns said she believes the radical approach is necessary, especially in a city like L.A. where marketers need to get more creative in order to grab the attention of people surrounded by billboards and bombarded with bus ads.
Other films and TV shows have taken similar approaches in recent years, such as Universal Pictures’ 2008 “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which used billboards with spiteful notes in a hand-written font with sayings like, “You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall,” and "My mom always hated you, Sarah Marshall.” The CW’s 2008 “Gossip Girl” campaign featured racy pictures of the cast with captions like “OMFG” and “Every parent’s nightmare.”
“The Virginity Hit” had a limited opening during the weekend of September 10, purposely including select college towns, and will open nationwide beginning September 24. For that reason, it is too soon to tell whether the marketing campaign was effective in not only causing a stir, but also dragging curious audiences to the box office.
“It definitely gets people talking. I think that it may actually help, at least in the first weekend to get people to go see it,” Towns said. But it can’t account for a lack of quality in the film. If the film is horrible, then all of the buzz and PR in the world isn’t going to make it a smashing success.”