How Marketing Creates Social Change: Barbie and Oppenheimer

Whether you're a corporate giant or a solo entrepreneur, remember that marketing has the power to impact the world around you.

February 20, 2024

Forget the endless string of Christmas movies, the Eras tour (Hi Swifties), and even Beyonce's country phase, there's still one big buzz from last summer: "Barbenheimer." Yep, you read that right, the unexpected pairing of Christopher Nolan's brainy "Oppenheimer" and Greta Gerwig's playful "Barbie" still has everyone talking.

But was it luck or strategy?

Barbie and Oppenheimer Phenomenon

The "Barbenheimer" phenomenon wasn't just a happy accident. It was the result of two carefully planned, yet completely different, marketing strategies. Oppenheimer went for a mysterious vibe with cryptic social media posts while Barbie went in a more fun direction. They focused on showcasing the iconic pink world and familiar characters in a live-action setting, sparking excitement in Millennials and Gen Z.  

Fans, captivated by the movie's unique debut pairing, created their own "Barbenheimer" universe and created a unique movie-going experience. They wore elaborate costumes, engaged in online discussions, and created a vibrant community around the shared experience. This begs the crucial question: What drove such strong emotional connections between consumers and these brands? 

Social Change

Social change refers to the evolving nature of human interactions, relationships, and cultural norms. While seemingly subtle, marketing plays a crucial role in fueling social change. The unexpected pairing of Barbie and Oppenheimer challenged our perception of what movies can be and who they can speak to. Today’s consumers yearn for brands that align with their values and actively contribute to positive change. 

Marketing Campaigns that Drove Social Change

Dove ‘Like A Girl’ Commercial: This 2014 campaign tackled the issue of limiting gender stereotypes in girls. By asking young girls to perform actions "like a girl," the video cleverly revealed the inherent biases attached to the phrase. The empowering message resonated with viewers of all ages, sparking a global conversation about the importance of defying negative expectations and embracing female confidence.

Ice Bucket Challenge: Viral Action for ALS Awareness — This campaign transformed social media frivolity into a global movement for ALS awareness. What began as a lighthearted dare evolved into a fundraising juggernaut, generating over $220 million and propelling vital research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Oppenheimer: Bringing People Back to the Movie Theaters

The global silver screen dimmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many wondering if the magic of shared cinematic experiences would ever return. Enter Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, a film whose marketing campaign not only defied expectations but served as a beacon, drawing moviegoers back to the theaters in a post-pandemic (or as the young kids like to call it post-panoramic) world. But in the post-C19 era of Netflix and Hulu, how did they get us out of our houses?

Oppenheimer: Marketing Steps

  1. Secrecy and Intrigue

Nolan's movies are usually shrouded in secrecy, with very few details shared before they hit theaters. This approach ramps up anticipation and interest, turning each new Nolan film into a mysterious affair. The marketing journey for Oppenheimer kicked off with the release of its mysterious trailers. With heart-pounding music, striking scenes, and Cillian Murphy's captivating performance as Robert Oppenheimer, these teasers piqued curiosity sparking debates about the puzzles and layers hidden within Nolan’s work. 

  1. Leveraging Nolan's Film Legacy

Christopher Nolan's reputation as an innovative filmmaker speaks volumes, serving as a potent marketing asset on its own. Known for his unique stories and stunning visuals, his role in Oppenheimer sparked a lot of interest and excitement. The marketing team smartly took advantage of Nolan's reputation, reminding everyone of his past hits and showing how Oppenheimer is set to be another incredible addition to his list of achievements. This not only excited Nolan's existing fans but also grabbed the attention of those who were new to his work, elevating the film's overall appeal.

  1. Focusing On Content

Instead of relying on flashy marketing gimmicks, Oppenheimer captivated audiences with intricate storylines, thought-provoking ideas, and breathtaking visuals. The emphasis was placed on the inherent quality of the narrative, characters, and cinematography, counting on positive word-of-mouth and critical praise to spark interest. 

Impact of Oppenheimer’s Marketing on Moviegoers

A Box Office Triumph: Despite a non-franchise, historical theme, Oppenheimer became a box office success, grossing over $400 million globally. This defied industry trends suggesting a decline in theater attendance, particularly post-pandemic.

Rekindling the Theater Experience: The campaign successfully lured audiences back to the theaters, offering an alternative to the home-viewing experience. The immersive aspects, coupled with the exclusivity of special events, provided a sense of community and shared spectacle that streaming couldn't replicate.

Barbie: Timeless Charm

The marketing plan for the Barbie movie relied heavily on the well-known brand recognition and worldwide popularity of the Barbie doll franchise. The marketing team cleverly took advantage of this established brand loyalty, aiming to attract both the older audience who fondly remember Barbie from their childhood and a fresh wave of young viewers.

Think Pink: Barbie’s Marketing Steps

  1. Embracing Social Media 

The marketing and social media teams working on Barbie used platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter to create a buzz about the movie. They took advantage of how easy it was for people to share stuff online by making interactive campaigns, AI filters, quizzes, teaser trailers, and joining in on the Barbenheimer craze. This got people talking about the movie without the need for paid ads. Users even started challenges like the Foot Challenge, where Barbie fans tried to copy the famous pose of the Barbie doll. This made even more people interested in the movie and brought a sense of community & excitement.

  1. Immersive Experiences

Taking advantage of the growing experiential marketing trend, Barbie's team worked with HGTV to make a real-life Barbie Dreamhouse where fans could stay for a short while. This amazing idea let visitors feel like they were living in Barbie's world, getting a taste of her fancy lifestyle and making a big splash on social media. The partnership got a lot of attention in the news and made it even clearer that Barbie is a cultural icon.

  1. Fashion Forward Press Tours 

Remember those iconic Barbie outfits that spanned generations? Margot Robbie, the lead actress, partnered with renowned designers to recreate them for press tours. This clever move was a nostalgic treat for older fans, while simultaneously introducing the new generation to Barbie's fashion legacy.

  1. Pink Power Shortage 

Talk about the power of pink! The movie's production used so much paint to create its vibrant sets that leading paint companies reportedly experienced a temporary national shortage of pink paint. This unexpected news became an organic publicity magnet, further amplifying the movie's impact.

Impact of Barbie’s Marketing on Moviegoers

Empowerment Through Inclusivity: Instead of just showing one type of Barbie, the ads had lots of different dolls. This made a big impact, especially on kids, showing that everyone is accepted and that being different is beautiful. The movie and its ads encouraged people to be proud of who they are and to make their own stories, just like Barbie always has.

Challenging the Status Quo: "Are you team Barbie or team Oppenheimer?" By playfully contrasting itself with a completely different film, Barbie challenged the notion of categorization and encouraged audiences to embrace diversity of interests and narratives. This conversation starter not only generated buzz but also highlighted the film's ability to appeal to a broad audience with varied preferences.

Comparing Oppenheimer and Barbie’s Marketing Success

Despite their apparent differences, Oppenheimer and Barbie both succeeded in engaging audiences through innovative marketing. Barbie's playful yet strategic campaigns expanded her appeal across demographics, leading to box office success, while Oppenheimer's mysterious approach captured significant media attention. According to Signal AI, both films peaked in coverage post-release, with Oppenheimer's interest declining by 87%  more than Barbie's 68% by year-end.

Examining media headlines reveals a contrast in coverage. Barbie faced polarized opinions, sparking debates on broader issues rather than focusing on artistic merits. In contrast, Oppenheimer's coverage mainly highlighted its cinematic excellence. 

Barbie spent $150M on marketing and garnered a whopping $162M on opening weekend over an impressive $82.4M from Oppenheimer the Academy did not think it deserved an award over Oppenheimer. In the end, did marketing win? If so, what defines success? 

We’d like to hear your thoughts. Let's talk!

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