The “Inception” Ad Deception

Inception: The Dream Is Real. So is the marketing.

Inception” is a powerful, original film filled with deceptions. Both the special-effects kind and the plot-driven mental kind. There are also larger themes running through it. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t worry. No plot points will be revealed.

This is Not Another Review

Critics were sworn to silence before it opened. If you still care what critics are saying after a “dreamy” $62.8 million opening weekend and a cumulative $143 million for the first 10 days, a collection of choice review excerpts can be found at the WSJ Speakeasy blog.

As a fan of both film and advertising (see 101 Ad-Movies in 99 Years), I want to highlight some of the ads and how well they tied in with the story themes. The multichannel marketing campaign consisted of traditional TV spots along with Facebook fan pages with social games, mobile apps, and an online comic book to create fanboy engagement and spur strong word of mouth. Personally, I went to see it on the strength of the trailer and recommendations from friends. I even went back a second time (which is rare for me).

Outdoor Ad Illusions

If you’ve at least seen the trailer or the striking-looking posters, you know the film deals with dreams. “Your mind is the scene of the crime” and “The dream is real” are two teaser headlines from the marketing campaign. The latter line was put to larger-than-life use on two buildings in New York, transforming them into spectacular outdoor ads for the film. Optical illusions that were deceptive in the best sense.

"Inception" ad deception at its finest.

“Inception” Ad Deception?

Movie special-effects deceptions are great. Advertising deceptions, not so great. Too often advertising leads us to expect one thing, then delivers something else (usually less). This happened to me right after seeing the film. After exiting the theater, I noticed a mall kiosk poster. The line was fun: “Keep Your Eyes Open and Your Mind Closed.”

Inception mall poster perpetrates mind crime.

This would be the mobile app game. Beneath the line was the promise of more information about the film:

Inception mall poster wants you to wakeup and smell the mind crime.

The Truth About Mind Crime

Okay, I’ll bite. Mind you, I’m not one to go texting at every ad invitation. I also don’t text votes to any TV shows about singing or dancing or anything else. (Admittedly, I’m not really the target.) But since I just came out of the movie, why not?

The screen capture below shows the reply:

This is the answer to "the truth about mind crime"?

Uh-oh. Dream over.

I think I saw the Verizon logo on the poster before I texted. Now I’m confused.

It appears the truth about mind crime involves… Mountain Dew?? Maybe because… it helps you WAKEUP? It’s a stretch. What about the dream part? Do I really want to play?

It says I need to reply YES to confirm and charges will be billed to my account. I’ve gotta confirm and commit and be taxed and… then what? Sorry, but I don’t really care anymore. My mind just closed. Yes, this was only one minor element of the campaign, but it was sort of a letdown.

The real mind crime here was the theft of my time and attention for something that required too many hurdles to deliver what it promised.

Suddenly I was reminded of the scene in the movie “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie figures out the secret message of the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and learns it’s just a plug for Ovaltine: “It’s a crummy commercial!”

Apparently it’s much easier to just download the mind crime game onto your computer if you’re a Verizon customer. (I’m not. Oh well.)

[SPOILER ALERT: No surprises will be spoiled, but stop reading now if you want to remain completely ignorant of any details. Or just go see the movie then continue reading.]

Navigating the Labyrinth with Ariadne

Time to switch gears and talk about characters and themes. Leonardo DiCaprio was completely convincing as usual, but he already gets plenty of attention. This is about Ellen Page, who has overcome any possible “Juno” typecasting with this role. But the main reason I want to mention Page is writer/director Christopher Nolan’s intriguing choice for her character’s name.

Page plays Ariadne, the architect of the dream’s labyrinth. If you’re a fan of Greek Mythology (see my post on the Medusa Salon), you know why this is a brilliant name choice.

Ariadne is a character in the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. The daughter of King Minos of Crete, she falls in love at first sight with Theseus, then helps her hero slay the monster by giving him a sword and a ball of red fleece thread that she was spinning. The thread leaves a trail that allows Theseus to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Pretty neat tie-in to the “Inception” story, eh?

What’s the Big Idea?

Besides the question of “What is real?” one of the film’s central themes concerns the genesis, or inception, of an idea. Internet marketing geeks will be reminded of Seth Godin’s book “Unleashing The Idea Virus.” (Download “Idea Virus” free. Seth likes to spread ideas.)

As Seth and the film can attest, ideas are contagious. Once an idea takes root, it spreads. A powerful idea can come to define a person. Change a person’s life. Even take on a life of its own.

Marketers need to be careful of the ideas they implant, even when the product is a blockbuster film. Don’t annoy or alienate your audience by disappointing them with promises you can’t keep. Because once the idea is out there, you can’t take it back.

The Inception Tourist: My mind was the scene of the crime. Where's my gun?

If you’ve seen “Inception,” did the movie deliver up to expectations? Did you get into any of the social games? My threshold of difficulty is probably way too low for these things. Have you tried texting WAKEUP to 5500? … Are you still dreaming?

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4 responses to “The “Inception” Ad Deception

  1. Good review of the letdowns that sometimes accompany major promotions. Sorry you were exploited this time, especially because Chris Nolan probably would prefer not to have his name associated with deception of the commercial kind. As a fellow movie maniac, I feel your pain… (PS: Can anyone use that line any longer without thinking of Slick Willie?)

  2. From Kurt via Facebook:

    It would be difficult to find anyone who says they like being manipulated, but every week we (the entire planet) are manipulated by clever movie ads. Since so many movie ads are fun and witty, it’s easy to fall for them. It’s all brainwashing, plain and simple. Only the techniques have changed to protect the accountants. The ads for “Inception” just annoy me, as do so many other manipulative movie ads. Maybe one day movie execs will run out of ideas and we can all make our own movies.

  3. Hey Mitch,

    Nice work on the Inception movie review. You “literally” nailed it…jk

    I too was blown away and haven’t felt that paralyzed after a film’s credits start rolling in a very long time.

    The only drawback to this cinematic experience for me was almost having my own Inception while lounging in a leather recliner at a 21/over theater!

  4. thank you for sharing this blog post

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