How ‘Barbie’ Meme Marketed Its Way to Compete With ‘Oppenheimer’
When counterprogramming is done right with memes and friendly online bantering
Disclaimer: As of the making of this article, I have never worked with Warner Bros nor had any associations with them. This is only my speculation during the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon.
It’s not common when companies turned their ads into self-deprecating jokes to make their ads more fun to watch.
Barbie’s marketing tactic isn’t any different, except that they managed to meme their way into a successful marketing tactic. It was so successful that they managed to bring up the hype to compete with a movie where selling the director and A-list actors’ names was more than enough.
As I’m writing this, AMC said that Barbie and Oppenheimer managed to attract more than 20,000 people to watch them back-to-back.
So, what in the world happened here? How did Barbie manage to compete with the highly anticipated movie Oppenheimer?
A Study in Pink
In December 2022, Barbie released its first teaser trailer, and if you see their views, it didn’t have the best optimistic data.
As seen above, there were only 12 million views. For a blockbuster movie that is set to release in the summer, that is concerning.
Even the internet wasn’t entirely thrilled when they found out Ryan Gosling will be playing Ken, many people expressed their dislike for the casting, saying that the actor looks too ‘old’ for the role.
Personally, and talking with the people I know, no one was thrilled about the idea of watching the Barbie movie. It looked more like a joke than an actual movie worth paying $20.
Perhaps it’d be for children to watch, but to recapture older generations who grew up with the franchise would be a lot more challenging. I thought that they were 10 years too late to produce it.
Everyone thought that it’d be a box-office bomb, especially after people saw the first trailer of Oppenheimer, which had a lot more optimistic reactions from the audience.
Overall, Barbie was at first, thought to be doomed from the start.
Until the marketing team seemed to be cheeky on their challenging task.
The Accidental Spark of ‘Barbenheimer’
Before you understand what Barbenheimer is, let’s back up a little bit.
On 25th May 2023, the main trailer of Barbie was released.
The trailer looked fine at first, looking like it was following the direction of Toy Story.
The movie had Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish in the movie, one would think that they would just have them sing for their trailer too. But no, they used an old song that was trending to sing the last half of their trailer.
This didn’t seem to spark anything yet until 30 June 2023, when there was a massive fire breakout in the Warner Bros Studios in Los Angeles.
Firefighters there managed to put it out and nothing major happened, allowing the studio to continue their work. The disaster was ruled as an accident, and thankfully, no one was hurt.
But of course, the internet says otherwise:
This post had more than 1.2 million likes (and still counting), going viral really fast. Ironically, the Barbie poster was plastered on the studio during the fire outbreak, making the joke a lot more sensible.
A few days later, Tom Cruise posted a picture where he bought his tickets to watch all the summer blockbuster movies with Christopher McQuarrie (director of Mission Impossible): Indiana Jones, Oppenheimer, and Barbie. It was probably a PR stunt for his films too, but it was also a brilliant move that got Tom free marketing where publications in Hollywood began picking up his post.
As seen above, the picture gained 9.9 million views and still counting. It gained a lot of attention knowing Tom Cruise is going to watch all the blockbuster movies, including Barbie.
Tom Cruise, the man who is known to do the most dangerous stunts in the whole world, is willing to watch Barbie. People can still picture him watching Oppenheimer, but Barbie?
Immediately, the responses were also off the charts, getting positive replies from his competitors: Disney (Indiana Jones official account) Universal Studios and Warner Bros(Barbie team) themselves.
Days later, Margot Robbie and Greta Gergwig (director of Barbie) also responded back that they too have bought their tickets to watch all its rivals’ films, using the same pose as Tom and Chris did.
As seen above, it too gained a lot of attraction, earning 19.1 million views and still counting. Whether they did it for a PR stunt, this was actually a good strategy for the Barbie team.
As a result, these pictures went viral pretty quickly, and online media also picked them up, giving all studios a boost of free marketing for each film. The responses from the audience were also positive, seeing competitors supporting one another no matter the genre.
Actors of Oppenheimer also expressed how they are also going to watch Barbie after those posts were released, giving them even more boosts on the film.
This simple marketing strategy was enough to gain the attention of various audiences of different demographics.
The Counterprogramming of ‘Barbenheimer’
This friendly banter between movies is a marketing strategy called Counterprogramming.
Counterprogramming is a strategic programming approach in the entertainment industry, mainly used in TV and film, where content is scheduled to compete with or attract a different audience demographic than a more popular event or release.
An example would be Deadpool 2 and Avengers Infinity War in 2018, where people expected Deadpool 2 would be drowned by the highly anticipated movie Avengers Infinity War.
But Deadpool managed to stay on par with Avengers by embracing a more irreverent, self-aware, and R-rated approach. Unlike Avengers, it is a lot sillier than Avengers and showed it in their promotional videos, even giving a lot of references about Avengers itself (Josh Brolin, Thanos, was also in Deadpool 2).
This strategy is to capture viewers who may not be interested in or prefer not to watch the dominant or widely anticipated programming.
Or in this case, Barbie and Oppenheimer.
With both movies going to be released on the same day, and now that Barbie had finally picked up its hype momentum due to these events shown above, the trend of Barbenheimer began emerging.
Barbenheimer, as the name said for itself, is the combined name of Barbie and Oppenheimer. It was a friendly competition between movies as they are released on the same day, 21 July 2023.
As people online began realizing how completely opposite both tones are, one being a complete comedy and the other being completely horrifically depressing, they began creating memes about ironic posts of the two films.
Here is an example (and my favourite) :
Merchandizes are also going wild on the promotion of these movies. Printed shirts of the same name were also sold out in Texas, earning the people who sold them about USD$14,400.
Tiktok and Instagram reels about their watching them simultaneously also surfaced a lot in people’s feeds, giving even more free marketing to both studios.
This strategy worked so well that even theatres like AMC found a huge increase in their sales for these two movies, and movie-goers are going to watch them for five hours straight.
Even the movie theatres in Jakarta got their seats full because of these movies (I was also too late to get my ticket on the first day). Note that these are just advance ticket sales:
As shown from the result of counterprogramming, Warner Bros made the right decision to release its movie the same day as Oppenheimer.
As you can see, counterprogramming neither squashed one another nor see any winning or losing side in the box office battle.
Both competing studios, instead, worked together and referred their audience to the other. Lending a helping hand to both films and in turn, attracted the world to watch them.
The rise of ‘Barbenheimer’ showed the incredible impact of internet culture and the ability of memes to transcend boundaries.
Memes, if executed right, have the power to bring together different demographics and welcome new guests to know your product. As internet culture continues to evolve, it is important to be aware of the influence and potential of memes as a form of expression and social commentary.
And also, with how Hollywood’s fate is also dwindling at the moment of strikes, it’s a better idea that all studios do a helping hand to get their industries back on track again.
Thus, this fun counterprogramming was a brilliant idea for both studios.