Cocaine Bear: A Marketing Marvel as Memes Make $53 Million

07 March 2023
by Annie-Mai Hodge
5 mins
Cocaine Bear: A Marketing Marvel as Memes Make $53 Million

Even if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting the cinema for the most talked about horror film of the year, you might have spotted a unique marketing strategy trending on social media platforms.

Cocaine Bear, a 95-minute movie from Universal Pictures, is the latest branded asset to embrace unhinged content and a less traditional approach to promotion online.

And it’s working, as the incessant online chatter and $30m weekend opening can attest.

Cocaine Bear is probably the perfect vehicle for a crazy, chaotic marketing campaign.

The plot is defined as: “An oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists, and teens converge on a Georgia forest where a huge black bear goes on a murderous rampage after unintentionally ingesting cocaine.”

The Real Cocaine Bear 

The premise is high concept – what simple movie pitch sounds more exciting than a coked-out bear in the wilderness? But it is actually based on a historical event. The real cocaine bear, also affectionately known as Pablo Eskobear, was a 175kg creature that roamed the mountains of Tennessee in the 1980s.

Its existence and untimely death only came to light after a newspaper reported that a black bear had died after overdosing on a lot of cocaine dropped by drug smugglers. It was later confirmed that Andrew C. Thornton and an accomplice who piloted a plane from Colombia to the US threw out 40 plastic containers mid-air due to the immense weight on board.

Memes Turning into Money 

That was over 35 years ago. Fast forward to 2021 and Universal Pictures announced that a horror comedy based on the true story was in development, with actress Elizabeth Banks slated to direct. The film, which stars Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Alden Ehrenreich and Ray Liotta in his final screen appearance, released in late February to mostly positive reviews.

But it’s Cocaine Bear’s marketing that has caught the eye, with the Observer stating that its viral social media campaign “is better than the movie”. That might be harsh, considering it has a not-too-shabby 69% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is a compliment to the excellent work the team behind the film has done to boost awareness online.

Cocaine Bear has piggybacked on the recent trend of using unhinged content to engage audiences. Unhinged content is an approach to marketing in which memes and humour take precedence over more traditional, curated forms of content.

This trend has been driven by Gen Z, the demographic that has eschewed glossy and perfect-looking social updates in favour of authentic, real, warts-and-all posts that are interesting and a bit out there. Memes are a big part of unhinged content and Cocaine Bear has embraced this aspect of online culture wholesale.

TikTok has been a primary outlet for these memorable memes. At the time of writing, 26 videos have been posted on the movie’s official TikTok account. In just a few weeks it has racked up 1.7m video views and 36m+ hashtag views, and has almost 200k followers. The most popular clip with a “this is my story” tagline and a voiceover for the bear has been seen 3.6m times and received 650k likes. 

However, Universal has been wary of posting too frequently on social media in fear of “wearing out” its welcome and dulling the impact of its iconic antagonist. Universal’s digital marketing VP Alex Sanger admits: “Believe it or not, we were deliberate about taking a less-is-more approach on this campaign.”

It’s fortunate then that movie-going audiences and online film fans have taken up the mantle by posting their own memes on Twitter. Again, the movie has its own account on Elon Musk’s platform, but it’s mostly user-generated-content that has gone viral during the last two weeks.

There has been a lot of chatter about the juxtaposition between the upbeat, kind and affable bear in Paddington and the wild, bloodthirsty killer in Cocaine Bear that could become a slasher icon in the years to come.

Comedian Scott Seiss, who plays a character in the film called Tom, has also chipped in with a series of images and videos that have amplified Cocaine Bear’s core marketing message of simply being an entertaining, standalone movie that everyone can have a fun time seeing.

In his most popular recent clip, viewed 4m times, Seiss pokes fun at the knowledge and information required to follow the latest Marvel movies. There are no exhaustive back stories, plot lines or character development in Cocaine Bear, just a group of unfortunate protagonists trying to stay out of the clutches of the titular villain.

Another Twitter post suggests sarcastically that Cocaine Bear is a real example of “elevated horror” – a term used in recent years to describe art-house films that prioritise strong craftsmanship and lofty themes and metaphors over schlocky jump scares and plot twists. The meme features Mad Men character Don Draper.

And maybe Cocaine Bear does have an unforgettable character, as one viewer on Twitter posted an image of his emotional reaction to an animal advancing from once humble origins to become a coke-fuelled, bona fide movie star.

— ethan (@ethan_2K2) February 7, 2023

Elon Musk even got in on the act, albeit when the final trailer was released in December. It’s not known whether he has seen the movie but he did state that he had “always wondered about that bear”.

Everyone is talking about Cocaine Bear and it could translate into a box office smash hit (the movie has already grossed $30m to break even on its budget). Either way, the social media marketing campaign has been incredibly effective at increasing its appeal and spreading online via word of mouth.

It’s also an excellent case study for the power of buzzy, creative content and a targeted digital marketing strategy. If you also want to increase your visibility across online platforms, Atlas SEO can help. We offer a complete social media management package that includes an initial audit to inform your strategy, and a content creation service. Contact us today to discover exactly how we can lift your influence.

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