With recent set photos hyping Hugh Jackman’s return to the role of Wolverine in the upcoming Deadpool 3, you would be forgiven for thinking the X-Men spinoff franchise was always destined to be a sure-fire hit. But if it was not for an innovative, unique and illusion-shattering PR and marketing campaign, we may never have seen Ryan Reynolds suit up again as the foul-mouthed anti-hero that took the world by storm.
Directed by Tim Miller, Deadpool (2016) shattered box office records for an R-rated (15 or 18 certificates in the UK) superhero film, but also revolutionized the way movies are marketed, showing how challenges and obstacles can be communicated to audiences in a way that builds support. Below, we explore the strategic public relations and advertising tactics employed by the team behind the Merc with a Mouth, revealing how this continues to generate buzz and appeal to both existing fans and franchise newcomers today.
A badly received campaign does not prevent future success
A common trait among those resistant to marketing investment is that they once tried something before that either had poor ROI or created a negative reaction. It’s worth mentioning that Deadpool appeared on screen 7 years before his solo outing, in the poorly received “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009). That iteration of the character was heavily criticized, making studios reluctant to spend on a standalone film. Additionally, the idea of an adult superhero film was deemed risky, since most modern superhero movies targeted a broader, family-friendly audience (despite the success of the few who had tried before, such as Blade in 1998).
Persistent marketing and PR efforts pushing for the movie’s development, despite numerous obstacles and rejection, kept the project alive in the public consciousness, consistently reminding fans and industry insiders of the character’s potential. Reynolds made frequent appearances at conventions, interviews and other media events, passionately advocating for a Deadpool film that stayed true to the source material. His unwavering commitment and infectious enthusiasm, plus an open and honest critique of what he had been a part of before, won over fans for his authenticity and garnered media attention. An adept use of social media platforms, particularly Twitter, became a game-changer, with the actor effectively using his accounts to engage with fans, share behind-the-scenes struggles and champion the brand in a way that most would not commit to through fear of failure or ridicule.
Even with Hollywood star power and influencer engagement, it took a risky communications stunt to take things to the next level and make the big splash for attention that was needed to convince studios that an audience existed. Sometimes, public relations campaigns need to be brave and show conviction behind their claims, and Deadpool is the prime example of what this can lead to.
Reynolds was allegedly responsible for leaked test footage of a pitched action sequence depicting Deadpool in all his sarcastic and violent glory, making its way onto the internet. By not admitting who leaked the footage, mystery, intrigue and speculation were added to the mythos of the story, which also helped generate wider media buzz. The footage was very well-received by fans, prompting an overwhelmingly positive response and calls for more.
This “leak” was a PR masterstroke, turning the character from a punchline into an underdog and instantly creating a community of brand ambassadors who would go on to campaign on behalf of the franchise. Evoking a narrative in audiences that they had a role in helping to bring the character to the screen made audiences invest from the start, showing support and engaging at high levels to prove this was something they wanted. It generated immense excitement and created interest for a full movie that couldn’t be ignored.
Embracing the unconventional
After the film was successfully green-lit, the Deadpool marketing campaign ensured it stood out from the typical superhero crowd. Instead of relying on traditional and expected methods, the team took a bold and unconventional approach – embracing the character’s irreverent and meta-humour to engage with audiences and encourage viral marketing that was fresh but also true to the tone of voice of the character. This was partially driven by the budget, which was lower than most superhero films due to its indie origin but serves as an example of why even limited investment can make a big impact in marketing and PR campaigns.
The team kept messages consistent across movie posters, adverts and trailers – all from the perspective of the lead character (presented as a narration/internal monologue). Deadpool consistently broke ‘the fourth wall’ and poked fun at itself as well as other typical superhero tropes, which encouraged direct engagement from the ‘disruptor’ audiences who had shown initial interest. Like all good PR campaigns, Deadpool had a voice, something unique to say and took risks communicating topics others were too afraid to touch on – unafraid of upsetting the expected status quo.
Standard superhero blockbuster campaigns tend to focus on the movie star, the special effects and increasingly, since the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), reliance on the film’s place within a wider narrative of sequels and spin-offs. Just like a lazy templated press release, this ticks a requirement box, but it can be guilty of doing the individual subject matter a disservice that will not make a significant impact.
The initial teaser trailer, released in 2015, played up the irreverence by featuring Ryan Reynolds in full Deadpool costume inviting audiences to watch his full-length trailer the next day – in a short monologue full of parody, swearing and sexual innuendo. In less than 1 minute, the tone is defined and separates the new campaign from anything that had been done before. Elements that may have disappointed audiences previously were instantly dispelled, reassuring them that lessons have been learned and tempting them to give the brand’s new offering a second chance. Hype for the full trailer was also generated through the shocking language and connotations, encouraging people to share with their friends (“have you seen this, I can believe they got away with this” etc.) and show how far the brand was willing to go.
Going Viral and the Power of Social Media Marketing
Deadpool’s communication team fully utilized the potential of social media to reach and engage with its target audience throughout pre-release promotions. They crafted hilarious and shareable content that resonated with both existing comic book fans and broader internet users – tapping into trending topics and internet culture to help create a massive online following long before the movie’s release (as recently seen by another character driven film, the Barbie movie). Researching and understanding their audience’s desires well, the marketing team employed targeted advertising for unique user personas, focusing on platforms and events where they could reach the maximum number of potential fans. They collaborated with popular YouTube channels, online influencers, and even sports events to expand their reach and generate organic excitement.
For example, the 12 Days of Deadpool campaign, leading up to Christmas 2015, was a perfect example of their social media and digital marketing prowess. Over twelve days, they released new posters, images, and videos showcasing the film’s humour and action while encouraging fans to share content each day across various platforms. The success on social and digital platforms was then translated to other marketing platforms, including setting up a stunt profile on Tinder and using emojis to spell out the name of film on billboards (in the most vulgar way possible, obviously).
Finding and harnessing the perfect brand ambassador
Ryan Reynolds, who portrayed Deadpool and is a fan of the character himself, played a pivotal role in the marketing efforts throughout the campaign. His infectious enthusiasm and dedication to the role helped to bridge the gap between the character and the audience. He actively participated in promotional events, even taking over the official Deadpool Twitter account to interact with fans directly. Putting a face to the name of a brand and showing insight into their genuine passion is a great way to build trust in audiences of all kinds. Nobody likes to be sold to, but most people respect and appreciate those that have conviction in what they do.
In the lead-up to the movie’s release, Reynolds frequently shared behind-the-scenes glimpses, character insights, and humorous clips on his personal social media accounts. His unwavering enthusiasm for the character endeared him to fans and created a strong sense of authenticity around the project. He has also never been shy or unwilling to draft in celebrity friends and influencers to open doors to new audiences.
The “Deadpool Vs.” campaign saw the character mock-fighting against other popular figures, like footballer (soccer if you are an MLS fan) David Beckham, on social media. This video campaign resonated with sports fans and reached a whole new audience, some of whom may have felt the film, as a superhero movie, was going to be for children and not for them. The role of influencers has evolved significantly since, but celebrity endorsement and involvement techniques are still something prevalent that most big-brand advertising and marketing campaigns utilise today.
Replicating success whilst maintaining innovation
Deadpool 2 (2018) continued the trend of investing in ingenious marketing, communications and advertising campaigns, building on the achievements of its predecessor while captivating existing fans and newcomers alike. After the unprecedented success of the first film, the marketing team had a solid foundation to build upon, for example, the first teaser trailer, released in 2017, echoed the fourth wall breaking that was central to the character’s appeal, tapping into fresh pop culture references and paying homage to the influence of Reynolds himself – featuring Celine Dion in a music video as an ambassador of the actor’s homeland, Canada.
This was followed by Bob Ross-inspired teaser trailers, playfully portraying Deadpool as the beloved TV painter and blending artistic references with action-packed visuals. This trailer went viral, amassing millions of views within days of its release and spoke directly to an older audience who would know who Bob Ross is – reaffirming the target age demographic of the next campaign.
Reynolds continued PR stunt activities too, such as dressing up as Deadpool to perform on the Korean show “King of Mask Singer”, which became a viral sensation for its unexpectedness and boosted the film’s visibility worldwide. The marketing team behind Deadpool 2 skilfully teased the inclusion of new characters like Cable (Josh Brolin) and Domino (Zazie Beetz). The “Meet Cable” campaign focused on showcasing the powerful and enigmatic time-travelling mutant through short videos and images on social media that highlighted the character’s abilities and brought him to the attention of those unfamiliar with the comics.
Overcoming the risk of diminishing returns
It is to be expected when marketing any product or brand long-term, there can be a conflict between giving audiences what they have come to expect and what has worked before vs keeping things fresh to maintain interest, engagement and growth. Ahead of the release of Deadpool 3 (2024), the marketing team has been implementing another multifaceted approach to generate excitement, teasing fresh potential crossovers with other popular characters and sparking speculation among fans.
Ryan Reynolds’ ongoing campaign to involve Hugh Jackman as Logan has been a slow-burn masterstroke, which began as a repeated gag in the first film (going as far as stapling a picture of Jackman’s face on his own face). The playful banter and mock feuds between the two actors on social media have lasted ever since, making the new movie feel like the culmination of almost a decade of build-up. This is the prime example of drip-feeding messaging consistently to ensure future success when timing aligns, a key component of most long-term PR campaigns.
A big talking point for many years has been fans wanting to see Wolverine wear his classic yellow and blue suit in a film, something never done before in the X-Men series of movies. Recent set photos released by the Deadpool 3 team have shown this will be the case in the upcoming sequel. Releasing these behind-the-scenes images has built instant excitement among audiences and ensured the PR team remain in control of the narrative – getting in before similar shots might be leaked by members of the public or media and seen as ruining the surprise. The perception now is that there must be more great things to come if they have allowed this to be revealed.
Bringing all the chimichangas together
Ryan Reynolds’ tireless efforts, clever use of publicity stunts and social media savvy marketing were all instrumental in getting the original Deadpool movie made. A dedication to strategic communications and PR activity created a groundswell of support that demonstrated a hungry and enthusiastic audience for a faithful adaptation. By leveraging the power of digital marketing and connecting with fans, Reynolds effectively changed the narrative around Wade Wilson, proving that a non-traditional superhero film could be both financially successful and critically acclaimed. The film’s eventual success at the box office vindicated his efforts and solidified Deadpool as one of the most beloved characters in the superhero genre.
By keeping true to a unique tone of communications but continuing to innovate with fresh ideas and partnerships in the ongoing marketing strategy, each sequel that is produced looks to succeed even further. Reynolds’ popularity and success in other projects, such as the FX series “Welcome to Wrexham”(on Disney+ in the UK), is also likely to positively impact the success of future instalments, as cross-promotion is highly likely and will expose both projects to a broader audience.
Embracing unconventional strategies, leveraging social trends and championing the passion of those behind the scenes has seen the Deadpool franchise set a new benchmark for film marketing, proving that calculated PR risks and being true to the essence of a character or brand can lead to blockbuster triumphs – regardless of budget and whether that’s on the silver-screen or otherwise.