Why the Fifty Shades Franchise’s Marketing Campaigns Outdid the Movies

In the morning of January 25, 2014, a mysterious poster starts flooding every corner of the Internet and social media. On it, a man wearing a dark suit and exhibiting a body shape distinguishable just enough so that we can tell he’s really, really good looking confidently stares out an immense window overseeing Seattle. It’s clean, colorless, yet intriguing and attractive. Above him, a catchline that’s about to arouse millions of women around the globe: “Mr. Grey will see you now.”

With one simple teasing ad shamelessly sparking off everyone’s kinky imagination, the 50 Shades franchise’s marketing team from Universal Pictures proved they knew the desires from author E. L. James’s audience – and how to expand it – perfectly.

Owning the rights to the first film adaptation of the 2011 erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey, starting point of a trilogy series translated in 52 languages, sold over 125 million times worldwide, the production company was very aware that it was sitting on a big pile of gold, and therefore determined to play with the title’s mysterious and ultra-sexy vibes in order to capture the curious and seduce the skeptics…

Universal Pictures

Before the movie project even came to fruition, it’s fair to say that it already had a lot going for it. Despite the decision to hire non-famous actors for the silver screen adaptation, the novel’s reputation preceded, which built up a strong interest from those who couldn’t escape the curious rumors of steamy sex scenes. In a nutshell, Universal had basically found the golden ticket and was getting ready to make the most of it.

But the greatest asset coming from the movies that followed isn’t (as you may know by now if you had to sit through the first an second chapters) their quality. If we were to be honest, remove all physical intercourses and you get a predictable, melodramatic reverie at best.

What actually helped the franchise’s popularity and infatuation from millions of fans despite its extremely thin and weak storyline is the marketing campaigns that forewent each new production. Surprise: Love, mystery, and subtle, classy allusions to sex sell!

Universal Pitcures

And subtlety is largely why promoting every 50 Shades film worked so well for Universal. Borrowing tactics pioneered by Lionsgate, the company teased the movies with simple but impactful memorable quotes and carefully selected details from the books. A less-is-more approach that let the female audience use their imagination. The glamorous “foreplay” strategy turned out to be the best.

But it is to be noted that, although it seemed an easy idea, it took marketers 3 years to come up with an plan after having conducted research to identify the target audience and what attracted them to the books in the first place. Surprising or not, it was not just sex.

“The blatant sex isn’t what the film is all about,” said a marketing executive to Variety pointing out the very analytical research that went into building the right campaigns. “It’s about the allure of Christian Grey and his world.”

Universal Pictures

Adding up to the fancy, highly fantasized lifestyle of its hot and troubled hero, the movies benefited from a nice little push thanks to a first-rate soundtrack including songs written and performed by top artists like Beyoncé, The Rolling Stones, The Weekend and Ellie Goulding.

In the end, what began as an established sadomasochist tale became a sophisticated, romantic project successfully attracting some of the most prestigious brands of the world, eagerly willing to cash in on the provocative saga.

“Universal had to walk a tightrope by being edgy and erotic without being sleazy and inaccessible,” says Paul Dergarabedian, Senior Media Analyst at the measurement firm Rentrak. “This is a movie that by its very nature had to be toned downed to be acceptable to the general audience.”

While watching even just the first movie, one can be surprised at the lack of depth in the storytelling, which can naturally lead to wonder why such a production managed to top the box office and become the fastest-selling R-rated picture in 15 years. (Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker gathered $571 million and $378.8 million respectively, and the third and last installment, Fifty Shades Freed, is predicted to bring around $320 million.) But that would be missing the point, which, essentially, resides in the answer to the following question: “What do women want?” 

Fans at the premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey in London. EPA/Andy Rain

In what can be seen as considerably more imaginative than the films themselves, marketers quickly realized that the audience wanted to be a part of the story. The franchise’s Pinterest account’s following is 71% female, its Facebook page counts more than 13 million followers (mostly female, too), and 86% of all tweets from the first movie’s Twitter profile were from – you’ve guessed it – women, demonstrating a strong desire for interaction. So in order to please (and in the meantime make a lot of money, obviously), Universal created extensive digital experiences for fans, like an online tour of Grey’s apartment, or going as far as hiring a marketing firm to draft personalized emails to be sent to 600,000 people in more than 30 countries, recording 2,800 names so that recipients could click on a link and hear their own followed by “Mr. Grey will see you now…”

Ultimately, that’s probably where the promotional strategy surrounding 50 Shades outdid the actual movies and, dare we say it, even the books. Maybe in the end, the main reason behind the franchise’s success goes beyond its content, but fundamentally resides in its ability to spice up women’s naughty imagination and consequently, sexual lives.

With Valentine’s Day always in sight, giving rise to all sorts of products linked to the franchise conquering the market, like wine, adult toys, condoms, teddy bears and even hotel packages, the erotic saga’s influence and appeal has perhaps always been intrinsically about the ever-present sexual tension that surrounds it.