Justin Timberlake, The Weeknd And The Age Of ‘Mystery Marketing’

Tricks aren’t just for kids. To build buzz for projects, artists and labels are turning the music biz into a game of Clue

In one of the most successful promotions ever, the studio behind the 2008 monster flick Cloverfield launched a series of fictional products. One of them included Slusho!, a beverage complete with T-shirts and a tagline (“You can’t drink just six!”) that hatched a cult-like following. Only later did fans uncover clues that revealed the drink was no realer than a Kardashian plotline, but the stunt confirmed a long-held belief: Everyone loves a good mystery. This Hollywood blueprint is increasingly spilling into music, with artists and labels using covert tactics to amp up anticipation for a project.

At a time when hype is as fleeting as a tweet, virtual mind games peak intrigue. With the suspense fitting of a Stephen King thriller, Justin Timberlake prefaced his post-hiatus
single “Suit & Tie” with a countdown clock on his site, over a blurred background that, once deciphered, spelled out his song and album title. Likewise, Ke$ha unveiled her Warrior album name as a puzzle of letters on Instagram, while Lady Gaga teased hers byposting a flick of a temporary tat. The Weeknd tantalized fans with a screenshot of a desktop folder labeled, “2013 untitled album.”

It makes sense that the recuperating music biz would swipe a formula that’s proven fruitful for films like Cloverfield and 2012’s Prometheus, whose creator “leaked” a video of a fake character prerelease. Such stealth moves build fan engagement beyond bland release-date plugs.

Still, it’s not as simple as just dropping a puzzle—artists need a core fan base intent on cracking these Da Vinci codes. Even as social media has morphed from barely audible bullhorns into every celeb’s default promo tool, entertainers and execs are still learning how to translate those disciples into dollars. When baring all is the norm, it helps to leave a little something to the imagination.

Photo Credit: Idolator