How to Market a Zombie Apocalypse



  • By using humor and clever packaging, the CDC vastly extended the exposure of its message
  • Marketing is becoming increasingly individualized, but mass-marketing can still have an impact if done right

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a statement on its website outlining emergency preparedness tips to follow in the event of a zombie apocalypse. No, they don’t really think zombies are about to take over the world. Rather, this was a clever stunt to entice people to read the agency’s regular reminder to prepare for hurricanes and other emergencies. This was a major change in approach for an organization whose normal pronouncements are most useful as insomnia cures.

For decades, the CDC has issued an annual reminder for Americans to prepare for possible disasters. These advisories are usually sent out prior to hurricane season, and very few people pay any attention to them. This year, in an attempt to attract a larger audience, some surprisingly creative people in the agency came up with the zombie approach. The big question is, of course, did it work?

A typical CDC blog post receives 1,000 to 3,000 hits a day, but in less than a week, the zombie post racked up more than a million views — so much traffic that the website crashed for a brief period of time. In addition, CNN featured the zombie apocalypse in their broadcasts, exposing more millions to the CDC’s message. The real success, of course, is that more people will take the precautionary tasks and be better prepared for an actual emergency. 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the people at the CDC are about to be really flattered. We all can guess what happens next: Every car dealer whose most creative advertising idea thus far has been to scream, “We’re dealing!” into a TV camera will now show up on our televisions wearing a zombie costume.

While we know that catching attention is one of the key elements to successful promotion, we also know that catching attention is not enough. The attention grabber must be followed by a message that locks the intended response into the mind of the observer. The CDC did a great job in tying the attention grabber into their message. It is hard to imagine what the guy in the zombie suit will use to tie that into selling cars.

With the decline of print media, the emergence of TIVO, and the ever-increasing importance of online and mobile marketing, marketing today is focused on “the market of one.” Most of the major success stories we see today, and those we are likely to see in the future, are variations on the “market of one” theme. But the CDC has proven that the old mass-market approach still works when done with extraordinary creativity and execution. This example serves as a direct challenge to all marketers to put in the effort and creativity to develop quality mass-market campaigns, even with the current focus on learning to handle the market of one.


The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

John Highbarger

Lecturer, Department of Marketing at the McCombs School of Business

John Highbarger joined the faculty of the Marketing Department in 2003, after retiring as Global Managing Partner in the Strategy Practice of...

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