Since the dawn of the internet we have been living in a world where information is more widely and easily available than ever before. This has made pretty much everything more competitive, especially in the entertainment industry. It is harder than ever before to get a film made, and even if a great film is backed by a studio it will still bomb if it isn’t marketed in a way that gets people interested.
Advertising is in itself a huge business, and there are people out there who have dedicated their entire lives to working out what it is that sells things to people. It turns out that we as the human race are not an overly imaginative bunch, and mainstream cinema audiences are more likely to react to marketing that they recognise – be that a notable actor/actress or a typical narrative, marketing experts will generally gear advertising material about a film to fit certain quotas.
This can often lead to misleading marketing material that more often than not doesn’t actually represent the product that is being sold to us. This can work both ways, either selling an indie film as more mainstream fare (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl earlier this year was very much marketed as a YA adaption in the vein of The Fault in Our Stars in spite of being a vastly different film, for example) or tricking audiences into seeing a generic flick.
The ways in which marketing material can be misleading varies in a number of ways, but most tactics generally centralise around the ‘bait and switch’ idea where material will lure audiences in before turning out to be something totally different – this is done with actor/actresses, notable directors and trailers, as well as posters and even titles of films.
The thing is, advertising works. As much as many of us would like to believe that we are not susceptible, but with advertising being a multi-billion dollar industry the odds are stacked against us, and a lot of what makes marketing material work is the fact that it can sometimes operate on a subconscious level.
This post will look at these tactics in more detail using various examples of real life marketing material that was essentially misleading in the representation it provided of the film in question.
Posters are one of the main forms of marketing when it comes to movies – they generally set the tone and establish the stars of the film, as well as generally alluding to what the film is about. However, there are plenty of examples of times where distributors have provided movie posters which quite drastically misrepresent the film in some way.
A notable example from earlier this year was Legend, which made the headlines when it was revealed that it had strategically placed a two star review from The Guardian to look like it was a five star review. The review, from critic Benjamin Lee, was decidedly less than complementary about the Tom Hardy starring gangster biopic, yet the way the stars had been placed in the poster made it look like it was yet another excellent review of the film, leading to Lee himself writing an article about the dangers of misleading advertising. He pointed out that this was far from a one off, and the practice of taking critics quotes or ratings out of context and placing them in marketing material is a surprisingly common.
Other examples of posters which were essentially misleading include one of the US posters for The Aviator (2004) which tries to entice fans of Saving Private Ryan type films by taking an action still completely out of context, or the Spanish poster for The Godfather (1972), which was based on an early draft of the script which involved a spaghetti restaurant and just ends up coming across as promoting stereotypes.
Here are some of more examples of misleading movie posters…
- Kramer . Vs. Kramer (1979) – shows a happy family even though the film is the depiction of the breaking up of said family
- Drugstore Cowboy (1989) – selling a movie about drug addicts is always going to be hard, but the main characters on the poster are much chirpier than they appear in the film.
- My Sister’s Keeper (2009) – Much like Drugstore Cowboy, marketing a movie about cancer is difficult, but this poster contains a lot more smiling than we ever see in this tearjerker
It goes without saying that a movie title is one of the most important elements, as it tends to be a consumers first point of contact with the product. A poor or bland title is unlikely to entice audiences, and sometimes quirky or unusual trailers can be used for generic films, or vice versa. Titles differ from other marketing materials in that they are often taken from other mediums – for example, if a film is based on a book the title will often be retained.
However, there are examples of films based on books where the title was changed, presumably as part of the marketing strategy. This would include the likes of Slumdog Millionaire (2009), which was based on Q&A by Vikas Swarup. From a marketing perspective the name change is quite obvious – the idea of a slumgod millionaire is much more evocative than a Q&A session, and it immediately gives the consumer a bigger insight into what the film is about.
Love, Rosie (2014) is based on Irish author Cecilia Aherne’s second novel, entitled Where Rainbows End (2004) and is another example of a title change, with the movie title nodding more towards rom-com material.
Films such as Trainspotting (1994) retained their book titles, but no longer make sense in the context of the film. The book contains a line which alludes to the act of trainspotting and also acts as character development for the pyschotic Begbie, who was immortalised on screen by Robert Carlyle. However slight this alluding to the title was, it was still present, and no such instance occurs in the film, essentially making the title obsolete. This did nothing to impact the overall quality of the movie however, and it was going to be a hard task for the marketing strategists to come up with a title for a film about Edinburgh based heroin addicts and sociopaths.
Film titles can also change from country to country, the most famous recent example being the Avengers/Avengers Assemble instance in 2012. The culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was markered in the US as The Avengers, whilst in the UK it was distributed as The Avengers Assemble. This was done due to the existence of a TV show titled in The Avengers in the UK, making it crystal clear to audiences that they were not the same thing.
Other examples of differences between the US/UK movie titles include…
- Harold and Kumar go to White Castle (US) became Harold and Kumar get the Munchies (UK) due to the lack of White Castle fast food chain in the UK.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK) became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (US) – there is much debate as to why this was the case, but it is generally deemed to be because the idea of a sorcerer was one that implied ‘magical’ more than philosophers in to the US market.
- Dracula 2000 (US) was changed to Dracula 2001 internationally due to the fact that it was released the year after. Apparently audiences wouldn’t buy that a film about Dracula was set a year in the past.
Whilst these title changes are not misleading in themselves, it shows how important titles are as part of the overall marketing strategy, with distributors being willing to actually change a title if they feel it will sell a movie better.
More examples of titles that are misleading…
- The Squid and the Whale (2005) – It’s not about a squid, or a whale, though dioramas of both are seen in the film at the American Museum of Natural History. Does this count?
- Antichrist (2009) – Whilst it may sound like your run of the mill horror/possession/exorcism movie, its actually part of Lars Von Trier’s overly depressing depression trilogy.
- 12 Monkeys (1995) – It’s not about 12 monkeys, ok?
The old bait and switch is one of the oldest tricks in the book – marketing a film with a well known star at the forefront of all the material, only for them to hardly appear in the film itself, which people will only find out once they have already paid to see it. It’s a concept thats still around because it works, and despite social media making it easier and easier for audiences to deduce what is going on before a film comes out, we are still being collectively duped more than you would think.
Just this year the marketing material for Suffragette (2015) had us all thinking that Meryl Streep was in the main cast as the notable real life campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst. She featured heavily in all the material including trailers and posters, but turned out to only be in the film for a grand total of about five minutes. There was no reason to believe that Streep had anything less than a leading role, but it turned out that Cary Mulligan was the lead, with Helena Bohem Carter appearing in a supporting capacity. Streep was really no more than a cameo, making her appearance in the marketing material extremely misleading. It’s clear why this was the strategy however – Streep is one of the most famous and successful actresses of all time, and whilst Bohem Carter and Mulligan are both respected they in no way carry the level of traction that Streep does. Featuring her heavily in the marketing was also a clever move in enaging with US audiences, who will recognise her much more than the British Mulligan and Bohem Carter.
One of the first notable uses of the bait and switch of a star was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960), which was marketed with Janet Leigh as the lead. She is then killed off in the first half an hour of the film, a feat that was famously repeated by Wes Craven with Drew Barrymore in Scream (1996). Both films were hugely successful – arguably partly due to the marketing of famous actresses Leigh and Barrymore as respective leads.
Other examples of this in practice include…
- Leprechaun (1993) – The DVD release of this horror film capitalised on the fact that Jennifer Aniston, who has a relatively minor role in the movie, had struck gold as Rachel Green on Friends (1994-2004), and she is featured on the cover design.
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – Sean Penn is implied as the lead but it actually just part of a larger ensemble cast.
- Halloween: Resurrection (2002) – Marketed almost wholly on the grand return of Jamie Lee Curtis, who is then killed off in the first half.
- The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) – Marketed on Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper’s names, completely leaving out the other half which focuses on their sons, played by the then lesser known Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen respectively.
This is a trend that is slightly less obvious, but is still prevalent across Hollywood marketing material. Once a director has made a name for themselves, sticking their name on a poster or in a trailer is a surefire way of convincing people that a movie is worth seeing. The thing is, advertising will tend to stick a directors name on it even if their involvement with the film was not in a very large capacity, as it is easier to sell a picture on their name than that of a newbie or a less established film-maker.
Guillermo del Toro is a director that has had his name attached to several films, to the point that he actually spoke about it in an interview, saying:
“I only do it when – (a) I am introducing a filmmaker to the world, but (b) I endorse and say I believe in this movie very, very strongly. For whatever reason, it’s a more risky proposition in one way, but it’s one that I believe needs to continue to support first-time filmmakers. . . . I only do it when I fully believe I was involved in the product in a way that is meaningful.”
del Toro was attached to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2013), which was directed by Troy Nixey and The Orphanage (2007), directed by J . A Bayona. Regardless of the reasons why a director may choose to allow their name to be attached to a film, there is no doubt that it is both an effective and misleading marketing tactic. Audiences are going to see something based on the fact that they know and like the work of the director appearing on the poster, which can sometimes lead to them seeing a rubbish movie bolstered by the name, or give an up and coming film-maker a chance by viewing it, albeit under false pretences.
Other examples include…
- Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Generally marketed as Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. Whilst the king of kook is responsible for the concept and is credited as a producer, the film was actually directed by Henry Selik.
- Hostel (2005) – Splat pack director Eli Roth’s super violent torture horror film had Quentin Tarantino serve as an executive producer, and it was his name that the film was marketed on in spite of the fact Roth both wrote and directed the film.
- Sanctum (2011) – Advertised as coming from executive producer James Cameron ‘the creator of Avatar and Titanic’, the way it is written on the poster makes the words James Cameron, Titanic and Avatar the ones that stand out. Considering they are two of the most financially successful films of all time, it is little wonder that is the slant the marketing took, in spite of the film being directed by Alister Grierson, who has no such accolades on his CV.
Trailers are increasingly becoming the most important part of the marketing of a movie, providing without a doubt the biggest insight into what the film is going to be about. However, like everything else that has been explored in this post, they can be edited in a way that totally misrepresents the narrative and overall tone of a film.
The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are notable for being marketed in ways that do not fully represent the final product. Three examples are Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013). Valhalla Rising’s entire marketing campaign piggy-backed on the success of Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006), right down to the DVD cover and posters. However, the film is actually a deep study of a norse warrior. Drive is a neo-noir crime thriller that was marketed as a Fast and Furious style caper, whereas the final product is something much darker and broodier. Only God Forgives was advertised as a marital arts flick, but again was a thriller where marital arts was only a component factor. The marketing of these films, along with the fact that the very bankable Ryan Gosling (who is also featured heavily in the advertising) starred in the latter two allows them to be accessible to mainstream audiences in a way that they may not have without these elements.
Some other examples of misleading trailers include…
- Iron Man 3 (2013) – the one that left comic book villains the world over bitter, the trailer advertised famous Iron Man foe The Mandarin as the big bad, only to pull a bait and switch and reveal Ben Kingsley’s character to be an drunken actor.
- Magic Mike (2012) – Steven Soderbergh’s film was a deep character study marketed as a flashy chick-flick based around male strippers.
- The Grey (2011) – capitalised on the Liam Neeson as an action lead phenomenon that began with 2009’s Taken, but The Grey was actually a study of the human relationship with death that is surprisingly light on the action.
- Cabin in the Woods (2011) – marketed as a run of the mill teen slasher flick, but Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods takes the idea of meta-horror to a level that makes Scream (1996) look as though it lacks self-awareness.
Which films do you think had misleading marketing campaigns? Let me know in the comments section!