It’s time for the next batch of marketing hijinks, actually used by exhibitors to market films in the 1920s. At the time, not only was the culture different, but the industry was young and untrodden. Some of the stunts they pulled are absolutely hilarious. Others — and we’ll see an example of that this week — make us cringe. Either way, it wasn’t as boring as the familiar patterns practiced by movie marketing today.
If you missed the first installment in this series, you can catch up on it here.
This page (and most of the next) continue the section on marketing pictures for children and teenagers. Just the fact that children and teenagers are lumped together tells us something about the culture. Today, children’s films and teenagers’ films are very different things, handled in very different ways. But teenagers didn’t assume the reins of pop culture until the baby boomers wooed the entertainment industry by the sheer force of numbers.
As always, I’ve marked in red the marketing stunts that interest me most — but these pages are worth reading in their entirety, and I was exceptionally pleased last time, when reader Aaron posted an interesting observation about a stunt I’d missed the significance of.
The “Caged Bear” stunt speaks for itself. I love that the significance of the bear is in the pun only; the film doesn’t even have to have anything to do with bears. It seriously makes me want to drive a caged bear around with a sign saying, “All Movie Talk: A Bear of a Podcast.”
The stunt following that, though, is less amusing. I’m not big on political correctness, but the then common use of blackface isn’t just politically incorrect. It speaks of a casual disregard for racial harmony. To be perfectly honest, I’d love to live in a world where blackface and other forms of racial humor are ok, because we’re all secure enough in our own identities and so broadly accepting of other races and cultures that to mock them would never be confused for animosity or thoughtlessness and would never hurt. Racial humor like this is only bad because of the actual racism out there. But let’s face it. No matter how important it is to strive for perfect racial harmony, we’re not going to get there. And that means that derogatory humor like this will always have a hurtful edge to it.
All the more reason to remember history. What particularly strikes me is that, here, blackface is used as a marketing tool. If it were contained in an artistic work, that would be less shocking. The goal of art isn’t necessarily to have mass appeal. The purpose of art may be to entertain only a few, or not to entertain at all but to startle, shock, scare, or provoke thought. But the purpose of marketing is to persuade as many people as possible to buy your product or service. An exhibitor using this marketing stunt to sell tickets to a movie clearly believes that a gimmick involving blackface has a chance of stirring general interest. And that’s an unnerving thought.
But, moving on. The Newsboys Parade stunt is another of these great gimmicks that work by causing a scene in a public place. What I want to know is, why newsboys?
The Boy Artist stunt is yet another that would just never work now that it’s the distributors and not the exhibitors in charge of marketing movies. On the other hand, can you imagine the flurry of press Warner Bros. would get if they announced that they’d be hiring 6000 child prodigies to draw pictures of Spider-Man at theaters everywhere?
As for the Aeroplane Contest…well, last week, we had a tracing contest and a ukulele contest, so why not?
The Juvenile Club stunt is a great example of something that still works today, although marketers have correctly figured out that there’s no reason to limit the club to kids. The idea must have seemed novel at the time, and I wonder how many exhibitors read this very passage in 1929, scoffed at it, and moved on.
Ah, how I longed for the Dude, Where’s My Car? spelling bee. But I don’t even think there was an Akeelah and the Bee spelling bee.
The Booster Club is an absolute masterpiece of underhandedness. What’s better than signing people up for spam? Bribing little kids to sign people up for spam!
And what bastion of surrealism is the Baby Parade and Show? Do people still do things like this in some weird parts of the country? It puts me in the mind of country fairs, where each year proud farmers nurture prize goats or gourds or something and compete against each other in the annual fair. Only here, you get pregnant around January, so that by November you’ve got a prime entry in the annual Baby Parade and Show. Curse that Mrs. Kensington, taking home Chubbiest Baby three years running!
The Children’s Hour, on the other hand, is a marvelously primitive incarnation of two staples of movie exhibition. It’s probably counterintuitive for an exhibitor to cut prices too dramatically, so it makes sense that they’d have to be comfortable with this idea before separating children’s discounts and matinee prices into separate standard things.
My favorite stunt of the week, however, is the Potato Matinee, clearly the most brilliant idea imaginable. I should call up our local theaters and ask if they host any potato matinees I don’t know about.