4/5/2007

Vintage: Ballyhoo, Part 4

Posted in Vintage at 3:28 pm by Sam

And we’re back to the world of ballyhoo, crazy advertising stunts actually used in the late 1920s and collected and published and distributed to exhibitors so that other theater owners could make use of the ideas. Plunge right in with this next chapter in the saga, or backtrack to part 1 for more of an introduction to the subject.

Click to enlarge. In some browsers, click a second time. I’ve marked in red the stunts most interesting to me personally, but if an unmarked stunt catches your eye, please post a comment about it!

Ballyhoo

This page completes the section on marketing stunts for comedies and begins a new section on marketing historical/war films.

The introduction to this collection of marketing stunts does emphasize the point that most stunts can be adapted so that they are suitable for other genres, silent vs. sound, etc. But I am amused by the unusual disconnection between the stunt and the genre of the “Laugh Tickets” stunt (not marked in red). It’s a lottery, and the “laughs” component of it has nothing to do with it.

About the Wall Paper Stunt, I can only say that that’s either a small theater or a fat star.

Regarding the Curiosity Arouser, I bet people felt pretty ripped off when they opened up the envelope and didn’t find even one bite of chocolate. Seriously, though, I think this one perhaps casts some light on the greater rebelliousness of modern times. A suggestion like “Every woman wants this, so surely you do too” may have worked in 1928, but I can imagine a more headstrong, independent reaction today. We’re proud not to be like everybody else, and we don’t like people telling us what we want. We want our advertising to be submissive to us, offer a lot for a little, and leave it to us to decide what we want. It’s particularly true in fashion. The Gap doesn’t tell us we want to buy Gap clothes because everybody else does. It tells us we can all express our individuality, if only we would all shop there. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

In the world of movies, of course, there is only one movie to sell, not a whole line of different products. But I think, by and large, there is still a line there that movie marketing does not cross. Previews will certainly tell you how much everybody else liked the movie, but it lets you pretend that joining the crowd is your own idea.

The Laugh Powders stunt gets the Samuel Stoddard Best Stunt of the Day award. Part of it is just so insane. You’re giving out capsules of flour?? Could this be any more insane? I wonder if, today, they’d have to include an FDAA label of nutritional information. The other thing I absolutely love about this one is that it brings to mind the days of salesmen travelling around in covered wagons and peddling miracle medicines in liquor bottles. One sip a day will cure colds, ease aches and pains, clear your lungs, and strengthen your heart. Just rub this gunk over your aching sides, and presto, the pain will be gone!

Obviously 1928 audiences were savvy enough to understand this was a gimmick, but let’s indulge the premise of the gimmick anyway. What is this advertising telling you? It’s telling you that if you watch this movie, you will be in so much pain as to require a medicinal cure! Brilliant! Sign me up!

The topper is that, if somebody tried this today, you just know it would somehow turn into an anthrax scare.

The Door Tags is interesting to me as yet another marketing stunt that, today, would get people all riled up. I can’t imagine any store owner being happy to discover that, while his shop was closed on Sunday, somebody made him endorse a movie. There are certainly laws about that kind of thing. I can’t imagine that there weren’t potential legal snags in 1928 as well, but that’s probably why this whole section of marketing stunts warns that exhibitors should be aware of local laws.

The flivver prize is a neat idea, though, again, comically local in scope. A “flivver” is old slang for an old, cheap car. The suggestion of using it in a college town is a good one. Only in a college town would you stir up interest in a contest where the person who makes the most fun of a hunk of junk gets the hunk of junk as a prize. By the way, I have no idea where the whole “movie” thing comes into this.

“National Laugh Month” is awesome. Never mind the stunt, I’m just talking about the idea of having a “National Laugh Month.”

Ballyhoo

The Handkerchief Stunt is my second favorite this week. A free laundering service! What a great idea! I can just imagine John and Marsha sitting at home, wondering how they will spend the evening. Marsha says, “Well, that new Douglas Fairbanks picture is playing at the Orpheum!” And John says, “Say, that reminds me! The Regent has the new Garbo picture, and I need my handkerchief laundered!”

My usual thing with a lot of these stunts is to speculate on what happens when they go wrong. It’s a natural mode of thought, these days, where we obsess over such things, because one bad lawsuit can break a business. But I have to wonder, what happens when somebody’s handkerchief gets lost or damaged or swapped in the wash? What if there’s a delay, and poor John and Marsha have to storm down to the ticket window on the street and demand, through that little opening in the glass — and within earshot of exceptionally confused passersby — “I had my handkerchief sent out to be laundered here four days ago, and you still haven’t returned it! I want my handkerchief back!”

The traffic stunts are also great. Spreading disinformation on public services and tapping into the cops for a commercial venture. Talk about things going wrong. Who wouldn’t be absolutely furious at being pulled over and issued a commercial promotional voucher for being a good driver? It sounds like something out of a media satire about rampant advertising in the modern information age. There would be lawsuits all over the place, and judges would have a field day throwing the book at exhibitors and cops alike. On the other hand, it would be a lot of publicity, however negative. Once the media caught wind of theater owners having people pulled over to be issued free movie passes, you’d be all over front pages nationwide.

I can’t imagine a more unpopular marketing stunt, but in 1928…well, note the last line: “This stunt occasionally worked is a goodwill builder.”

2 Comments »

  1. Aaron (35) said,

    April 5, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Hmm, you seemed to have marked the letter balloon stunt, but talked about the laugh tickets stunt instead. I would think that the letter balloon stunt would be too easy, even taking into account the fact that people then wouldn’t necessarily be able to easily know about all the new movies making the rounds. Of course, it probably depends on the length of the title, and if there are any proper nouns in it. Probably not a stunt you want to use to advertise “Big”.

    The title on that envelope almost sounds like the subject of a spam email. All it needs is some intentional misspellings.

    It’s surprising to realize it’s been at least 5 years since the anthrax scares. It certainly doesn’t seem that long ago.

    One thing I noticed with the random drawing type of stunts is that out of the three of them, in two of them you don’t even have to enter to have a chance to win. I can’t really figure out why that’s changed, even though I have a few guesses.

    All I could think about when reading the Harold Lloyd stunt was some king shouting “Bring me the head of Harold Lloyd!”

    Newspaper extras… we talk a lot about intrusive advertising today, but to have the entire front page of your newspaper overlaid with an ad? Not that advertising can’t get as ridiculous as that today, but perhaps it’s not a recent phenomenon.

    I think the idea behind the Handkerchief Stunt is that this movie will be such a tearjerker that you’ll cry into your handkerchief so much it gets sopping wet and you’ll need to launder it. Sort of the same idea as all of those stunts that provide medical aid for you in case you’re about to die laughing. That’s a bit of a hard connection to make, although in execution it might have been more clear.

    Man, the Theater Programs stunt… if I’m reading it right, you’re basically hiring the local Boy Scouts to go door to door advertising for your movie.

  2. Sam (405) said,

    April 6, 2007 at 9:54 am

    The mismatch between what I marked and what I described was…well, not really intentional, but different stories jumped out at me as worthy of comment when I marked the image, vs. when I wrote the post.

    Hilarious observation about the spam title.

    As for the handkerchief stunt, I think you’re right…but that still leaves the theater house with the task of actually laundering handkerchiefs. I wonder how many patrons, regardless of whether they got the joke, actually made use of the service.

    Your comment on the Boy Scout stunt made me think how sensitive we are about advertising now. Despite how outrageous and intrusive the world of advertising was in 1928, I think stuff like that Boy Scout thing was perhaps more tolerated because there was far less of it in total. Now, we just overflow with commercials and ads and telemarketers that we try harder to contain it and bristle when a certain threshold of invasiveness is exceeded.

    Which is perhaps why advertising today just isn’t as much fun. It’s everywhere, we’re sick of it, and so we force it to be boring, as boring is easier to ignore.

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