And now it’s time for another trip through 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. Feel free to start your journey into this world here, or backtrack to part 1 for a more comprehensive introduction to the subject.
Click to enlarge. In some browsers, click a second time. There’s just one page this time, but it’s loaded with particularly good stunts. I’ve marked in red the ones most interesting to me, but if I have glossed over something of interest on this page, feel free to post a comment about it!
This page concludes the section on marketing stunts for seafaring adventures and begins a new section on marketing romances. Right away, there is an obvious use of terminology that has evolved over time. The romance section is labelled “Sex Dramas and Romance,” a title that is immediately striking today. We’d just call that section “Romance” today, and whether that term was intended as a euphemism or not would be understood from the context. But to just come right out and say “Sex Drama,” that would perhaps register immediately as pornography, or at least trashy late night cable thrillers.
But in fact, the term “sex” was much more broadly defined 80 years ago. It didn’t even necessarily refer to anything physical. A chaste drama about the dating scene would have been unabashedly characterized as a “sex drama,” without fear of conveying any untoward implications. On the other hand, it’s important also to realize that movies of the 1920s weren’t always as tame as we often think of “old movies” as being. The Production Code Authority (more or less, the censorship board that predates the MPAA rating system) didn’t start having a strong effect on the movies being made until 1934. We’ll be talking about that later on the podcast.
On the other other hand, despite that the films of the 1920s were sometimes more risque than the films made 10 and 20 years later, moral standards were also quite different from what they are today. It’s possible that a “chaste drama about the dating scene” would still not have been seen as appropriate for kids. On the other other other hand, moral concerns about movie content was a lot less child-centered than it is today, where the mindset seems to be that anything is appropriate for adults and nothing is appropriate for children.
The point I’m getting at is that so many different pieces of the big picture have changed in the last 80 years, that it’s virtually impossible to truly understand the connotations of what “sex drama” meant to 1920s audiences unless you’re old enough to remember those days. But it didn’t mean “sleaze.”
But let’s backtrack to the end of the sea adventure section. I like the Sailors’ Knots stunt. I kind of wish we had more promotional games like that, instead of the ones we have now. I got a marketing call once (this was before the Do Not Call list, which I love so so much) where, to win the chance to buy a booklet of coupons for $80, I had to identify which fast food joint used some particular marketing slogan. Lame contest. Lame prize.
Of course, the contest was meant to be won, because the money is made in giving out the prizes, even had the coupon booklet been free. The problem with running an actually educational contest with meaningful prizes is that the answers would be on the Internet in five seconds, and Spiderman 3’s $150 million dollar weekend would have been more like a $9.25 weekend, because everybody but like one guy would have had a free pass.
The “Ballyhoos” section further down the page hopefully illustrates by example how my title “Ballyhoo” for this series of post is a mild misnomer. “Ballyhoo” more or less just refers to pulling crazy stunts in the street, and the marketing stunts we’ve been covering are broader than that. But compared to today’s formulaic advertising, which despite being ubiquitous is contained in socially acceptable contexts, all of these old marketing stunts have a little bit of Ballyhoo in them.
The “Commercializing Rain” stunt might be my favorite this week. Isn’t that a great stunt? You have a guy out in the rain passing out cards. REVOLUTIONARY! Specifically, the guy looks like the guy that knows what you did last summer. See the movie on the card, or you get a fishing hook through the head.
Regarding the “Captain and Sailor” stunt, I thought a bit about whether the role assignments say anything about gender roles in the 1920s. Remember, women were only granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1919. By making the girl the captain, did that create a picture of comedy in the same vein as putting a tiny dog on a thick rope leash? Perhaps, but I think I’m probably reading too much into this.
Moving onto the Tie-Ups section — in an earlier installment of this Ballyhoo series, Grishny pointed out how odd the term “tie-up” is; we would say “tie-in” today — the “Recruiting Office” stunt is yet another hilariously weird collaboration between an actual institution and the marketing of a film. But why is it so “hilariously weird”? As I said earlier, advertising is ubiquitous today, yet it’s contained. We have legal and societal rules about where advertising is acceptable. You can advertise on those billboards, in these commercial breaks, on that marquee, in this newspaper section, etc. You cannot advertise by hiring the local police force to pull people over and hand them discount coupons, as discussed in an earlier Ballyhoo post. You cannot put up “Gone to see this movie” signs on other people’s businesses when they’re closed. And so on.
Today’s regulated containment of marketing extends to what collaborations are allowed, too. People are very concerned about who has what business relationships. There are a lot more laws than there used to be about what kinds of collaborations are allowed and, for the ones that are, which ones must be disclosed by law.
It’s not that far-fetched for me to imagine that a movie theater and a Navy recruitment office could collaborate on a mutually beneficial business arrangement, but is it something you’d ever ever ever imagine would happen? Probably not. For one thing, before any such arrangement would occur today, there would be some kind of research study to find out the percentage of people interested in joining the Navy among the ticket-buyers for Pirates of the Caribbean. And I’m betting the survey results wouldn’t make a collaboration with Navy recruiters helpful.
But think about what all this says about the power of film, real and perceived, in 1928. The movies were new and exciting. They could show you worlds you could only dream of, and I imagine that a number of young boys who dreamt of life at sea would have been eager to visit that world in a darkened movie theater whenever they could.
The “Ship Model” window display is a totally different kind of hilariously weird tie-in. Make a model; win a suit of clothes. I wonder where the movie tickets come into that.
The “Popular Girl” contest is another one indicative of just how dramatically American culture has evolved over 80 years. Popularity is never seen as a virtue by anybody except those who aren’t, envious of the attention the popular kids get. When was the last time you saw a high school movie where the popular girls weren’t the snobby antagonists, and the shy geeky kid wasn’t the hero who seeks popularity but ultimately learns not to be popular but to be true to oneself? We’ll have none of that pansy wansy nonsense here. You wanna win this contest, you have to be popular. I’m not exactly sure how the popularity of the contestants is measured, though.
And finally we come to a cliffhanger. The “Street Photos” marketing stunt spans this page and the next, with the page break coming at a curiously curious point! What new exploration of 1920s moral values will it trigger? Maybe I should run a contest to see who can guess how the sentence ends.
Tune in next month for Ballyhoo, Part 6!