Vintage: Ballyhoo, Part 8

Posted in Vintage at 5:00 am by Sam

The word “ballyhoo” means “a clamorous and vigorous attempt to win customers or advance any cause; blatant advertising or publicity.” 80 years ago, advertising was less burdened by cumbersome advertising laws, which now make such petty demands from advertising as that it should be truthful, that it not involve vandalism or littering, and that it not infringe on the civil liberties of private citizens.

80 years ago, advertising was a lot more interesting.

Time for another installment in our series on wild advertising stunts actually used by local theaters in the 1920s. If you’re new to the series, plunge right in if you wish, but I recommend backtracking to Part 1 first.

This week’s advertising stunts are initially for “Underworld and Mystery” movies, a new section that started at the bottom of the last page from Part 7.


We always have to have at least one crazy contest in each installment. Based on this compilation of advertising stunts, all anybody in the 1920s ever did was enter crazy contests. Last week, we had a contest to see who had legs that most resembled those of whoever the big star in the latest movie was. This week, it’s thumb prints.

The Insurance Notice stunt is great. Start a rumor! It’s really interesting, actually, how less concerned with truth advertising used to be. Printing a false story like that in a newspaper would have caused an uproar — more so than today — but while journalistic standards have loosened in the past 80 years, advertising standards have tightened.

Back to fingerprints. The neat thing about this is how it illustrates that fingerprinting was still a novelty in 1927. It wasn’t new, exactly — the first use of fingerprints to establish criminal guilt in a court of law was in 1892, and the World Fingerprint Bureau was established in India for compiling criminal fingerprint records in 1897. But it became a fascinating stock element of genre mysteries, which were immensely popular at the time. As I say, fingerprinting wasn’t new, but much like films themselves which are almost as old, it was still a novelty.

I like the Mystery Girl stunt, because it seems to be a form of organized stalking. Hey, better for people to stalk in a safe, controlled environment than to be forced to stalk in the streets.

I just don’t even know what to say about the Crime Publicity stunt. Surely that’s the kind of thing that works incredibly well or backfires spectacularly. It is an idea that is both quite noble, when you think about it, and horribly easy to make fun of. I think I’ll abstain.


But I can’t resist taking a shot at the Subpoena stunt, surely one that would never cut it legally today. Imagine the reaction of anybody taken in by the fake subpoena. Is he amused or outraged when he realizes it’s all a joke? And does he see the movie, or make a point not to? Who knows. The whole culture viewed things like that in a different light.

The Solve Mystery stunt seems like a cute idea, but it’s easy to see how it was tied to its time. In the 1920s, movies were more flexible experiences. There would be the feature film, but you’d also have an assortment of other things, including possibly live musical or comedy acts. Even lacking those, maybe you’d still have a guy stand up and formally introduce the picture. Today, we have specific expectations when we go to the movies, and one of those expectations is that the movie doesn’t abruptly stop in the middle so the house manager can conduct a poll to see how many people have predicted the ending. An important point to remember is that it truly is the theater owner who would be doing this. The film wouldn’t have been designed to be stopped in the middle, and the studio wouldn’t have distributed the film with this as a suggestion way to exhibit it. This is the local theater owner trying to drum up interest in a movie patrons have already paid to see by inserting his own special intermission. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but I guess it depends on how good the prizes are.

The Warning Signs is another great clash with modern sensibilities. Maybe we should try this one just as a social experiment. Sometime at night, go around your neighborhood planting warning signs in people’s lawns. The next day, observe how grateful everybody is!

For the Western Word Contest, once again we have a contest ruined by the existence of the Internet. Not only is it trivial to look up the answers, somebody will have posted his own answer sheet, so most people wouldn’t even have to look up each word individually.


Untruth in advertising strikes again in the Firearms stunt. There isn’t even a passing mention in this write-up about finding out the actual model of rifle used in the film and doing the “tie-up” (tie-in) with that model. You can just pick any old model and say it was the one in the movie.

The Horseshoe Passes stunt just sounds like the cutest thing in the world.

The Scrambled Ad idea caught my eye because it’s similar to something a local freebie one-sheet does in my area. Off and on, this single sheet is distributed with local events and fun stuff on it, like trivia and quotes and stuff. It’s distributed various places like sub shops and…well, anything with a waiting room, and it’s a nice thing to read while one is waiting for the Chinese take-out to be ready.

Along the left and right edges, both sides, are ad blocks for local businesses. In every issue, the image of a coffee bean is hidden in one of the ads. It might be the dot on an “i” or the entirety of an “o” or something else altogether. Find the coffee bean, send in the ad it came from, and you’ll be entered in a drawing for some sort of prize. I never enter the contest — too much trouble — but I always find myself searching for that coffee bean. It’s fun to look for, and it’s exceptionally effective, because you have to examine all the ads very closely to find it. Inexplicably, the coffee bean is either in one of the ads I look at, or I miss it in one of the first, while my wife can track it down in mere moments.

Anyway, this stunt reminds me of that. Advertisers must certainly appreciate the added incentive to examine their ads most closely.

The Telephone Teaser is hilarious. This paragraph describes, in exorbitant detail, telemarketing through prank calls. Let me tell you, if somebody were to call me and say, “This is the voice of the Beloved Rogue,” I certainly wouldn’t be saying, “Hey, I think I’ll go to the movies so I can see you in person!”

We close with the Most Words Contest, which, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even understand. Anybody understand how this stunt works? All I can tell for sure is that, however it works, it is surely silly.


  1. Aaron (35) said,

    August 16, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Launching Newspapers is a good one. Why just take out an ad in the newspaper when you can make your OWN newspaper and advertise in that! It surely doesn’t require research and reporters to find the day’s news, right? I am disappointed, however, that it doesn’t involve newspapers being launched out of a cannon.

    While cool, “Scrambled Ad” suffers again from the “where does the theater come in” problem. Although I suppose it’s rather trivial to just request that your ad be one of the ads used in the contest.

    I’m pretty sure that the Most Words Contest is like those puzzles where you’re given a large word, like say, MANAGING, and you try to find as many words using the letters as possible, like MANIA, GIN, GAG, etc.

  2. Nyperold (116) said,

    August 16, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Fuses? They obviously have a different ide a of what a fuse is than I do. To me, a fuse is a bit of metal that breaks, thus stopping the flow of electricity, or that cord attached to dynamite that you light a few seconds before realizing that you don’t want the dynamite to go off, and which you therefore attempt to blow out until it runs out and the dynamite explodes, leaving you all black except for your eyes, which blink comically.

    Is the flash from a discharged gun typically red?

    Hey, bad advertising for the insurance company is good advertising for the picture!

    Now there’s an idea: a sale named after a film!

    Yeah, I can just imagine the reader of the subpoena getting to the end and feeling a mixture of relief and “It’s a crummy commercial?!?” Same with the “Warning” posters.

    Too bad the Telegram Stunt doesn’t still go on… as far as I know. Imagine Sam being invited to a showing of the latest SLJ pic.

  3. Rifty (64) said,

    August 16, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    The Most Words, as I understand it, is that you take a title, and you rearrange the letters to make new words. Whoever comes up with the most words from that title is the winner.

    For example: The Man Who Wasn’t There (picked that one because it’s the next movie in my Coen Bros list to see)
    Words Found: Mow, Steer, Hot, Than, Want, etc etc.

    I would love to see this contest done with “Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D”


  4. Nyperold (116) said,

    August 17, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    That’s 22 letters accounted for. Letters missing: J, P, Q, X

  5. LaZorra (60) said,

    August 25, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    Would the “Free Passes” stunt even be legal today? I can imagine a real uproar over printing people’s names and addresses without their permission.

    So is the “Thumb Print Contest” designed to drum up Mayberry’s movie revenues? I have a hard time imagining a place where the police have nothing to do except analyze fingerprints to see if they match a Hollywood star’s. Come to think of it, does that even require a police detective?

    “Streamers” is by far the most exciting stunt I have read about so far. I shall recommend my local theatres to adopt it immediately.

    I get the feeling that the author of “Burglar Tools” really has no idea what accoutrements burglars usually employ. I am sure a large rock and a sack would be of extreme interest.

    The wiring in “Auto Cutout” sounds a dreadful mess. Would it not be easier to have lights that blinked so they looked like revolving tires, rather than spinning the wires around and around each other until they are hopelessly tangled?

    I love the use of the word “Spooks.” We don’t use it enough today.

    “Radio Contest” is so concerned with making the reason for the title “perfectly fair” that it is kind of amusing, given the blatant deceit present in so many other of these presentations.

    “Cache” is “cowboy lingo”? And “range language”? LOL. Also, it’s odd how horse racing films count as Westerns. Most cowboy lingo is colorful metaphors anyway, so it would be simple enough for a creative mind to make up his own.

    It doesn’t seem like the human half of the “Burro Rider” team does much riding. And I wonder how hard it is to come by a burro who doesn’t mind street traffic.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as “regulation Indian feathers and war paint.” Certainly not something you’d see today!

    In “Cowboy Rider,” the line “Old, but effective” absolutely cracks me up.

    The intro to “Firearms” is interesting, because buying guns at a hardware store seems very odd to me.

    I would enter a contest for a Stetson, if it were open to women, too.

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