Marketing Recursion

December 02, 2014
A thought by James Berardinelli

In the days leading up to Black Friday, a huge marketing campaign swung into motion. What was being promoted? The latest gadget? A new toy? The "big thing" on sale for Christmas 2014? No… In fact, the subject of the promotional frenzy was an 88-second teaser trailer for the seventh Star Wars movie, which was just recently given the subtitle of The Force Awakens. Let that sink in for a moment: millions of dollars had been expended (either directly or indirectly) fanning the flames of awareness for this teaser trailer - so much so that, when it was released on-line during the day on November 28, countless viewers, both casual and fanatical, searched for it. Within hours, it was ubiquitous. Websites began to pick it apart, parsing it for clues and providing second-by-second "analyses." The absurdity of it all caught my attention nearly as forcefully as the brilliance of the men and women who orchestrated the whole thing.

Lest I be branded a hypocrite, let me recount an incident from my days as a Trekkie. Back in the 1980s, the arrival of a new Star Trek film was regarded as a drink of ice water to a parched fandom. Mainstream audiences reacted with some enthusiasm but, as the box office repeatedly showed, Star Trek movies were events only for the faithful. For the most part, they were successful (sometimes exceptionally so) but their reach was limited. In fact, of the original series of movies, only one reached the $100 million "blockbuster" threshold (in unadjusted 1980s dollars).

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was due to be released on the day before Thanksgiving 1986. Keep in mind, this was before the Internet (although I got my first e-mail account at college in 1986, but I digress…). The only way to get pre-release news about movies was through monthly genre magazines like Starlog (now there's a blast from the past). As for clips… you had to wait until just before the release when shows like Good Morning America would invite stars to the set. For Star Trek II, I remember Merv Griffin devoting an entire hour to the upcoming movie (on the Monday before it opened).

Die-hard Trekkies awaited trailers like manna. There was no advance word about what they would be attached to, so it helped immeasurably to know someone who worked in a multiplex. My source was secondhand and, as such, not 100% reliable. So, when I heard that the local AMC Marlton 8 would be showing the Trek IV trailer ahead of Jumpin' Jack Flash starting on October 10, I headed off to the theater and bought a ticket to a movie I never would have otherwise seen. There was no Trek IV trailer and I can't remember a frame of the film to give an opinion about what I thought. Two weeks later, the rumor surfaced again, this time in association with Soul Man. Again, no trailer. Somewhat dejected and having no desire whatsoever to watch the movie, I decided to sneak into the theater next door which was playing Crocodile Dundee (a smash hit still packing them in after four weeks). I had already seen it but was up for a repeat viewing. And there, newly spliced into the trailer reel right before the movie, was what I had been searching for. I returned later in the day with a pocket (audio) cassette recorder. I paid for a Crocodile Dundee ticket but left as soon as I had seen (and recorded) the Trek IV trailer.

That's my story of obsessive, borderline-deranged behavior and I'll admit to being way ahead of the curve. So I can relate. But I can also stand back and recognize how absurd it all is. Because trailers are commercials. They're not pieces of art. They're assembled by the publicity department with the sole purpose of putting butts in seats. Marketing is more sophisticated in 2014 than it was in 1986 but the basic facts haven't changed. However, the burgeoning imustseeitimmediately mentality has made the trailer all the more important to sellers and buyers. Can't wait, can't wait, can't wait! Must have it NOW! Spoilers, once avoided (easy enough to do in the pre-Internet era), are now sought out with passion. Some people, it seems, want to know everything about a film before seeing it. Personally, I don't understand the appeal. I'm content to wait and let the movie work (or not work) on its own merits. These days, I rarely see trailers (press screenings don't include them) and I almost never seek them out on-line. Almost never. But, like everyone else, I checked out the Star Wars VII teaser.

It's about what one might expect. A collage of scenes amateurishly cut together that evidences little artistry and hints at less of the story. But it fills a need and whets an already overstimulated appetite. The marketer's mantra: String 'em along. Other trailers will come: one at the Superbowl, another in front of the second Avengers movie, and probably a third (Comic-con?) and fourth later in 2015 with the Big Push starting as Labor Day fades into the rearview mirror. There's a whole year ahead to space these out, each one showing a little more - bread crumbs for fans.

Consider for a moment, however, what a strange cultural phenomenon this is. Disney has marketed a teaser trailer. The teaser trailer by its very nature is designed to market a motion picture. And, in the case of a property like Star Wars, once could easily argue that the movie itself is really just a marketing device for merchandise and other tangentially related products. Where do we go from here? Perhaps marketing the announcement of when the teaser trailer will be available? Wait… that may have happened as well.

When it comes to franchise movies, it seems we can no longer simply enjoy them. The hype is deafening, amplified by the Internet. But for the fan, maybe part of the enjoyment comes from being trapped at the nexus of recursive marketing. Maybe there's something to be said about being in a constant state of anticipation while dribs and drabs of information are doled out with the ultimate goal of maximizing profits. It's like Christmas but with a much longer lead time. However, keep in mind the holiday's dark side. Once the presents are opened and dinner consumed, no one cares anymore. We're already moving on to New Year's Eve. Time to put away the decorations and gripe about gifts received and neglected. Christmas Eve is one of the year's happiest days. December 26 is one of the most depressing. As excited as everyone is about Star Wars VII right now, how will people feel on December 19, 2015? Remember, remember The Phantom Menace.