By Brian Foley
Films that feature marketing professionals have historically trended toward satirizing the profession. However, it's been said that behind every joke is a kernel of truth, and for satire to be effective, it has to have working knowledge of what it is satirizing. Below are three films that will have you laughing while thinking like a marketing professional.
(dir. John Carpenter, 1987)
If you watched Looney Tunes as a child, you have seen the iconic sign that would pop up occasionally that stated - “Eat at Joe’s”. This simple slogan usually referred to a greasy spoon diner where working-class people– aka “average Joe’s”— ate their meals, but who is Joe and where did this expression come from remain a mystery. That is because “Eat at Joe’s” doesn’t refer to an actual restaurant or man. Simply put, its concept is a command that amuses the audience by saying the quiet part out loud.
Saying the quiet part out loud is also what makes the film They Live so fun. In the film, a nameless drifter acquires a special pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the world around him as it really is. Suddenly he sees a billboard for computers turn into a sign that instructs: “OBEY”. Another billboard for a Caribbean vacation reads “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”. As our character looks down a stretch of boulevard covered in everyday signage in big, bold letters, we see the words “SUBMIT,” “WATCH TV,” “CONSUME,” and “STAY ASLEEP” hanging like clouds over a sleeping city.
It doesn’t take a genius to identify the film’s agenda or understand it as a response to the consumerism that defined Reaganomics. By wearing his special glasses, our hero is able to see the advertisements for their direct desire and purpose. But in expressing the essence of what a consumer buys, They Live offers a fascinating commentary for marketing professionals by showing what happens when value propositions are naked and laid bare.
When value propositions aren’t conveyed through effective marketing strategies aimed at a target audience, many will view such generic intentions as cynical propaganda. In the film, advertisements plainly stated as propaganda were cause for an uprising. Today, we know best practices suggest marketing professionals apply strategies to listen and speak with the audience, not at them.
Thank You For Smoking
(Jason Reitman, 2006)
In Thank You For Smoking, Nick Naylor is an unscrupulous lobbyist advocating for the tobacco industry. Early in the film is a scene where Naylor (brilliantly portrayed by Aaron Eckhart) attends his son’s Take-a-Parent-to-School day. Within thirty seconds of addressing the room, he’s persuaded a class of elementary school-aged children they should rebel against authority that tells them what to do, even when it comes to smoking. “My point is you have to think for yourself. You have to challenge authority,” he says, concluding, “If your parents told you that chocolate was dangerous, would you take their word for it?” Naylor’s job consists in defending the tobacco industry against smoking prevention policies. While Naylor’s character is disingenuous and even unethical, his methods demonstrate how to argue and spin a convincing sales pitch to get consumers interested in your product.
Naylor begins where all marketing professionals begin, with a problem statement: I work for cigarette companies. This involves the class by presenting something controversial, triggering a child to raise her hand and share that her mother said cigarettes are bad. Naylor then shifts to tailor his pitch to her concerns, personalizing it for his target audience by asking the child if her mother is a doctor. Having shown how to challenge the authority of a parent, Eckhart introduces stakes that directly address the risks of listening to parents blindly and the value of thinking for yourself. By arguing that independent-minded behavior is more relevant to their lives than parental opinion or personal health, Naylor has established a new buying path for future consumers – no matter if they’re old enough to buy a pack.
(Robert Downey Sr, 1969)
If you remember anything about Super Bowl 50, you undoubtedly recall Mountain Dew’s freaky Puppy Monkey Baby commercial. Disturbing and strange, the ad featured three men sitting on a couch when suddenly a creature with the head of a pug puppy, the body of a monkey, and the legs of a baby arrives holding an ice bucket of cold sodas, chanting “PuppyMonkeyBaby” over and over as if willing itself into existence. The three men each receive a soda and a peck from the pug head before all four creatures sashay out the room in a conga line. The commercial was a hit, with some arguing it was the most memorable Super Bowl commercial ever made.
The commercial’s success germinated when it was observed that the most popular ads during the Superbowl had cute puppies, babies, or a monkey. By mashing up the three archetypes, this attention-grabbing commercial exemplified the pinnacle of weird irreverence in American marketing. Irreverence, which is defined lacking proper respect or seriousness, has proved an excellent tool for marketing professionals when you need to clear the cobwebs of tradition to address a youthful audience. Nowhere in cinematic history is this irreverence more palpable than in the 1969 film Putney Swope.
Written and directed by Iron Man’s father, Robert Downey Sr, Putney Swope is a crass, counterculture satire that pioneered the idea of using irreverence in marketing campaigns. The film follows a lone black man on an executive board who’s accidentally put in charge of an advertising firm. Renaming the agency “Truth and Soul, Inc.” he fires everyone, hires a crew of Black Panthers, and institutes a policy forbidding business from companies that manufacture alcohol, tobacco and war toys.
As a take on advertising, television, and politics, Putney Swope takes no prisoner by mercilessly making wicked fun. Shot in black and white, the film is peppered with extreme behavior and features outrageous TV commercials that appear in color for emphasis. As one writer pointed out, “Putney Swope has shock value, but its real power is in presenting ideas incompatible with MPAA-approved film content. Its obscenities are so refined, they’re baroque”. Undoubtedly, the tone of the film was ahead of its time. Check out the film’s fictional advertisement for Ethereal Cereal, and you’ll see a commercial that could easily appear in today’s irreverent marketplace.
While these films may offer a shallow view of the true world of marketing, they also apply concepts used in everyday marketing strategies like value propositions, appealing to an audience, and striking adventurous with irreverence. Even though they present more as satire than reality, the situations and strategies are still relevant today.
Brian Foley is a former college professor turned freelance content writer who spends his days in the company of his two true loves: books and records. When he's not poring over the pages of minor poets or scouring the city for weird vinyl, you can find him lounging on the couch with his cat Dario Argento and a weird cult film playing in the background.