Marketing is an industry that lives or dies by the selling of a concept. It can be as simple as convincing the public that your brand of soda offers a taste more preferable than competitors’, or it can be as cynical as crafting a deadly war. The principles at work are the same. It’s an idea that’s revisited in cinema time and again.
It’s a hard truth but there are lessons worth learning from even the most satirical, biting takes on the industry.
Crazy People (1990)
It helps, occasionally, to be blunt in advertising. That’s why Dudley Moore’s campaign in Crazy People actually kind of works. It shouldn’t. It was concocted by mental patients Moore spends time with after a nervous breakdown.
Still, who is going to deny that Volvo’s are “Boxy, but good?”
Others, like suggesting that Greece might be a better vacation spot because “the French are annoying” might not sell. But we’ve seen evidence, particularly in recent years, that sometimes bluntness is effective. Seems to work for Buckley’s, whose slogan is “It tastes awful and it works.”
Wag The Dog (1997)
It wasn’t meant to be a particularly landmark film. Wag the Dog was slated into Barry Levinson’s schedule as a small project while he prepped the much larger budgeted adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Sphere.
After the president becomes embroiled in a sex scandal (a prescient one month prior to Monica Lewinsky), Washington spin man Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) decides to distract everyone by staging a war in Albania—complete with footage produced by Hollywood legend Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman, channeling Robert Evans).
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Wag The Dog is how it makes use of a fairly new concept in marketing in 1997: that of “astroturfing,” or making a PR campaign appear grassroots while actually being meticulously designed. In the film, Brean and Motss implant the idea for people to throw their shoes on telephone wires in patriotic support of a “war hero” named Schumann.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1994)
Part of the joys of David Mamet’s films is how they work both in the genre of con man movies just as much as they do jargon-heavy dives into the various occupations inhabited by alpha males.
Four down-on-their-luck real estate salesmen have the screws put to them by top seller Alec Baldwin, who informs them they all have one night to make quota or “hit the bricks.”
Every performance is downright incredible, but what Mamet’s characters are poorly attempting to use are the same principles marketers have been applying since Robert Cialdini’s book Influence was released in 1984 (the same year the play won the Pulitzer): Reciprocity, Liking, Social Proof, Authority and Scarcity. Each of these ideas come into play whenever the four salesmen are working a mark. The great irony comes toward the end, when one of them is finally caught and can’t talk his way out of it.
It should be noted that Mamet had a hand in writing Wag The Dog, as well.
Kenny Hedges | Contributing Writer