March 16, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES, MAD MEN and Marketing Restraint (Pop Culture Apocalypse Minus 7)

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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The eagerly-awaited Season 5 of the most honored series on television, an interminable 17 months in the making, contents itself with a single enigmatic image:  Don Draper staring into a department store window, his reflected gaze held by two mannequins, one a naked female, her dress at her feet, the other a seated man in pajamas and robe, his legs crossed.  All their faces–the mannequins’ and Don’s–are blank.  
The even more eagerly-awaited feature film version of the book series that’s sold tens of millions of copies barely shows a frame of what occurs after the movie’s first hour, keeping the story’s most intense and controversial sequences unseen until the movie opens.

The marketing campaigns for both MAD MEN and THE HUNGER GAMES fly in the face of everything we’ve come to know about movie and TV advertising.  Months before theit movies open, giant special effects sequences from The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are released in trailers and posted on the web; on television, we’re grateful if the tease for the following week’s episode doesn’t spoil every reason to watch.  Keeping a drama’s highlights close to the vest is so unusual these days that it even causes suspicion.  Surely, there must be some ulterior motive–otherwise, where are our instant thrills?
The hyping of television shows and, especially, movies, has become part of the hype itself–call it the Meta-Hype Effect.  (Considering that Mad Men is itself the story of a brilliant advertising mind, that one is more like Meta Squared.)  These days, the failure of a quarter-billion dollar franchise investment is laid at the feet of a single trailer, while the strategies and amounts spent to create buzz themselves become part of the buzz.  In this context, the smartest thing to do may be comparatively little.  The very fact that critical information is being withheld (in the case of Mad Men, pretty much all information) makes the work itself feel like that much more of an event.
Both Mad Men and Hunger Games have the advantage of pre-sold audiences (on, admittedly, utterly different scales), which allows for some risk-taking.  But both still need to connect with potential fans:  AMC (and Lionsgate Television, the show’s production company), believe me, want some new viewers to join Mad Men, a show whose audience has always been puny compared to its acclaim.  Hunger Games is the biggest all-in movie bet Lionsgate has ever made–and just ask the makers of The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson whether beloved book series inevitably lead to hit movies.  The marketing departments have decided that a taste is better than a full plate, and while we won’t know for a week or so how the gambles have played out, the originality of the attempts are worth noting.
What the hell does that Mad Men image mean?  What matters is that you’re asking the question.  What happens after that girl volunteers to be a Tribute (whatever that is)?  Well, see the movie and you’ll find out.  It may  not be a bad strategy.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."