Unsound bites

Unsound bites

The launch marketing of The American foundered on a clash between two cinematic cultures, which is ironic given the subject of the film. The abuse of marketing in US and UK politics threatens social and cultural integrity itself.

When Anton Corbijn’s The American was released it was sold as an action vehicle for George Clooney, set in gorgeous Italian landscapes. I wasn’t excited at the prospect, so when I recently caught up with the film I was pleasantly surprised. Although the film has the semblance of a thriller plot (Clooney plays an assassin lying low after some kind of screw up in Sweden), it was barely an action movie at all, but rather a meditation on the dehumanising effects of living without commitment or the emotional burden of ethics.

Clooney, and indeed all the other actors are very good. Once you’ve worked out where it’s going the story is predictable, but then the story’s not really the point. The film is engaging, in a laid back way. It doesn’t have anything complicated to say, but quite a lot to show.

It’s easy to see the film itself as a working through of feelings about the influence of Hollywood on European cinema. There’s even a pointed scene where Sergio Leonie’s Once Upon a Time in the West is showing on a TV in a bar. Clooney’s presence sets up expectations of the kind of film this might be, and then goes off in a different direction. It’s an acknowledgement of American craft and skill, while insisting that there’s a bigger universe out there.

The American had a limited budget and has made a decent profit, but it didn’t have its producers’ desired impact on release. Perhaps the trailers were part of the problem, editing together some of the film’s few action sequences, so the reality was bound to disappoint people who’d gone along expecting something like Taken.

Marketing is an important part of the Hollywood machine. It can account for 60 per cent of a blockbuster’s budget, which seems ironic when you’d have thought the point of a blockbuster concept is that it should more or less sell itself. The reality is more complicated, particularly in a world where there are so many competing claims on our attention (worryingly for Hollywood, US cinema attendance by those under 24 has fallen sharply in recent years).

But you have to wonder at the wisdom of trying to sell a film (or anything) as something that it’s not. Some kind of backlash will always be likely, and social media will amplify that backlash.

It also goes against what I’d always understood as a fundamental principle of marketing, which is to match the nature of a proposition to its most likely receptive audience, and to make sure they get to hear your story. This means the proposition has to be grounded in truth.

To take another, smaller example, one of my favourite films of the last 20 years is Peter Chesholm’s Funny Bones. It’s a quirky British film, about the nature of comedy, and coincidentally also considers transatlantic influence. It’s apparent from the cover of the DVD that the marketing people didn’t have a clue how to sell it: the box carries an image of Jerry Lewis and Oliver Platt which doesn’t appear in the film, contrived to suggest that this is a zany mainstream comedy, which it really isn’t. Fans of The Nutty Professor are not likely to be pleased. It’s as though the marketing people, faced with a difficult task, decided to perform a different task. In doing so they betray the film, and indeed the audiences they’ve misled. Perhaps they thought that if they could just persuade people to have a look at the film they’d be enchanted anyway, their lives enriched by pleasant surprise, but this for the most part is not how things work.

We can probably blame Edward Bernays for the creep of advertising’s dark arts into practically every aspect of our lives, really from the 1920s and his now notorious campaign to create a female-friendly image of tobacco, but it would probably have happened anyway with the development of mass media (alongside the development of psychology as a kind of science).

The manipulations of advertising, PR, or marketing don’t matter too much when they’re focused on your choice of washing powder, or even which films you might want to see. But they have to be more worrying when used in the service of more important decisions. The disconnect between promotion and reality around The American might have damaged the reputation of the film initially, but the film’s reality could be trusted to assert itself without long term consequences. This isn’t true of the political or social world, where the honing of the soundbite now threatens the democracy it was supposed to serve.

Consider the current favourite with the Brexit camp here in the UK: “take back control”. It took the campaign a while to get to this one, and it seems to be playing well with the disaffected British public, as I imagine the focus groups said it would. It’s not surprising, because the slogan does two simple things. It’s a dog whistle to anti-immigration sentiment (”take back control of our borders”) and an attempt to plug in to the widespread alienation from the political world. It promises power to those feeling powerless and disenfranchised, a power which could start with a cross on a ballot paper.

As a practitioner in this sleazy world of messaging I have to concede a certain amount of admiration for the craft of it. As a resident of the wider world, I can only express my disgust at its cynical duplicity. Immigration is unlikely to change whatever the result of the referendum, because the forces driving it are more complex and economically necessary than EU rules about freedom of movement. Nor will it hand power to ordinary people, but instead will strengthen the hands of those already gleefully tearing up the post-war social democratic settlement in this country.

It’s worse than a lie (though it is, without doubt, a calculated lie). It promises liberation, and a reinvigoration of the political process. When those hopes are inevitably disappointed it will only create further disillusionment and cynicism, as well as ushering in a plague of unintended consequences.

In a sense advertising has always been about crafting dissatisfaction, so it can offer a way forward to a different state. In doing this it’s trodden the margins of the real, the grey zone between the aspirational and a verifiable means to meet those aspirations (typically in the form of product features). But in political advertising we’ve already passed into the Orwellian world of newspeak, where war is peace, lies are the truth, where the most famous slogan in British advertising history (”Labour isn’t working”) ushered in a government that happily trebled unemployment within a year. Although it uses the tools of marketing, it’s actually the opposite of accepted marketing wisdom, and it can get away with this because unlike the commercial world, in the political world reality can take longer to assert itself.

We endure this as we endure the rain, as if it were a force of nature, as if nothing can be done. But it’s not like the rain. It’s more like a cancer eating at the body of society, and we need to recognise it for what it is if we’re ever going to find a cure.