Truth In Advertising
Over the last few days something interesting happened that sets a weird kind of precedent for the future of film marketing; a class of fourth graders from The Park School in Brookline, Mass. successfully lobbied Universal Pictures to include a “Green Tips” page to the promotional web site for the studio’s upcoming CG adaptation of The Lorax. The campaign began thanks to the efforts of the children’s teacher, Ted Wells, who teaches the book to his classes every year.
“Each year my students are inspired to do more for the planet after reading the book,” Wells said. The book, written by Dr. Seuss, focuses on a small creature known as a Lorax, who speaks for the trees and attempts to halt the thoughtless destruction of a forest. However, following the debut of the trailer for the film adaptation, there was a sense among Wells and his class that something was awry. “They saw The Lorax trailer, and to them, the movie looked more like an adventure and romance, like it had totally lost its message about helping the planet.”
So Wells and his students began a petition on Change.org in December as part of a class project. Included in the petition was a list of ways which Universal might make the marketing for the film match the heart of the book. In under a month they had gained over 50,000 signatures on their petition, and on January 27 it was announced that The Lorax web page would be changed to allow for a list of tips for going green, in the spirit of Dr. Seuss’s book.
This is an impressive feat for this group, but it also raises a strange kind of question involving the way a film is marketed. It seems to me that when a film is brought to the public consciousness, a great deal of its deeper content and intent is lost in the process. Inception, for instance, was not marketed as an in depth exploration of loss and memory – it was positioned as a cerebral action flick. The Grey, likewise, was stripped of all of its spiritual and existential import in order to make it appear as though it would be just another run-of-the-mill thriller. There is an understanding among audiences and marketers that a film can be more than what it appears, and that understanding has served both parties pretty well up until now.
However, with the victory scored by Wells and his ambitious class of environmentally conscious students, we now have to ask ourselves – does a film that delivers a message or treatise have an obligation to make that message a part of its advertising?
The question is two-fold, so far as I can see it, and each side of the coin offers ample pros and cons regarding this idea of full disclosure. On the one hand, many more people will see the trailers and commercials for The Lorax than will actually see the movie. It’s a simple truth that advertising never has a 100% return on exposure. So if a film like The Lorax does come along and offer a worthwhile and timely message, then attaching that message to the marketing for the film will lead to more people receiving that message. In this way, it can be ensured that the environmentally conscious message behind the film is seen and understood even by those who do not see the film, thereby having a larger positive impact than the film itself would have.
Running counter to this, though, is the fact that even though the film has a message it wants to deliver, that is only a small part of its reason for existing. At its very core, film is a commercial medium, one that requires the greatest possible number of paying observers to continue. By marketing a film in terms of simple “action” or “romance,” as Wells says The Lorax does, the studio is ensuring that the film has the widest possible appeal. There is a large swath of the population that does not want to be lectured during films, especially “lighter” fare such as children’s films. If the trailers for Happy Feet had involved apocalyptic scenes of environmental damage and penguins driven to insanity by captivity, odds are I would not have offered to watch it with my nephew. I wasn’t looking for a film that would push challenging and frankly dark ideas on to me – I just wanted something fun to watch with my nephew, who happens to love penguins.
This isn’t to say that films should seek to bleed themselves of any deeper meaning or purpose, and in my eyes Happy Feet suffered because of the way in which it modulated the change from musical farce to bleak doomsaying (these things have to be modulated, after all). What I am saying, however, is that while a film might attempt to make a statement, it might not be the responsibility of the marketing to make sure that the public knows that from the outset. After all, marketing is not part of the film – marketing is the tease that makes you want to see a film in the first place. Once the people are through the door, the film has free reign to do as it deems, up to and including pushing a message. In fact, including the message a film seeks to deliver in the marketing could have the opposite of the intended effect – it might actually demean the point it is trying to make.
I think it is admirable that Wells and his students were able to make Universal include an environmental section on its promotional web page, and I think that Universal is smart to leave it at that. Commercials and trailers were never meant to be the means by which a film delivers its meaning precisely because of their brevity and remove from the story. If Dr. Seuss’s book had simply consisted of the words “don’t cut down trees” the story would not have been as moving or affecting as it is. By including a message in a commercial you are basically wringing out the emotional and narrative foundation of that message, reducing it to its most basic and lifeless state. We care about the trees because the Lorax cares about the trees, and we care about the Lorax because he is a living breathing character with a nemesis and a purpose.
Wells himself even seems to support this idea, however unconsciously, in the above quote. “Each year my students are inspired to do more for the planet after reading the book.” After reading the book. If Wells spent the first few weeks withholding the book and simply saying “be better to the environment” the book might lose its power, because instead of being a story with a message, it would be seen as a message veiled in a story.
I do hope that The Lorax keeps the environmental message in its story. I recall being a young child and reading that book and becoming more conscious of my place in the world. I think that the power of films and books to make us considering larger truths like that is incredible. To try to recreate or even augment that same artistic and soulful act in the form of a minute-long trailer would be doing a disservice to Dr. Seuss’s creation and the idea of meaning in storytelling all together.
Still, for the time being my hat is off to Wells and his class, even though I think the world of commerce and art is a lot murkier than they would like to believe, and perhaps even more so now.