The Art of the Sell — “I Want My MTV”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

“Just moments ago, all of the VJs and the crew here at MTV collectively hit our executive producer, Sue Steinberg, over the head with a bottle of champagne and behold: a new concept is born,” Mark Goodman said to a camera shortly after midnight on Saturday, August 1, 1981. He promised the new cable network would deliver to viewers “the best of TV combined with the best of radio.” I suppose it’s up for debate whether it truly delivered the optimal qualities of the name mediums, but across the next decade there’s no question it propelled a revolution in the music business.

Before MTV could change all the rules of why and how songs became hits, it had to actually get in front of viewers. As opposed to the endless landscape of minutely targeted networks that make us the average channel lineup now (not to mention the streaming options that deliver programming on demand), space on the dial — not really proverbial at the time  — was at a high premium. MTV was ready to rock, but it was reaching precious few sets.

Network executives knew the only way MTV would expand its reach was through viewer demand. Cable operators didn’t care about the cajoling by the people running the network, but if the households footing the monthly bill for pay television called up and demanded the addition of MTV to their channel lineups, then things could change. MTV hired the ad agency run by the famed George Lois, and he essentially recycled a concept from one of his cereal commercials made a couple decades earlier. Instead of a child angrily demanding Maypo, there would be a procession of rock stars yelling, “I want my MTV!”

The campaign was deployed strategically to different major media markets. According to Tom Freston, the president of MTV’s parent company Viacom at the cable channel’s launch, the response was immediate.

“Within three weeks, every cable operator in the market would call up and say, ‘Okay, I give up. I’ll take it,'” Freston remembered.

Before long, MTV was just about everywhere, and — for a time, anyway — it was practically impossible to turn a song into a hit without an accompanying eye-catching video. I doubt even the more optimistic early adopters of the channel saw that coming. Outcomes can be surprising when you give the people what they want.


The Art of the Sell, XTC, “Making Plans for Nigel”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

xtc nigel

I think of the various college rock bands from my youth as being hobbled by a lack of inspired promotion by their record labels. Then again, XTC got a whole board game to help push their 1979 single “Making Plans for Nigel.” What I wouldn’t give for a Dirty Computer game (as opposed to a dirty computer game, which I really don’t need, thanks).

The Art of the Sell — “The Courage to Change”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

This has been a tough day for me and for anyone who has a political outlook roughly in line with mine. The Supreme Court of the United States delivered one more clotheslining of reasonable social progress and protection for average, working citizens, the latest, most pointed victory of the Republican long game to preserve the existing power structure in unyielding amber. And then it got worse.

So I hold on the the shards of sunshiny hope breaking through the ominous clouds, such as last night’s joyful victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York House seat Democratic primary that was supposed to be completely settled for the venerable incumbent. The sitting Congressman she defeated was by most measures a fine public servant (and was admirably magnanimous in defeat), but the triumph of a working class twentysomething of Latin descent feels wonderfully like a better future arriving ahead of schedule.

The major new media wants to position Ocasio-Cortez’s win as murmur of party insurrection, all the better to fit their preferred narrative of constant conflict. The Democratic nominee, bless her, isn’t having it. A campaign video, entitled “The Courage to Change,” tells the real story of her unlikely ascendency. Like other candidates who’ve scored historic wins over the course of the past year or so, Ocasio-Cortez secured her achievement by talking with, to, and for people who need their government to stand up for them. Instead of mealy, fearful caution and obsequious preservation of the status quo, Ocasio-Cortez spoke movingly about who she was and how she would use her own history as moral touchstone to do better for the average citizenry.

Politically, by my reckoning, today was a rotten day. I still believe there are blessedly different times ahead. If the message of people like Ocasio-Cortez prevails, the dire circumstances of now just might stir a brighter, bolder, more naturally empathetic generation to a level of engagement that will finally, permanently transform our society for the better.


The Art of the Sell — “The Player” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Player ,The

In the early nineteen-nineties, movie poster design was increasingly dominated by incredibly dull images. As movie star salaries spiked, there was a clear reticence to sell a blockbuster hopeful in any manner other than the celebrities at the top of the cast list. If a studio paid a lot of money for Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, they damn well wanted to sell Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn on the poster. If the poster conveyed practically nothing else about the movie as a result, it didn’t seem to stir any worry with the Hollywood muckety-mucks.

For smaller, independent films, the cast was usually a touch to the side of the point, at least in cajoling moviegoers into buying a ticket. Those films also were a little more complicated, making them difficult to distill down to a single image that could reasonably convey what potential moviegoers would find if they were willing to purchase a ticket. That often led to great ingenuity, and few posters from the era exemplify that quite as well as the one-sheet for Robert Altman’s The Player. The film’s bleakly comic view of Hollywood is perfectly communicated by the the inspired visual of a noose fashioned out of celluloid. Even the pastel sunset hints at a glamorous world in decline.

The poster is an ideal representation of an utterly fantastic film. As much as love Altman’s caustic satire, I have to admit when The Player comes to mind, I think of the poster first.


The Art of the Sell — Converse, “For guys who want to keep playing….”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 


Friends, Converse shoes have been my primary footwear for a long, long time, and I can assure you that I have never found them to have this sort of effect on lounging, bikini-clad companions. To be fair, I’ve always worn Chuck Taylors rather than Coach or Jack Purcells, but I refuse to believe those low-top compromises would produce superior outcomes in attracting other sentient human beings.

This is such an odd ad, anyway. It’s like someone in the pitch room said, “Well, sex sells,” and everyone shrugged and replied, “Good enough.”

The Art of the Sell — “You and Me and ABC”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

By now, we are well past the point that television programming is a sad, forlorn cousin of other pop culture art forms. There are simply too many offerings that approach the level of true genius, especially across cable and streaming platforms. The broadcast networks still lag behind, in part because of the dampening limits that come with currying the favor of the churlish, fickle FCC and in part due to the squeamishness of commercial advertisers who still provide a sizable chunk of the revenue. I also think a certain tepidness might be so firmly embedded in the networks’ respective DNA strands that a certain flatness is hard to shake.

This week, the networks are engaging in the spectacle of the upfronts, in which they eagerly pitch their fall lineup to potential sponsors. The basic concept is antiquated, fully disconnected from the yearlong process of releasing new programs. That mustiness makes it charming to me, stirring a nostalgia for my distant boyhood, when no single publication was more exciting than the annual “Fall Preview” issue of TV Guide. A insatiable consumer of television, I was enthralled by every bit of promotion that celebrated the broadcast entertainment to come.

And back then, they really knew how to pull out the razzle-dazzle to sell a network lineup. Modern upfronts might have a dose of showmanship to them, but they’re nothing like the campaigns of yesteryear. I’d like to see one of the current networks pull off something like the “You and Me and ABC” production number that placed a bevy of stars from across the schedule on a garishly adorned stage for a song and dance number.


The Art of the Sell — Mojo Nixon for MTV

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

In the most recent College Countdown entry, I became reacquainted with the Dead Kennedys, including some of the more eye-rolling aspects of Jello Biafra’s posturing. Chief among the more insipid rages against the machine on the album Frankenchrist is the track “MTV — Get Off the Air,” which takes aim at the cable channel that once stood for “Music Television.” At the time, the network was a familiar target for anyone with an indier-than-thou attitude. The animosity wasn’t entirely unearned, but I hearing that Dead Kennedys song again stirred me to think about how many amazing artists I encountered for the first time through MTV. Living in a place well away from college radio or any other FM outlets with a sense of daring, MTV likely provided my first exposure to a legion of vital performers: The Cure, the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., The Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock, and countless more.

And I know for certain that MTV introduced me to Mojo Nixon, although his music was, at best. a secondary component. Around the time “Elvis is Everywhere” became a novelty hit, MTV enlisted Nixon to star in some interstitial bumpers. Seemingly delivered as improvisational sermons on his various obsessions, the segments were riveting cornpone, unpolished and delivered with verve. When Nixon expounded on his personal Holy Trinity of Elvis Presley, Foghorn Leghorn, and Otis Campbell (or, as Nixon more clearly put it, “Otis, the drunk from The Andy Griffith Show“), his conviction was admirable.

When I finally did make it to a place with a first-rate college radio station, I thankfully found my way into the studio. And I routinely sought out Nixon’s album with his partner, Skid Roper. I had a few catalysts to that particular playlist choice, including peers and rave reviews in favored music magazines. Almost every time I played one of his songs, though, I realized the genesis of my interest started deep on the cable dial.