The Art of the Sell — Ethics Training with Kim Wexler

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

Now that Better Call Saul has an officially announced endpoint, it’s the appropriate time to start campaigning for a new spinoff called The Kim Wexler Chronicles, right?

Given the thrust of this feature, I should tap out a few words enthusing over the cleverness of this promotional video, but I’ll instead use my digital bandwidth to note that it’s completely ludicrous that Rhea Seehorn has never earned an Emmy nomination for her performance on this series.


The Art of the Sell — Knives Out, “Ode to the Murder Mystery”

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

Conceding that the most recent weekend’s box office results provide further proof that repetitive familiarity breeds riches for U.S. filmmakers, there was also a continuation of the recent heartening sign that audiences are increasingly interested in shelling out dollars for material that wasn’t built on an existing brand. Of course, the reasonably hefty take for Rian Johnson’s Knives Out was helped along greatly by an inspired and wide-ranging marketing campaign. Without a doubt, the promotional piece that delighted me most was a brief video entitled “Ode to the Murder Mystery” that features Johnson making like a modern-day Alfred Hitchcock to genially invite viewers into the world of his giddy, twisty whodunit. The spirit Johnson winningly brought to his film is entirely present in this throwback pitch. Better than any other preview, poster, or interview, this video lets moviegoers know what they’re in for.

The Art of the Sell — Young MC for Pepsi Cool Cans

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

pepsi cool cans

In the spring of 1990, Public Enemy released their third studio album, Fear of a Black Planet. The incendiary record continued the group’s leveraging of the thumping forcefulness of rap music against the bigotry-driven injustice perpetrated by the nation of millions engaged in a futile effort to hold them back. As much or more than the vaunted protest rock of the nineteen-sixties and early-nineteen-seventies, rap was the soundtrack to revolution. It reverberated with danger and possibility. The emergent musical form was simultaneously in the process of being ruthlessly consumed by the relentless forces of capitalism, which never met a rebellious force it couldn’t co-opt.

That same year, the epitome of a declawed rap star was cheerily making his way through the commercial landscape. In 1989, Young MC released his debut album, Stone Cold Rhymin’, which included the irresistible Top 10 single “Bust a Move.” Besides the enduring mystery of why about-to-be-married Larry would bypass his brother Harry for best man duties in favor of Harry’s closest chum, “Bust a Move” delivered Young MC a Grammy win (besting De La Soul and Public Enemy, among others) and a robust docket of endorsement deals. As Chris Rock noted in a comedy routine at the time, rap music had so quickly and thoroughly transformed from menacing to cuddly that even the Pillsbury Doughboy was spitting out rhymes. (The example sounds like comic hyperbole, but in this instance Rock was an accurate reporter.) And Young MC was eager to play along with the corporate taming of rap music, showing there wasn’t all that much distance between club jam and joyful jingle.

The team player ethos of Young MC was probably best demonstrated by his commercial for Taco Bell, for which he skillfully incorporated the chain’s “Run for the Border” slogan into a closing rhyme. But the ad I remember best found the fresh-faced rapper touting the designer packing gimmick employed by Pepsi, one last charge for supremacy in the waning days of the Great Cola War of the eighties. The commercial included the indignity of translating Young MC’s lyrics for the presumably square audience watching, as if he use of terminology like “hype receptacles” was going to require a kindly airline passenger stepping forward to explain she speaks jive. Mostly, though, the ad sticks in my mind because no matter how many times I saw it (and the thing was in near-constant rotation when it was current) I always expected the couplet “Cool cans are comin’, so don’t be afraid/ And if you get lucky, then you might get paid” was instead going to end with a different rhyming word that suggested the desired outcome for an individual actively seeking a partner for sexual congress. If still wish Young MC had delivered that version of the line. There’s more than one way to fight the power.

The Art of the Sell — Movie tie-in trading cards

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

halloween for grown ups

My obsession with movies predates my ability to see a lot of them. When I was a kid, moviegoing was a rare endeavor, so I often find myself experiencing the biggest cinematic endeavors through the promotional tie-ins I could pick up at the local grocery store with the handful of coins gifted to me by adults. I bought comic book adaptations and novelizations, and on occasion I grabbed a waxy package that promised a stale shard of gum and a handful of cardboard rectangles that included images culled from the blockbusters of the day.

Movies obviously weren’t the only part of the culture captured in trading card format. Sports heroes are the obvious and most prevalent figures populating trading cards, and there were also loads of nicely cheap collectibles devoted to comic books, television shows, and, eventually, arcade games. The movie cards always held a special appeal for me, though. They got me closer to the flickering spectacles cast upon those big screens. They were a compromise, to be sure, but also a reasonable stopgap as I waited longingly for the day when I was finally able to decide which tickets to but, which films to support, which experiences to chase. Until then, I could at least ponder these shots out of context, using my imagination to fill in all the frames in between.

The Art of the Sell — Alien 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. 

alien movie poster

When it came time to create a poster for its strange new horror film in space, 20th Century Fox turned to one of the best in the business. The studio hired Bill Gold, who’d made his name on no less than the poster art for Casablanca and had only bolstered his reputation in the decades since with striking, unforgettable designs to help promote Dirty Harry, The Wild Bunch, The Sting, and countless others. Gold had a knack for creating iconic campaigns that almost outshone the movies themselves, even when they were classics. And Gold delivered an image that was truly amazing for Alien, a one-sheet design that featured a close-up on a face bathed in red light, the mouth wide in a scream, the eyes seemingly ripped away to reveal the vastness of space instead. In direct opposition to the satisfied assurances of many obituaries printed in solemn response to Gold’s recent passing, his design didn’t prevail, however.

Instead, Fox rejected Gold’s pass at the campaign and turned to another design firm, where Steve Frankfurt and Philip Gips tried to figure out how to get some attention for this grim film with a tricky premise and no major stars. They locked in on the idea of the menacing, murderous aliens incubating, and placed a modified version of the egg that appears in the film against a black background. The egg is cracking open, and a creepy green light sprays forth. As memorable as the image is, the effectiveness of the poster is made by the tagline, which was lit upon by Barbara Gips, Philip Gips’s wife, as she washed dishes. “In space no one can hear you scream” arguably stands as one of the movie poster taglines that defines its film as much or more than element that actually resides with the frames.

As I’ve acknowledged previously, the print ads for Alien, built around the poster design, frightened the skeleton right out of me when I was a kid. Well before I’d ever seen Alien, the movie terrified me. Now that’s a helluva ad campaign.

The Art of the Sell — TV Guide listings ads

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

tv guide ad

The primacy of one particular periodical in my pop culture–obsessed youth can’t be overstated. There was a time, tender young souls, when knowing what programs were going to appear on television required the consultation of regularly published reference materials. At one point, TV Guide had the highest circulation of any magazine in the U.S., the satisfying little slab of pages offering mostly cheerful puffery about small-screen celebrities and, most importantly, a complete listing of everything airing on television across an entire week. The descriptions in the listings were merely perfunctory, giving only the barest idea of what might be happening in any given episode. Discerning readers knew to peruse the ads.

The major networks snapped up column inches positioned around the prime time listings to tout the latest episodes of their priority series. The ads were structured with a common format: images of the stars lumped together, pithy plot summaries, and always — always! — the promise of grand entertainment for those tuning in. In addition to providing urgent promotion, the ads were a barometer of the respective shows’ popularity. As series withered in the ratings, the ads for them grew smaller and less prominent, until that already canceled series just burning off episodes were lucky to get a tiny corner in a different ad, touting other shows airing on the same night. Well before ratings information was readily available to anyone who clicked their way to it, I was keenly aware of the sad fate befalling some of my favorite shows by the ad space they were afforded.

TV Guide is still published, but I haven’t picked up a copy in ages, confident the digital grid that greets me at a button push will provide more than enough information for me. And the DVR is going to catch everything I’m likely to watch anyway. I do miss flipping  pages, my anticipation juiced by the cheery, simple marketing efforts. Mentally planning my week of television viewing was almost as good as sitting in front of the set and soaking it all in. Actually, I think sometimes the planning was even better.

The Art of the Sell — “Star Wars” trailer

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

A long time ago, a studio’s marketing team was charged with convincing the general public that an adventure story set in outer space was worthy of their time, attention, and spending money. According to Hollywood lore, Star Wars was a movie practically no one believed in, including the writer-director’s closest compatriots. (Steven Spielberg was a notable exception, declaring the inevitability of a huge box office haul for the film after screening an early cut.) The 20th Century Fox executives surely cringed at the realization that one of their strongest selling points, the central involvement of “George Lucas, the man who brought you American Graffiti,” was going to be undercut by a collection of images that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the nostalgic hit.

Well after the complicated particulars of the Star Wars saga have cemented themselves into the cultural firmament, with pending ninth feature film in the main series representing a remarkably small sliver of the fantastical creation’s sprawl, it’s difficult to properly contextualize how bizarre the visuals must have seemed when the trailer to the original film started appearing in theaters. How did audiences puzzle out the laser swords, the clanking robots, and the hulking, furry beast in the cockpit of a spaceship? No matter how widely Star Wars references would someday be applied, there was once a time when a promotional effort was so utterly detached from the mythos that an announcer would be called upon to portentously describe the first film as “The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe.”