Anghus Houvouras on the Anchorman 2 publicity campaign and how it challenges the idea that there is no bad publicity…
Somebody, somewhere once said there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I don’t know who it was. In my mind it’s some well dressed, finely coiffed advertising executive from the Mad Men era with a drink in one hand, uttering the sentence through clutched teeth while chewing on a fine cigar. The phrase has often been attributed to the great carnival barker PT Barnum, who, in his defense, was selling tickets to shows about man eating lions and freak shows featuring bearded women and lizard men.
The phrase has been lifted and used heavily over the years by pitch men and suits in the marketing department to try and spin anything and everything into positive word of mouth. It’s an idiotic assertion. The idea that even the most repellent action can have a positive spin. The movie industry seems hell bent on the idea that PT Barnum was right: that every little terrible thing that happens has some kind of silver lining.
The Dark Knight films come to mind when applying this theory. Heath Ledger tragically overdoses on prescription pills, and movie goes on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time and Ledger wins an Oscar posthumously. One could argue that Ledger’s death, while awful and heartbreaking, wasn’t exactly bad publicity for the finished film.
On the other hand you have The Dark Knight Rises, marred by the tragedy of an opening night shooting in Colorado. I have a hard time seeing that as anything other than bad publicity. I doubt anyone would even bother arguing to the contrary.
The truth is, there is bad publicity. Did any of the volumes of negative press that Lindsay Lohan get help any of her films? Was The Canyons benefited by her ridiculous amount of publicity she generates? How about Kick-Ass 2. Did Jim Carrey’s sudden aversion to violence and public statements denouncing the film do a thing to help the production? Absolutely not.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is another story. It’s the first movie I can remember that seems ridiculously over-marketed beyond the saturation point. Ron Burgundy has been everywhere, for months. Hawking Dodge Durango’s on TV, doing viral newscasts in small television markets, appearing on every talk show known to man or God. And frankly, I think it actually diminished interest in the finished film.
The first Anchorman was one of those weird, subversive films that was so weird people didn’t quite know what to make of it. Even I, a huge fan of the movie, was somewhat puzzled the first time I saw it. I liked it, but it wasn’t until I picked it up on DVD and watched it a dozen more times that the true genius of the film became apparent. Like many of you, I spent a good couple of years quoting the film at every and any opportunity. When I worked with Danny Trejo on a film, I practically begged him to re-enact the bar scene from the end of Anchorman while having dinner at a waffle house. I can quote the film from front to back, and will do so with very little persuasion. What I’m saying is, I like Anchorman. The announcement of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues was something to celebrate.
But then back in October, it began. Those commercials. Those damn commercials which just wouldn’t stop. Every sporting event, every prime time television show, there he was: standing on stage talking about Dodge cars and trucks. Then there was the endless print articles and magazine ads, story after story online, reddit links to YouTube videos showing Will Ferrell in character, interviews with Peyton Manning on ESPN. And it went on… endlessly.
Megan Wahtera, Paramount’s senior vice-president of interactive marketing, said. “It’s our job to feed the frenzy.” All sorts of media analysts are praising the ad campaign as if it’s something to celebrate. It’s not.
I understand the goal of marketing is to put asses in seats. In that respect, the job has been done. However, the marketing for Anchorman 2 is so grand and permeates so many different layers that it’s actually a little off putting. The marketing for Anchorman 2 makes the whole project feel desperate. In it’s largess, the marketing ends up making the final film feel kind of tiny and tinny. I liked Anchorman 2, but frankly I felt a little winded by the time I got to the theater to see it. The fun of the first film was not knowing what to expect. The concept was fun. The execution was crazy and over the top. It was one of those weird, wonderful movies where anything could happen. Instead of going into Anchorman 2 with that same sense of the unexpected, I had three months of commercials to remind me of the gags.
Anchorman 2 was oversold, and because it was the sequel was a deflating experience. It’s a funny film, but it feels like the barrage of marketing (and frankly there’s no other word for it) dulled the sharp corners of this comedy. Ron Burgundy and the Action News Team are great in small doses. In a 90 minute film, they are fantastic. But a three month marketing blitz had worn the shine off the whole concept. The media wants to create a frenzy, but no fevered pitch can sustain for that length of time. Maybe if they’d started the campaign later the impact wouldn’t have been so hard. However, I think a softer touch might have served the film and the box office better. I’m not dumb enough to claim there was any kind of backlash, but I know that there are people out there who felt a little fatigue from inescapable mug of Ron Burgundy on every television, magazine, computer monitor, and mobile device.
Too much publicity can be bad publicity. The goal of ‘total market saturation’ might work on a four quadrant film. But on a bizarre, over the top comedy like Anchorman 2, this kind of marketing super storm feels grossly overdone.
What do you think?
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon.