Monday, November 18, 2013

“May the Profits Be Ever in Your Pockets”: How Promo for “The Hunger Games” Misses The Point.

Shockingly, for someone who models herself as something of a YA expert, I’ve never actually read the entirety of “The Hunger Games” series. It’s not because I don’t want to – I honestly do and I genuinely enjoyed the first book – but I have a serious case of series fatigue and too many books to read to get to “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay”. I’ll definitely be seeing the film upon release since I thought the first one actually surpassed the book in many areas.

However, the world outside of the movie, the one making and selling it to the masses, have missed the point of Suzanne Collins’s series so wildly that I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t even bothered to read the books themselves.

I was aware of the Subway promotion before I ever saw the TV adverts, but nothing could prepare me for the jaw dropping it caused when I actually caught one of the commercials in an ad break for “Agents of SHIELD” (seriously, don’t get me started on that show). The irony bell that occasionally rings in my head cracked under the pressure. Here was one of the most successful and well-known food chains in the world promoting their sandwiches with a tie-in to a film about citizens of an oppressive society who are starved to keep them complacent. How did they miss that? The series is called “The Hunger Games”. It’s in the title!

Subway’s regional marketing manager continued the startling lack of self-awareness by saying, "We wanted to create an experience that would enhance the film even further, and give Hunger Games and SUBWAY® fans the chance to relive the film both in-store and online".

What part of the experience will fans “relive” by buying Subway’s reasonably priced meal deal? The desperation of hunger and Katniss trying to hunt to feed her family? The fear of fighting for one’s life as millions around the country watch forced child murder as a form of entertainment? How about the indignity of being paraded around in ridiculous clothing to please a privileged few who see your impending death as must watch TV? Actually, there’s already a makeup line and tutorial series for that. I don’t know about you but I am just raring to dress up like an abettor of child murder. Then again, I would understand this more if it came from the fans because makeup tutorials and cosplay is a very fandom centred activity. Having it packaged and sold by a multi-million dollar corporation spoils that for me. The tone they take would be more subversive if it didn’t seem to copy their usual marketing shtick word for word.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, both for “The Hunger Games” promo and that of film in general. As well as delicious sandwiches, you can buy luxury chocolate inspired by the series (who doesn’t want to eat candy inspired by President Snow, that idol among men?) Then there’s the rumoured theme park attraction, which actually leaves me fearing for the minimum wage staff who would be employed there. Would they be the tributes or the games makers?

Suzanne Collins has expressed her support for the film’s promotional campaign, which to be fair, has been pretty well done outside of sandwich shilling (that’s done by a separate team, I believe). Those posters really are perfect both in context of Panem and our world.

Some promotions I get. The dolls, for example, make sense within the world’s context because you know the kids of the Capitol would probably buy dolls of the tributes since they’re treated like TV action stars. However, the other instances are so staggeringly insensitive and unaware of the product they’re shilling that it leaves me feeling embarrassed for the makers of the film. In the end, it feels as though the very dark and heart-wrenching events of the series are being trivialised in order to make a few quid. People complain about how dark and adult the content of the books are, but nobody can deny that it’s managed to engage millions of young people in a commendable way, and led them to ask important questions on topics like war, violence and the media. Cheap adverts for meatball subs add a patronising edge to the proceedings, dumbing discourse down for the young folks. It suggests that Subway and company believe they operate within the world of Panem. Please submit all appropriate jokes in the comments.

This is nothing new, of course. Crass commercialism of entertainment, particularly for young people, has gone on for many generations. I’d wager we all bought a Happy Meal at some point in our childhood (or made our parents buy us one) so we could get a specific film related toy. Disney is an expert in this area, as is their latest acquisition over at Lucasfilm, the “Star Wars” franchise. There’s a lot of money to be made in this area. This is how the industry operates today when it comes to big budget blockbusters.  

It’s the inevitable but still sad state of affairs and one we must be aware of when approaching this subject: big studios make films to make money. If they happen to be good films, all the better but as long as they make money it doesn’t really matter. A big film can make up to a third of its budget back just from a successful promotional cycle. Sometimes, entire movies were made just to shill a product, like “Mac and Me”, the embarrassing rip-off of “E.T.” where the aliens must eat McDonalds and drink Coca Cola to survive.

When studios take a product that comes with a strong and large built in fan-base as well as crossover appeal, the challenge is to figure out a way to capitalise on that perfect storm. There’s a way to do it. A Harry Potter theme park is genius because it allows the fan to be part of a world that people actually want to be a part of.

This was not the way to do it.


This is like promoting “Up” with adverts for a chain of funeral homes, or doing special deals on sushi to promote “Finding Nemo”. It’s the kind of cynical heartlessness and stupidity that even Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would drown their sorrows over (eh, Pete Campbell would probably like this idea). The total disregard for the real product at the centre of it – a female led action drama for young people with a strong satirical edge and commentary on the glorification of violence and oppression of the masses. It’s a powerful message, and to have it so obviously dumbed down in favour of profit feels not only hollow but akin to the work of the Capitol. 

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