MOVIE TRAILERS: Free samples, but of what?


The universe of audio-visual heralds for audio-visual entertainments keeps expanding, as I hope to have demonstrated in these posts. Consequently, I find myself revising my definition, conception and understanding of what “trailers” (in the broadest sense) are in order to include new functionality, new media for their dissemination, and all necessary and sufficient conditions of their being.

The difficulty of saying what they are, or perhaps an acknowledgement of their variety, is, I think, fundamentally a consequence of their hybridity, their deployment of motion-picture art for the objectives of marketing.

Thinking of their near relative, audio-visual advertisements for non-entertainment products– say, soap powder, cars, cereal, financial services, what have you– I was struck by the difference not in the means used, which are, after all, cameras, actors, dialogue, action and copy, but in the product sold.

Trailers are commercial films for a product that’s typically a story or narrative. And in this case, the medium of the product is also the medium of the advertisement. When you’re selling Tide detergent, the advertisement may very well offer a short narrative featuring the virtues of clean clothes and a reliable product, but the product itself must be bought and consumed apart from, outside of or beyond the medium of audio-visual presentation.

The film, tv show, video game trailer, featurette, spot or promo presents a sample of the product being advertised, a sample which is to be consumed in the very moment of its presentation. By consumed, I mean read or followed or understood, since the product is, after all, a story or narrative. But of course, that sample is not a portion of the larger entity being advertised, its story is not THE story, so much as a simulation of the story (the film, tv show, video game) from which it is distinct, having been visually reconfigured, adulterated with copy and graphic design, at the very least.

The trailer–an amalgam of those salable qualities of the film is not intended to represent the film as it is, but the film as its distributor conceives of it in order to appeal to audiences and compete with other offerings. It’s a story that’s for sale and a story that’s being shared with likely audiences/consumers, but they are not the same story, although they may, and probably should be, similar.

(Trying to imagine an analogous marketing situation to trailers and their films, I found myself eating a small “sample” portion of lasagna at my local Trader Joes this morning, provided by the employee who prepares food items that the story wants to promote and sell. That portion, it occurred to me, was a true sample of the frozen lasagna that was there available for my purchase. My medium for enjoying the sample–my gustatory sense– is the exact medium by which I would consume/enjoy the product. The food preparer needn’t have been present, nor would I have needed a sign to direct me to the free samples: smell and appearance did the work of alerting me to their presence and savory appeal. Smell and taste are, it seems, media, in the literal sense of mediating between object and subject, thing and self, world and experience of it.)

David Ogilvy says that advertising, at its essence, is “news,” and I think this claim is true of movie trailers just as it is of commodities and packaged goods. Advertising the film (providing information about it intended to induce a likely consumer to purchase it) requires that the product be classified (by genre) and described. That description—whether ingredients, (actors, directors, producers), functionality (comedy, tragedy, blockbuster, family movie), quality (commerce/art), testimonial (critical reviews, festival laurels) or demonstration (scenes, dialogue, “look”)—is what the audience/consumer relies on to make its decision.

At the grocers, you might obtain a sample of a product for sale, as you might at a cinema before the feature presentation. (Frozen lasagna, say; or cheese and crackers; nachos and salsa;) But at the grocers, it’s a face to face exchange, an encounter that can-but needn’t–be scaled up to the level of the regional and national marketplace.

The movie distributor, for its part, can, via a quick upload to youtube, or a digital distribution of the video file, offer a free simulation of the goods for sale to millions of potential consumers in locations around the world, at negligible marginal cost.

All of which is to say that a trailer is not a actually a free sample of the product for sale. A trailer is a free sample of the film it is itself, which, by dint of qualities/features/ingredients that are also present in the film (tv series, video game, etc.) being marketed, it hopes to make you desire to consume in their filmic fullness.

Lastly, I wanted to share the url for a forum devoted to the most deceptive trailers ever. In these examples, the stories the marketers felt compelled to tell via the trailers they cut, were less a simulation of the feature, than a distortion or misrepresentation. Audiences, as you can glean from the comments, did not approve of the artistic license taken by the marketers. The Village was a standout, on the forum, for advertising a psychological drama as a horror film. That would be like trying a sample of the lasagna at the grocers, buying the product, and getting home to find that there was a pizza, or perhaps a chicken pot pie–in the package.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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