The Art of the Sell: “Color Me Bo”

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

Back in college, I undertook a wildly ambitious project with a friend of mine. At a time when the information superhighway didn’t contain digital warehouses of movie posters and other cinematic history, we aimed to compile a reference book of movie ad lines. Given the outside guidance that any such tome would need to be comprehensive to be taken seriously by any respectable publisher, we individually spent hours in the university library, tirelessly scrolling through microfiche of the New York Times. Every last alteration of a promotional phrase — significant or subtle — was copied down.

Usually the tagline changes across a movie’s life cycle weren’t all that significant. Those films that had their run extend over a holiday might get an appropriate makeover: an American flag hoisted for the Fourth of July or a Santa hat plunked onto a character’s head for Christmas. Sometimes, though, a film’s promo plan went through a more significant transformation. Mommie Dearest, the 1981 drama that demolished Faye Dunaway’s career by casting her as a near-demonic Joan Crawford, went from aspirational intimations of greatness to a full-on embrace of the instant camp notoriety of the line “No more wire hangers…EVER!”

My favorite example of a promotional campaign that gave up all pretenses of respectability was for a film that, realistically, didn’t have that far to fall. The 1981 film Tarzan the Ape Man was positioned as the proper follow-up to Bo Derek’s star-making turn in 10, directed by Blake Edwards. (A Change of Seasons was in between the two films, but Derek was a mere supporting player, co-starring with — amazingly — Anthony Hopkins and Shirley MacLaine.) This was the cinematic effort that was going to truly exploit the fascination and celebrity around Derek. It was going to prove that she was a draw, all on her own.

Things didn’t exactly work out the way the eagerly optimistic expected. Tarzan the Ape Man was a box office dud. Worse than that, it was an embarrassment, absolutely reviled by critics and the masses weren’t exactly jumping to its defense, either. The ad campaign reflecting the dwindling prospects of the film, switching from a poster that was lascivious with a veneer or artfulness to ads layered with snark, such as an image of Jane and Tarzan walking hand in hand with simian sidekick Cheeta on the beach, adorned with the urging suggestion “TAKE SOMEONE YOU LOVE TO THE MOVIE TONIGHT….”

I think the campaign peaked (or bottomed out — your choice) with the advertisement that took the original poster and reconfigured it into a paint-by-numbers page, with the heading “COLOR ME BO.”

 

color me bo

 

 

For anyone wondering about the precise shade of Derek’s eyes, it is apparently “inland ocean blue.” I’m also now quite upset that “orangutan orange” never showed up in one of my Crayola collections.

Coloring in this ad might seem like the height of silliness, but I promise you that it’s a better use of time than actually watching the movie to which it’s connected.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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