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Marketing theory overdone — and half-baked

A RETIRED ADVERTISING MAN named Earl Shorris has written a new book called “A Nation of Salesmen,” which advances an intriguing thesis: The mania of marketing has grown so intense, he writes, that “selling has become the determinant activity in the U.S.” Indeed, America has become an “oversold” society –“a generation bankrupted by salesmen.”

I was reminded of this warning in recent weeks by the incessant use of the word “marketing” in explaining all manner of phenomena, from politics to the success or failure of movies.

Before last week’s elections, for example, we were told the biggest failure of the Clinton administration was that it wasn’t “marketing” itself skillfully. The Clinton health plan was cited especially as “poorly marketed.” Well, maybe, but the election results would indicate there are serious ideological forces at play in the country that cannot be dealt with through simple marketing ploys.

Second-guessing about the marketing strategies of movies, meanwhile, has become a national pastime. Sharper salesmanship would have turned up better numbers for Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show,” we are told. Why did ads show the back of actor Ralph Fiennes, wearing headphones? This was supposedly too passive and highbrow an image for the mainstream audience.

The second-guessers also argue that the romantic Warren-and-Annette images, cluttered by reviews, do not represent a suitable enticement for younger audiences to see “Love Affair.” On “The Shawshank Redemption,” second-guessers contend, not surprisingly, that, if you want to encourage word of mouth, you should at least create a title audiences can pronounce. Similarly, the only way you can release a picture called “Squanto” is if your campaign advises, “See Squanto, pronto.”

THE MARKETING SECOND-GUESSERS not surprisingly have had a field day with that proliferating subgenre of movies: the arty horror film. The most prominent examples were Mike Nichols’ “Wolf,” Francis Ford Coppola’s cumbersomely titled “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and two new films, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” and “Interview With the Vampire.”

There are several facets of this subgenre that make special demands on audiences — and, presumably, on those poor souls entrusted with the mystique of marketing.

The movies are sumptuously designed, if not overdesigned, extravagantly produced, if not overproduced. Though they pay homage to the horror genre, they are not so much scary as arty.

The marketing problems are obvious. “Wolf” created a lot of advance attention but hit the wall early — its domestic gross reached the $ 65 million mark. Was it simply too refined? Was its campaign? Whatever the prognosis, the same phenomenon seems to be overtaking “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” which represents the ultimate example of an “uptown” filmmaker (Kenneth Branagh) invading the franchise of the B picture meisters.

ALL OF WHICH brings us to the opening of “Interview With the Vampire,” a film that has created vastly more advance sizzle than any other entry in this subgenre. “Vampire,” after all, is based on the Anne Rice bestseller that has achieved almost mythic status. The movie also offers the ultimate Hollywood counter-casting — Tom Cruise, not as a white bread lover, but as a long-haired, snaggle-toothed, androgynous bloodsucker. “Drink from me and live forever,” proclaims the ad.

Will it sell in Peoria?

Everyone agrees the opening business will be seismic, but the ultimate success of the film rests on more complex issues. Is the public ready to accept a film this dark? Will Tom Cruise’s fans embrace him, not as a jet pilot, but as a career neck-biter who tries to wean Brad Pitt from his distasteful habit of chomping rats?

In the end, of course, the public has a remarkable knack for sniffing out exactly what a movie is about and deciding whether it’s ready for it.

Whatever the verdict, when the second-guessers come forward with their glib pronouncements, I hope we all lend them a deaf ear. This is about a movie, after all, not a campaign.

In his book, Earl Shorris recalls how his former ad agency, upon losing some clients, posted a sign in its reception area declaring, “We create your wants. We create your desires.”

Well, I hope not.

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