Before Michael Jackson became a walking freak show, he gave the world Thriller, the perfect fushion of art, commerce, and marketing. On the 25th-anniversary of Thriller’s release, I think it is instructive for marketers to consider those times when effective marketing has helped consumers reward a brilliant work of art. These are Thriller moments:
First, there’s Thriller itself. The recording was signficant for many reasons: one song alone, “Beat It,” redefined the sound of funk and rock with Michael Jackson’s passionate vocals complementing Eddie Van Halen’s astounding guitar work. Jackson could have played it safe and released another slick Off the Wall, but he took a risk by pushing his sound in new directions: the weird (Vincent Price’s voice-over for the title track); the mean (“Beat It”) and the angry (“Billie Jean”). Oh . . . and he bet that a new television channel known as MTV just might help him do a little marketing, too. The result: Thriller went on to sell 26 million units and was only recently surpassed by the Eagles Their Greatest Hits (which had an six-year head start) as the greatest selling recording of all time.
The King of Pop before the fall
My quintessential Thriller moment occurred on a hot, sweaty summer day in 1983. A redneck dude named Bobby and I found ourselves working together to help my sister move to an apartment. You just wouldn’t expect a macho, downhome guy like Bobby to like an androgynous man-child with a cooing voice. As we lugged heavy furniture up a narrow stair case, we overheard the strains of “Beat It” playing from someone’s apartment. Bobby paused and looked up at me. “Damn!” he grinned. “I love that Michael Jackson, man.”
To me that moment defined the essence of Thriller’s crossover appeal. Michael Jackson made it safe for anyone to love funk.
2. While Michael Jackson was a fresh-faced member of the Jackson 5, Francis Ford Coppola created one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, The Godfather.
Where to start appreciating the greatness of The Godfather? Well, try reading the Mario Puzo book upon which the movie is based — at best, it’s a turgid crime novel, hardly what anyone would call high art. But the movie is full of dramatic arc (the decline of Vito Corleone and the ascendance of Michael), romanticism, and moments of stunning beauty (like the opening wedding sequence). It launched the careers of relative unknowns like James Caan and Al Pacino, influenced our everyday lexicon (“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”), and even allegedly influenced the mannerisms of real-life Mafia bosses.
Quite deservedly, The Godfather is at or near the top of any credible ranking of great movies. But The Godfather also changed the way the movie studios promote blockbuster movies.
He gave you Tony Soprano
Before The Godfather came along, studios allowed high-profile movies to play for a few months in one location. Usually the first theater to premier the film was given exclusive rights to show the movie over its immediate geographic area. (called a clearance policy) Then, a studio would slowly introduce the movie to other major cities and finally to the hinterlands. But in 1972, Paramount was hurting so bad financially that it opened The Godfather in five theaters at once and then to 316 theaters the following week. The studios also challenged the clearance policy. Smart move. The Godfather rapidly set box office records for its time and created a distribution blueprint that Jaws would later imitate and improve upon for future generations of blockbusters like Titanic.
3. Roots had every reason to fail when ABC broadcast the miniseries in January 1977. It was a 12-hour dramatization at a time when television viewers were not yet familiar with the lengthy miniseries, much less one occurring over consecutive evenings. Americans, wallowing in what Jimmy Carter would later describe as a national malaise, were hardly in the mood to relive a shameful period in the country’s history. And yet Roots changed the way we watch television.
Well directed and brilliantly acted — with a talented cast that included John Amos and Cicely Tyson — Roots told the story of several generations in the lives of an American slave family. In a (some might say cynical) masterstroke of marketing, ABC advertised Roots to a mainstream white audience by focusing on the richness of the characters instead of the depressing legacy of slavery. The marketing worked: mainstream America, crucial to the success of the program, tuned in, night after night. One hundred million TV viewers — about half the country — viewed the final episode. But the marketing was also true to the strength of Roots: the fully realized and compelling characters, ranging from LeVar Burton’s Kunta Kinte to Ben Vereen’s Chicken George, today remain the towering strength of Roots.
A career defining moment for LeVar Burton
Roots later went on to be nominated for more than 30 Emmy Awards. It also popularized the concept of the TV miniseries and in doing so redefined how TV could be experienced well beyond the confines of a single episode. Roots also created the blueprint for more well produced miniseries dramas, such as Holocaust in 1978 and The Thorn Birds in 1983. But had ABC not found the right marketing formula, we might have overlooked this powerful drama.
4. Finally, the granddaddy of them all: the Bible. The impact of the Bible on modern literature is impossible to calculate. The Bible has it all: high drama (Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt), violence (King David killed more men than Tony Soprano), and lots of sex (see Song of Solomon) — all occurring before the reader even encounters The New Testament.
And the Bible remains a smash hit akin to Harry Potter, published in 60 different editions each year by Thomas Nelson and doing between $425 million and $650 million in business in the United States annually. The book gets quite a bit of help through multi-channel marketing. According to The Economist, you can listen to the Go Bible MP3 player or read it on your mobile phone. The “100 minute Bible” delivers Jesus, Noah, and Eve to you in bite-sized morsels, perfect for the busy executive. You can even find magazine editions that allow you to explore the Bible’s themes without appearing in public like, well, a Bible thumper.
You don’t have to be religious to like the Bible, and thanks to effective marketing, you can explore the book on your own terms.
Barack and Dick bond over the Bible
At a time when blogger and analyst Jeremiah Owyang recently pondered the image of marketing as getting “people to buy stuff they don’t need,” Thriller, The Godfather, Roots, and the Bible show that good marketing can help consumers find great art.
What are your Thrillers?