Every day, publicists struggle with the question of how to make the latest book, album, movie, TV show, etc. that they're promoting stand out from the vast wave of similar material out there. How do you get the attention of the critical tastemakers? Strangely, the answer is "By gifting them with something tasteless." Here are just a few of the strange, discomfiting, and generally tacky promotional items that publicists sent us in the past few months to call our attention to their exciting new pop-cultural effluvia.
Item: A faux hand-stitched pillow adorned with a ghoulish recreation of Ben Stiller's simian features, and the title "World's Greatest Husband"
Promoting: The Farrelly brothers' little-loved remake of The Heartbreak Kid
Relevance to product promoted: High. It's apparently a recreation of the pillow Stiller's monstrous new wife makes him while bedridden during their disastrous honeymoon.
Item quality, on a scale from 1 (instantly disposable) to 5 (office-humor essential): 5. Words cannot do justice to this bizarre curio's soul-shuddering creepiness. Stiller's cold, dead eyes seem to follow you wherever you go, while his smudgy lips are permanently frozen together in stern, disapproving judgment. Like the Patch Adams clipboard and Novocaine beat-up teddy bear that inexplicably still occupy a place of pride at the A.V. Club office, this creepily detailed pillow—dig the hearts and flowers and fussy, quaint lettering—looks primed to outlive the film it so indelibly promotes.
Item: Ray Liotta Private Select Honey
Promoting: Bee Movie
Relevance to product promoted: Ideal. The movie features this fictitious product, which is a perfect example of the absurd humor that redeems the movie from its boring story and obnoxious marketing campaign.
Item quality: 4. The taste is nothing special, but the computer-animated Ray Liotta on the label matches the real thing in its grave, unwelcoming expression. Within or without the context of the film, there's really no reason for this product to exist, unless you're planning some kind of "appetite suppression through creepiness" diet. Paul Newman he ain't, and that's why it's so funny.
Item: A fake-fur blanket
Relevance to product promoted: Huh? It arrived with no explanation, press releases or promo materials—just this big hairy thing that looks kind of like a skinned bear, with a "Beowulf" tag on it. Before seeing the movie, we assumed that a lot of its characters probably dressed in bearskins, what with the cold northern setting and savage hunter people and all. Having seen the movie, we're guessing that it's actually a commentary on all the people in the film who really could have used some sort of era-appropriate cloth to cover their frequent muscley CGI nakedness.
Item quality: 2. It's certainly a useable blanket, for those who happen to like cheap, rough, itchy polyester fake fur. Hm. If this is what the characters had to wear, maybe there's a reason no one in the movie can keep their clothes on for two straight hours.
Item: A Master lock
Promoting: The Queen Latifah/Katie Holmes/Diane Keaton buddy comedy Mad Money
Relevance to product promoted: Perversely cryptic. The words Mad Money don't appear anywhere on the lock or the packaging. The only indication that this was designed as a Mad Money promo is a tag with the film's release date (01-18-08), an M on the plastic cube housing the lock, and the tagline "Will They Get Away With It?" Since Mad Money revolves around money-robbing wackiness, locks play a sort of vague conceptual role.
Item quality: 3. The lock itself is a sturdy, no-nonsense theft deterrent, but whatever goodwill it might engender (key word: "might") is offset by the fact that it's packed in tiny, clingy fake-money confetti guaranteed to slip out of the box and get into all sorts of annoying, inconvenient places. Do you really want to associate an already-dodgy new film with irritating messes and staticky debris?
Item: Punching bag
Promoting: Dreamworks' upcoming CGI film Kung Fu Panda
Relevance to product promoted: Presumably high. A punching bag no doubt figures prominently in a training montage or two. Like Bee Movie, the Jack Black-as-incongruous-animal-martial-artist laugher Kung Fu Panda has accomplished the formidable feat of being ridiculously overexposed months before its actual release.
Item quality: ? Who the hell knows? It would be hard to imagine a more unwieldy or time-intensive piece of promotional crap. The 10-step inflation-instruction manual makes the process sound more time- and labor-intensive than planning D-Day. Don't even think about blowing this thing up the old-fashioned way: "Inflate by small hand pump or electric inflater," the instructions prissily demand. Fuck, when is Dreamworks finally going to send us a promotional hand pump or electric inflater? It'd be the perfect tie-in for their upcoming slate of CGI cartoons about the madcap adventures of a group of anthropomorphic hand pumps and electric inflaters.
Promoting: Junior Senior's latest album, Hey Hey My My Yo Yo.
Relevance to product promoted: Yo-yo. Yo Yo. Get it!? However, if any band would appreciate the simple pleasures of a toy, it's this ridiculously fun, lighthearted dance-pop duo.
Item quality: 2. It has the album title on it and all, but it's still just your average mass-produced plastic yo-yo.
Promoting: Class Of 3000
Relevance to product promoted: High. Nothing says "Andre Benjamin-engineered Cartoon Network show about a free-spirited elementary school" quite like a lunchbox bearing a goateed visage of Andre 3000 looking rakish and debonair.
Item quality: 5. This bright, colorful lunchbox comes with a canteen, a fake sandwich containing a DVD of the first episode of the second season, and even a note from mom reading "Your dad and I are both very proud of your 2nd season! Try to stay awake in class and don't trade your sandwich! Love, Mom." Awww!!!! It's almost oppressively adorable.
Item: A soft, squishy foam bus with "National Lampoon Presents Electric Apricot" printed on the top.
Promoting: The sloppy jam-band mockumentary Electric Apricot, directed by Primus frontman Les Claypool
Relevance to product promoted: Acceptable. Electric Apricot follows the zany misadventures of a hard-touring jam band that presumably traverses the country in a soft, squishy foam bus. Or a non-soft, non-squishy real bus. In the crazy, mixed-up, upside-down world of late-period National Lampoon movies, who can even tell any more? Like the film it's promoting, this promo item is probably only amusing to people who are really high.
Item quality: 2. It's sufficiently soft and squishy, and thanks to its complete lack of moving parts, it has yet to fall apart, but it's also insanely cheap-looking; the promo merchants didn't even bother to print the film's title on the sides of the bus.
Item: Talking Optimus Prime Action Figure
Relevance to product promoted: Huh, let's see, a Transformers movie and a giant, expensive toy of a robot that changes into some sort of automobile? Call us dense, but we really aren't seeing a meaningful connection between the two.
Item quality: 5. According to its box, the figure's "Advanced Automorph Technology Triggers Electronic Lights And Sounds." So, you know, it's got that going for it. Additionally, it's got all the strengths of the Transformers movie (a neato robot-truck dude, weird noises, shiny lights) with none of its weaknesses (incoherent editing, labored scatological humor, a bloated running time, etc. etc. unto infinity).
Item: A George Washington wig
Promoting: The DVD release of the terrible Robin Williams film Man Of The Year
Relevance to product promoted: Justifiable. Williams dons such a wig in the film as a publicity stunt, and a picture of him in the wig, looking something like a poorly made rubber Robin Williams mask Photoshopped with comedy hair, served as the film's poster. There's even an bewigged image of him glued to the wig box, just to make things clear, in case people have already forgotten the poster image the way they've thankfully forgotten the movie.
Item quality: 2. It's a reasonably well-made wig that showed up wrapped in and stuffed with red tissue paper, to keep it smooth; the sausage curls on the side are small enough not to be easily noticed, but the big blue "MAN OF THE YEAR ON DVD"-emblazoned ribbon fastening the ponytail is likely to get all the attention anyway. If we at the A.V. Club normally wore ridiculous wigs for no reason when we were sitting around the office, we might wear this.
Item: "1 Order Of Herby Eggz," a.k.a. an egg in a fancy promotional fold-out cardboard box, with grow-it-yourself seedlings inside
Promoting: The Cartoon Network series Chowder.
Relevance to product promoted: Unclear. The promo episodes included with the egg don't mention anything about little plants growing out of eggs, though they do feature a lot of other entertainingly surreal things.
Item quality: Hard to say, because we haven't tried to grow a plant out of it yet. The elaborate painted-box container is adorable and appealing, the egg is perfect, and the whole idea is pretty neat. We want to give it a 5 just on innovation, presentation, and memorability, but we might someday be forced to drop it to a 4 if it breaks our hearts in the plant-growing department and turns out to be just a porcelain egg full of dirt.
Item: Ridiculously flimsy plastic handcuffs
Promoting: Wedding Daze, a Jason Biggs movie originally slated to hit theaters in August 2007, then bumped unpromisingly and unceremoniously to a straight-to-DVD release
Relevance to product promoted: Depends on how often Biggs' character and the woman he randomly proposes to (Isla Fisher) engage in light bondage with shoddy materials.
Item quality: 1. These things wouldn't restrain a mildly determined toddler, which by the way is probably illegal and you shouldn't attempt to prove us wrong.
Item: Disturbia Home Confinement Kit
Promoting: The theatrical release of the teen Rear Window remake Disturbia
Relevance to product promoted: Creepy. In the film, surly Shia LaBoeuf is confined to his home for several months after punching an obnoxious teacher, and he whiles away the days with all-night voyeurism and weird projects like building an elaborate Twinkie tower. The kit includes a Twinkie, a can of Red Bull (for staying awake while spying on your neighbor to see if he's a serial killer), and a pair of cheap binoculars.
Item quality: 4. The binocs aren't too impressive, but the Twinkie and Red Bull are presumably the real thing. We'll have to wait until we get home-confined to find out. (Note: We will not be eating the Twinkie. It has an expiration date of March 2000. Who even knew that Twinkies were capable of expiring?)
Item: An odd plastic ball full of glittery sand; when one side is up, the sand falls through to the other side to reveal a Vegas landscape and the words "This fall all bets are off." Turn the ball over again, and the sand falls back to the Vegas side, revealing the black words "Resident Evil Extinction."
Promoting: Take a wild guess.
Relevance to product promoted: Vegas is in a desert, right? Deserts have sand, right? Okay, we get it. Also, they totally got the name of the movie in there.
Item quality: 3. It's a useless tchotchke, so film-specific that we can't pawn it off on Great-Aunt Myrtle and pretend it was a thoughtfully chosen gift. But it is reasonably well-made, and the way the sand falls through the holes to slowly reveal the title, shining up from the remaining glittery sand, is kind of eerie. Wouldn't work too well on an item promoting, say, Winnie The Pooh: Wonderful Word Adventure, but as zombie-film promo merch goes, this is almost classy.
Item: Fraggle Rock Earth Day "dirt dessert" kit
Promoting: Season two of Fraggle Rock on DVD
Relevance to product promoted: Elliptical at best: Fraggles live in underground burrows, Earth Day is about the Earth, burrows and the Earth both involve dirt. It kinda all sorta fits together. Oh, whatever; there's sugar involved.
Item quality: 3. The kit consists of a little metal bucket with a poorly taped-on Fraggle Rock label, a box of chocolate pudding, a bag of Gummi worms, and a couple of little plastic Fraggle Rock characters. There's also an "Earth Day tip" recipe for "Fraggle Rockin' Dirt Dessert," a brown, lumpy, earth-like confection made by mixing pudding, crushed Oreos, and frozen Gummi worms in a pail. Kinda gross, but potentially tasty. Will it help save the environment, or make people feel kindly toward singing, dancing Muppets? Probably not, but it isn't likely to hurt either one either.
Item: A shirt box containing a smaller box wrapped in a map, containing a smaller box full of little green Army men, containing a third box, within which was a book wrapped in an American flag. In other words, a series of teasing puzzle boxes, Russian-nesting-doll style.
Promoting: George Pendle's satirical "biography" The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life Of A Forgotten President.
Relevance to product promoted: Spelled out in symbolism and the included explanatory sticky-notes. The box wrapped in a map of America represents Fillmore's status as an American. The box full of little plastic green Army men represents his life as a soldier. And the box wrapped in the flag symbolizes his life as a patriot.
Item quality: 2 for physical quality—all the elements are cheap and disposable—but 4 for homegrown ingenuity. It's no free George Foreman grill, but it certainly got our attention as we burrowed through the boxes, which makes it one of the better homegrown self-promotion attempts The A.V. Club has fielded over the years. Up-and-coming authors, take note.
Photos by Erin Drake-Prior.