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Marketing magic in the movies

5 valuable business takeaways from some of Tinseltown’s most entertaining scenes.

According to veteran actor Jeremy Irons, Hollywood now puts more effort into marketing movies than it does into making them.

“The film business has changed hugely,” the Oscar winner lamented to The Irish Times. “You seem to spend about 30 per cent of the time producing the films and 70 per cent talking about it.”

Flipping that sideways, how have sales and marketing been portrayed in the movies? Here are five memorable depictions of sales and marketing activities on the silver screen.

1) Naming new products

Brain Candy (1996)

In The Kids In The Hall’s cult comedy, the name of a new anti-depressant literally drops out of the sky. A slick marketing guru comes up with it after a bird flies into his car. “As I was cleaning the gleaming guts of that bird off my windshield, I thought of the name for the drug: Gleemonex!” he exclaims.

In real life: Around 1905, watchmaker Hans Wilsdorf was riding through London in a horse-drawn bus (not a sports car) when the word ‘Rolex’ popped into his head. His made-up moniker ended up on millions of wrists.

2) Motivating sales staff

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Before hosting game show reboots, Alec Baldwin killed it in this cameo as Blake, a superstar salesman sent “from downtown” to motivate a team of slumping realtors. For eight blistering minutes, Blake uses insults (“You’re weak!”), threats (“You think this is abuse?”) and a contest (second prize is “a set of steak knives”) to coax better performance out of his sales staff.

IRL: According to data compiled by Harvard Business Review, the best way to motivate a sales team isn’t bonuses, commissions or contests — it’s treating them as individuals who require different types of attention, incentives and support to succeed.

3) Doing product demos

Tommy Boy (1995)

When this comedy hit theatres back in the ‘90s, businesses couldn’t just post a zippy demo video of their product on the Internet. There barely was an Internet. Instead, they had to demonstrate their wares in person at trade shows and client meetings. In this scene, a demo for car brake pads ends up setting the customer’s desk on fire. With Chris Farley presiding, this sales pitch was always destined to go down in flames.

IRL: Today, online demo videos are among the most effective product marketing tools. They’ve been shown to boost conversion rates by 144 per cent for houseware items like kitchen gadgets and by 25 per cent for health and fitness products.

4) Using signage smartly

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

In this classic mockumentary, members of fictional rock group Spinal Tap are pumped for their concert — until they spot the venue’s marquee, where (yet again) they get second billing to a marionette troupe.

“If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a hundred times to put Spinal Tap first and puppet show last!” says the guitarist’s exasperated girlfriend.

IRL: Signage does sell. In a University of Cincinnati research project, 60 per cent of businesses said their sales, profits or transaction volumes rose by an average of 10 per cent after they improved the quality and/or location of their signage.

5) Listening to the customer

Love Actually (2003)

A post-Bean Rowan Atkinson nearly thwarts a husband’s frantic effort to secretly buy his mistress a Christmas gift while his wife shops just a few feet away.

By ignoring shopper Alan Rickman’s pleas to wrap the bloody gift as quickly as possible, Atkinson’s store clerk violates one of the foremost commandments of marketing: listen to your customer.

IRL: These days, many customers are being ignored on social media. A study by Sprout Social suggests retailers fail to respond to 80 per cent of all consumer questions and requests posted on social media.


Up Next: 5 onscreen examples of the challenges facing HR and employees every day.

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

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