Don’t judge a book – or a movie – by its cover. But then, how should one judge a movie? Perhaps by its reviews – but with so many movies out there, the conundrum lies with which reviews to read in order to decide what movies are worth investing an hour or more into. An audience is a diverse group of people with different tastes, and it is often prudent to convey what type of experience they might have watching the movie.
There is immense power in a movie tagline – it has to basically sum up the entire movie in as few words as possible, often fewer than ten, and it must do this in an engaging way that captures the audience’s attention and sticks with them – sometimes growing so famous and commonly used that it becomes a cliche, like the tagline “Be afraid, be very afraid,” from 1986 horror film The Fly. A movie’s tagline tells you something about the movie that neither the title nor the promotional photo does. It gives a sense of the tone of the movie. Is it tongue-in-cheek? Serious? Inspirational? All of these questions can be answered by the few words that accompany the movie’s title.
Take, for instance, Bonnie & Clyde: “They’re young…they’re in love…and they kill people”
Sometimes taglines are cryptic, sometimes they contain a pun or a play on words – and then there are taglines like this one, which cut straight to the point and tells you exactly what you’re about to experience when watching this movie – the story of a pair of freewheeling romantic lovers who are partners in crime.
Or take, for example, the tagline for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – “One man’s struggle to take it easy.” If you’ve seen the movie, you know that this sentence perfectly sums up the plot – basically, Ferris Bueller spends an entire day coming up with elaborate schemes in order to get away with skipping school. The tagline “One man’s struggle to take it easy” is memorable for its paradoxical nature as well as its accuracy in describing the film. In a simple sentence, the most gripping and entertaining aspect of the plot is brought to your attention. The tagline instantly makes you recall the antics that occur in the movie – the struggles faced simply to take a day off.
A movie is a product, and movie taglines can be compared to product slogans. Brand names, logos, slogans are like a hierarchy of product recognition that speaks to us on multiple levels. Nike’s trademark logo, the checkmark, immediately jogs our product association as soon as our eyes see it, just as hearing the Jaws theme tune can instantly create an ominous, spine-chilling vibe. These speak to us on a basic visceral level, one that does not require much thought or analysis. Just as Jaws wouldn’t be the same without its hyper-memorable theme tune, Nike wouldn’t be the same without its slogan “Just do it,” an instantly recognizable phrase that speaks to the reliability of the product, while also giving a sense of how Nike sees its customers – as active go-getters who need a product that just works. A movie’s tagline is sort of like a product slogan. While less instantaneous in its ability to jog our product association than a theme tune or a logo, it is of equal importance in that it conveys more information about the theme, atmosphere, and tone of the movie, in a very short space. Nike’s slogan “Just do it” marks the brand as a motivation-boosting product that calls ambitious people to challenge themselves, just as the tagline for The Social Network, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies,” lets you know that you are about to hear an adversarial exposé about how the social network came to be. The pun in Chicken Run’s “Escape or die frying” makes it likely that you are about to watch a humorous adventure film, while The Shawshank Redemption’s “Fear can hold you, prisoner. Hope can set you free,” leaves it safe to assume that you are about to watch an inspiring drama.
There are several mediums by which movies are promoted, such as billboards and trailers. Movie trailers often contain large amounts of information about the plot, theme, and genre of the movie, of which a tagline then serves to jog the viewer’s memory, thus movie trailers and taglines can work in tandem to create an enticing experience. A tagline may act as an attention-grabbing method to direct viewers to want to watch the trailer or read about the movie, conveying just enough information to hint at the plot and arouse the viewer’s curiosity.
Even on its own, without the associated trailer, a movie’s tagline is a memorable, entertaining and compact form of promotion – more economical than a trailer, which requires time from potential audiences, yet more informative than simply the title. The promotional value of a tagline lies in its ability to convey a large amount of information in a short amount of space, and direct the viewer to want to know more about the movie. A good tagline will call out to the audience and make sure the movie is noticeable and memorable, which is a recipe for a successful product.