For years, the entertainment industry has harbored a dirty little secret: Sometimes publicists send reviewers friendly reminders of upcoming titles in the form of free gifts. What's the difference between these items and bribes? Bribes are actually valuable. As we have in previous years, we saved some of those items for a year-end roundup of the silly, the surprising, and the surprisingly cheesy.
Item: A miniature African drum
Promoting: The Visitor on DVD.
Relevance to product promoted: High. A depressed college professor spends much of The Visitor rocking out on his drum and having his spirits lifted through an unlikely friendship with a big-hearted foreigner. Life lessons most assuredly ensue.
Item quality on a scale of 1 (instantly trashable) to 5 (cool enough to keep non-ironically): 5. It's hard to resist the primal siren song of this nifty little instrument. "Play with me, you secret percussive genius you. Your co-workers won't find your Beat-inspired bongo heroics the least bit irritating or distracting," it whispers. Get two or three of these babies together (which we did, since each of the film critics got one) and a drum circle/hippie freak-out is bound to begin. (Yes. It did.) Just stay away from the brown acid and drink in the good vibes, man, and maybe someday you'll be a cool daddy-O like Richard Jenkins.
Item: A large gray plastic tube.
Promoting: Iron Man on DVD.
Relevance: Baffling. The tube is designed to look metallic and riveted, giving it a vaguely cobbled-together-in-the-desert superhero-suit feel, but as near as we can tell, it's probably a poster tube. We aren't sure, because it didn't include a poster, or any other indication of purpose. It says "Stark Industries" on the side, but none of us recall Tony Stark being super-enthusiastic about posters. Maybe it's for transporting blueprints of our latest high-tech secret A.V. Club weapon?
Quality: 2. If we had some posters or blueprints, this would probably protect the fuck out of them, but it's huge and clunky and made of soft plastic, and clearly wouldn't stand up to even one fight with the Iron Monger.
Item: A small, plain wooden coffin containing a robe, a pair of lacquered chopsticks, and a porcelain bowl.
Promoting: Sukiyaki Western Django.
Relevance: Conceptual rather than direct. It's sort of a bunch of distinctly Japanese stuff contained within a frame that suggests the Wild West. Just like the movie itself, though the movie is way more random and filled with substandard Quentin Tarantino than this coffin is.
Quality: 4, on average. The bowl and chopsticks are extremely nice. The robe is made of cheap costume fabric. The coffin is solid and reasonably well-made, but of questionable use, except for those burying small animals beloved enough to rate a funeral, but not so beloved as to rank more respectful treatment than being buried in a promotional item.
Item: A braided leather bullwhip.
Promoting: The theatrical release of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
Relevance: "Hey, remember how cool Indy was in that first movie, with his whip and stuff? Just concentrate on the hat and the whip and the scowl and the other surface iconography, and maybe you can pretend this movie is as much fun as that one was!"
Quality: 5. This is a solid, serious whip, suitable for moving cattle along or putting your coworkers' eyes out. (It was a fairly scary day in the office when Keith first got his hands on one of these babies.) Actually, maybe that's what the publicists were hoping for—if we'd all put each other's eyes out, none of us would have been able to pan Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
Item: A bluebird finger puppet.
Promoting: Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3D.
Relevance: Irritatingly literal. In the movie, Brendan Fraser and companions drop through a hole in the center of the earth and wind up in a cavern full of bioluminescent bluebirds, one of which is apparently sapient enough to follow them around helping out and providing comedic reaction shots.
Quality: 3. The puppet is reasonably well-crafted, with a lot of detail in the fabric, and a cute little smile on its birdie face. At the same time, after a minute or two, it's hard to miss the fact that the finger-hole looks like a gigantic gaping anus. Someone's been having a little too much happiness with this bluebird.
Item: A rusty scythe and a cardboard coffin.
Promoting: George Pendle's novel Death: A Life, a mock-memoir of the personification of Death.
Relevance: Apt, obvious, and still eerie. The book came cradled inside the coffin.
Quality: 4. Pendle sent this to us himself, and he took the time to glue a dried rose and a quantity of grave-dirt to the coffin-lid, and tie the whole thing up in a black ribbon. And the scythe is an honest-to-real old farm implement. Granted, we have no real use for either, unless someone gets way too rowdy at the office Christmas party and needs to be reaped to death, but a lot of personal attention to detail went into this package. And yes, Pendle is the same guy who sent us a series of nesting boxes full of themed ingredients to promote his book The Remarkable Millard Fillmore last year. That is one seriously dedicated author.
Item: A generic bald wig.
Promoting: The DVD release of the Alien Nation movies.
Relevance: Vague and lazy. Okay, all the aliens in those movies are hairless. They also have intricately speckled heads that aren't reflected in this lifeless yellowish piece of cheapo rubber, which is an insult to the tireless makeup artists who gave their lives to make all those actors bald and spotty.
Quality: 1. This thing has all the quality and appeal of a used condom. Which it strongly resembles.
Item: A phone in the shape of a hamburger.
Promoting: Juno on DVD.
Relevance: Unquestionable. The eponymous character not only uses this exact phone in the film, it's prominently placed as one of the many wacky, ironic, irreverent collectibles that define her wacky, ironic, irreverent character.
Quality: 5. It's a working phone. And it totally looks like a hamburger. Whoa.
Item: A pocket survival kit, including a multi-tool, a flashlight, and a compass.
Promoting: The DVD release of the horror film The Ruins.
Relevance: Highly suspect. No such item appears in the movie. Nor would it really have helped the film's hapless, generic horror-movie victims, unless there's a machine-gun attachment on the multi-tool that we've missed until now.
Quality: 4. This is a pretty nice little pocket kit. Everything is functional and decently made. We might actually take it along the next time we go hiking in Mexico. Still, we don't expect it to save us from sapient carnivorous plants, our own stupidity, or really terrible writing and directing.
We're just going to let this giant novelty foam hand speak for itself.
Item: "Beirut Set" beer pong kit
Promoting: Disaster Movie on DVD.
Relevance: We don't entirely know, having avoided Disaster Movie as if it were prison rape. There are limits even to The A.V Club's masochism.
Quality: 1. Even Disaster Movie's promo items are cheap and tacky. To be fair, these Disaster Movie plastic cups did succeed in netting the film universally glowing reviews. The linkage of Disaster Movie with drinking games seems appropriate, since it would take a nearly fatal level of intoxication to find the film tolerable, let alone amusing.
Item: A can of tuna
Promoting: The Urban Hermit, Sam MacDonald's memoir about losing weight and getting his groove back by limiting himself to a budget of $8 a week and 800 calories a day.
Relevance: High. MacDonald apparently ate a fuckload of tuna during his misadventures in poverty and Spartan self-denial. Also, this very can appears on the front of the book.
Quality: 4. The tin of tuna has bright, clever packaging referencing MacDonald's weight-loss transformation. For example, the ingredients list lentils, fortitude, 50-cent cans of store-brand tuna, cabbage, and hard-boiled eggs. (Note: fortitude best before February 2009.)
Item: A plastic pig nose
Promoting: The theatrical release of Penelope.
Relevance: High. In Penelope, Christina Ricci plays a young woman cursed with just such a porcine schnozz.
Quality: 2. As plastic promotional pig noses from creepy, half-forgotten romantic comedies go, this is pretty run-of-the-mill. The nostrils are cut out for easy breathing, though they don't exactly enhance the product's verisimilitude.
Item: A giant foam top hat with no top, and a leather notebook/pen holder
Promoting: The Nintendo DS game Professor Layton And The Curious Village.
Relevance: Very high. The top hat is a replica of Professor Layton's, though it isn't nearly as swanky. The notebook is for taking notes, naturally, as you help the professor solve brain-teasers in this fairly addictive (though clearly aimed at kids) game.
Quality: 1 for the hat, 3.5 for the notebook holder. There's no way around this fact: The hat is made of foam, and unless you're going to a Funkadelic show or something, you'll have little use for it. The notebook holder, on the other hand, comes complete with a notebook and a little pen-holder, which is perfect for journalists on assignment, or young sleuths. Careful, though, because some 9-year-old might snatch it from you—Professor Layton is a very popular game.
Item: Mimobot designer flash drive
Promoting: HBO's Little Britain U.S.A., the American version of the often-funny sketch show.
Relevance: That's a tough one, because a removable flash drive never enters the mind of Vicky Pollard, the fast-talking Brit girl that it's made to resemble. But the flash drive did come loaded with lots of Vicky-related footage, so that makes it perfectly sneaky marketing, doesn't it?
Item quality: 5. This is pretty kick-ass, as far as flash drives go. The company that makes them, Mimoco, has commissioned cool designs and designers in the past—there's a line related to Star Wars, and another to Halo.
Item: A New York Nightmare football helmet
Promoting: Midway's Blitz The League II.
Relevance: Football players are known to wear helmets, so very high. And considering the ominous disclaimer plastered on the back—"NO HELMET SYSTEM CAN PROTECT YOU FROM SERIOUS BRAIN AND/OR NECK INJURIES INCLUDING PARALYSIS OR DEATH. TO AVOID THESE RISKS, DO NOT ENGAGE IN THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL"—the potential body-mangling nature of the swag fits right into Blitz The League's renegade image, in which horrific bone-snapping injuries on the field are shown via slo-mo X-ray.
Quality: 5. It's an honest-to-goodness, regulation football helmet from Schutt, a professional equipment manufacturer, so videogame critics nationwide are free to terrorize their neighborhood flag-football league. Only caveat: The X-large size is still too small for the generously proportioned head, so squeezing into it could cause SERIOUS BRAIN AND/OR NECK INJURIES before a user even steps onto the field.
Item: Hamlet 2 Comic-Con Survival Kit
Promoting: Hamlet 2, and to a lesser extent, Comic-Con '08.
Relevance: Sometimes direct, mostly random. Nothing within the retina-searing orange satchel can be found in the movie itself, but there are references to the big musical number in the "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" T-shirt and wristbands, so you can get funny looks from the many tens of millions of Americans who avoided the overhyped film when it hit theaters. Other items in the survival kit will be useful if you're stuck in the airport overnight after the convention: single-serving toothpaste, dental gel, mouthwash, Tylenol, granola bars, some Bazooka gum, and a tiny bottle of Purell. And in the completely irrelevant department, there's also a package from the Miami Beach-based coffee chain Café Bustelo, including an "I [Heart] Café Bustelo" T-shirt, ground coffee, and two canned espresso drinks.
Quality: 4. The single-serving goodies inside the bag are all pre-packaged and perfectly edible/useable/wearable. Only the bag itself presents some problems, starting with the powerful orange color (the "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" shirt is even brighter) and continuing with a flimsy Velcro fastener that's sure to send the contents flying across the convention floor.
Item: Florescent/transparent green sun visor
Promoting: The DVD release of the Burt Reynolds poker movie Deal.
Relevance: Minimal. It's possible that a few extras were wearing sun visors during the film's one outdoor poker tournament—sorry, but the details of such a woefully undistinguished movie are hard to recall—but neither poker legend Reynolds nor his protégé Bret Harrison are given to bringing the "gear" (sunglasses, iPods, online-poker T-shirts, and sports jerseys) that's become common since Chris Moneymaker won the World Series Of Poker.
Quality: 3. If you play cards, will it keep the sun out of your eyes? Yes, though not as effectively as sunglasses, which are also better at hiding your eyes and keeping opponents like Phil Hellmuth from "looking into your soul." Your poker buddies will also know that they can look forward to a really, really terrible movie coming to DVD on August 19.
Item: Spider-Man underwear (boys' size 6)
Promoting: Superhero Movie's DVD release.
Relevance: Tenuous. Presumably some version of Spider-Man gets parodied at some point in Superhero Movie. Also, there may be a joke involving underwear. But beyond that, we're confused as to what's so inherently funny about Spider-Man underwear that someone thought this item would improve the warmth of our reception to the film.
Quality: 5. If you have a kid who enjoys underwear and Spider-Man, these seem like a pretty solid item. The unmistakable Mark Bagley provides two typically dynamic renderings of Spidey, and the 100% cotton construction looks like it could endure a reasonable amount of web-swinging adventure.
Item: A piece of cardstock and a transparency, each printed with a code
Promoting: The upcoming TV remake/update of The Prisoner.
Relevance to product promoted: Sneaky. This isn't about reminding people a product exists, it's about luring them in well ahead of the fact. The viral marketing for The Prisoner has been pretty clever, and one facet of it involved a marketing company delivering these two pieces of code in separate envelopes (one red, one black), and leaving it to us to work out the clue. When aligned, they show the image of two heavily lidded eyes and the URL "seekthesix.com," which turns out to be a conceptually clever Flash nightmare, meant to evoke the voyeurism and lack of privacy in The Village. This is secret-agent stuff, which is wholly appropriate for a film about a secret agent.
Quality: 3. That's the average of the item's physical quality (it's a couple of tiny printouts, unsuitable for impressing the neighbors; it gets a 1) and its cleverness and ambition (which gets a 5). If all marketing was this interactive, mysterious, and fun, we'd stop doing this annual piece.