Why Classic Horror Film Advertising Kicked Ass, Part 1: The Experience Effect

We like to keep things freaky down here in The Copy Crypt.

So naturally that means that horror films are on the go pretty much constantly. Heck, I’m the go-to UK writer for one of the web’s biggest horror media sites, Dread Central. Check it out, we’re pretty great if I do say so myself.

Today’s topic casts an eye back to past years of advertising in the horror industry — specifically films — and looks at just how different things are today.

You see, back in horror’s glory days — the ’60s, ’70s and in a few cases the ’80s — it took more than just a trailer filled with jump scares and violence to get bums in cinema seats.

First, think about it: The job of any copy when it comes to product being sold to consumers is to make that product attractive to potential buyers.

The synopsis, the quotes, the tagline – everything on a film poster or DVD/Blu-ray case is copy. Its job is to sell the product from the shelf.

And yet today that doesn’t seem to be front of mind. Rather than stand out with outlandish promises of terrors to come, the norm is to feature some kind of creative tagline that ties only to the story and then attempt to have star ratings and critical quotes fill in the rest.

It’s a weak message with equally weak social proof — because faith in critics is at an all-time low in this era where everyone and his dog can set up their own blog, call themselves a “reviewer” and have their words lapped up by PR companies.

And that’s not even to mention those who like to throw out 5-star reviews at the mere suggestion of advertising revenue as kickback.

No, seriously, I’m not giving names.

So, back on track — we have a vague suggestion of the story, a catchy tagline and a few quotes or star ratings from people we don’t necessarily trust.

Does that sound like the perfect recipe for picking up additional impulse sales?

I’d say it does not.

Now here’s a few example of how things used to be done. Take a look (make sure to read the copy) and see if you can tell what they have in common:

Tower of London Film Poster

The Last Man on Earth Poster

Suspiria Film Poster

Last House on the Left Poster

Madhouse Film Poster

Dementia 13 Film Poster

Bug Film Poster


Do you see what these posters are doing with their copy?

Yep… getting those butts in seats back then took the promise of an experience.

Every single one of these posters speaks directly to the reader. Challenges them. Warns them. Builds up the picture that the film they’re about to see will affect them personally.

It’s far more than simple assurances of fright.

This is the same kind of copywriting that rules the direct response world — that drives action and persuades those with only vague interest that yes, this is something worthwhile, and for various reasons.

And it’s the type of copywriting that still works.

When we see it employed in the genre today, it’s in the form of pastiche — throwback films relying on what’s become known as a “grindhouse” aesthetic. More often than not, that kind of film’s use of copy feels tongue-in-cheek, disingenuous and tonally off. Only a mere few manage to nail the more serious, creepy vibe of the examples you just saw.

Maybe it’s time for a resurgence of the experiential promise — though this wasn’t the only copywriting and persuasion technique employed by the marketing masterminds of the day. We’ll go into some of those later, so keep an eye out over the next few days…

For now, though, here’s a very simple modern example of a cult hit that succeeded primarily on a wave of hype.

Hype from where? You guessed it — the promise of a certain kind of experience that ravenous horror fans had been missing for so long. See if you can spot it.

Hatchet Film Poster

Post your favourite classic examples, or even modern ones, of experiential poster copy in the comments below!



Gareth Jones

Gareth Jones is a freelance copywriter and journalist based in Nottingham, UK. With close to a decade of experience writing content and copy within the film industry, and a background in Enterprise IT administration, he specialises in conversion copywriting and case studies for the Tech, Gaming and Software/SaaS industries. He's also a dab hand at generating leads for locally-focused SMEs through Facebook ads, connecting business messages to their target audience, increasing response and driving revenue. Contact him today and boost the impact of your marketing -- he might look angry, but he's a very friendly bloke. Honest!

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2 Responses

  1. 07/07/2016

    […] time on this short series, we went through how the experiential approach injected a ton of persuasive power into the horror cinema advertising of the ’60s-’80s — but there was much more […]

  2. 08/07/2016

    […] Why Classic Horror Film Advertising Kicked Ass, Part 1: The Experience Effect […]

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