I saw an ad this week for Denzel Washington’s new movie Roman J. Israel, Esq. It got me thinking.
In the last couple of years, I’ve read a lot of books about the way the human brain works. For one thing, I hope that understanding the brain will help me assess my own biases and behaviors more accurately so that I can be more aware of potential flaws in my thinking. For another thing, it’s fun to read about how predictably, demonstrably stupid most of us are.
Our idiocy has a whole lot of troubling and important side effects, and those deserve all of the attention that social scientists can give them. But the brain’s hidden workings also impact a whole bunch of innocuous parts of life, at least one of which I feel qualified to say something about.
A quick lesson: people are hugely susceptible to a phenomenon called priming. Basically, priming is when one seemingly unrelated action changes our behavior through the power of suggestion.
For example, people who read a passage filled with words associated with old age or decrepitude tend to walk more slowly afterwards than people who read a passage filled with more neutral language.
The entertainment industry knows that priming works. That’s why so much thought goes into designing movie posters and creating trailers: studios want to prime our brains so that anticipation is maximized and we convince ourselves (with minimal evidence) that we’re going to enjoy their product. It doesn’t always work, but by the time you realize you’ve been misled, you’ve probably already bought a ticket.
The people who market movies and TV shows to us are exceedingly good at leveraging what they know about priming to generate buzz and get people’s eyeballs pointed where they want them to go.
Except when they’re not. Because here’s the thing: priming works both ways, and the history of film and TV is littered with instances of poor priming sabotaging any chance that a particular work had of success, or, at the very least, putting them at a tremendous disadvantage.
The most obvious priming-related sin a movie (for example) can commit, of course, is having a bad title. Or, more specifically, having a character’s name as the title, which is the worst kind of bad title a movie can have. You know what’s a great movie? Michael Clayton. It’s a George Clooney vehicle about an attorney who uncovers a massive corporate conspiracy and goes to war with the people who’ve orchestrated it. It got great reviews, starred one of the biggest names in the industry, and was directed by the guy who wrote the first three Bourne movies, yet I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to another human who’s seen it.
I remember recommending it to one of my biggest film buff friends shortly after it came out, but he said he didn’t have much interest in it. His reasoning? The title. Michael Clayton gave him no sense of what the movie might be about, and no real reason to care. It provided no context, and so it just sort of drifted from his mind whenever he thought about what he might want to see next. You might not buy this. You might argue that all he would have to do is watch one trailer for the movie to overcome whatever damage the blah title had done. But we can’t control the effect that priming has on us. That’s the whole point of studying it. Its impact is almost entirely unconscious, and, all else being equal, it can be the thing that tips the scales of our behavior.
Even titles that don’t seem to have much to do with their movies are better than just using a character’s name, because they can at least be suggestive and give our brains room to fill in blanks. Something like Zero Dark Thirty might mean nothing to a prospective viewer, but at least it makes us say, “What a weird title. What does that mean?” But a movie named after one of its characters? Unless it’s a biopic about a very famous person (Ray, Ali, Patton), you’re priming your audience to ignore your movie.
Which brings me, belatedly, back to Denzel Washington’s new movie, Roman J. Israel, Esq. I have to refer to it this way, in case you were wondering, because there’s a decent chance that unless I include its star’s name when describing it, you will have already forgotten that Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a movie. And despite what you might assume, it doesn’t help at all that the name is slightly quirky. If anything, it just makes things worse. Not only does it provide no context (except that the character is a lawyer), but it’s strange enough to not come easily to mind. I’ve had to look the title up twice just while writing this. I’ve seen the trailer three times and am still having a hard time recalling much about it, other than Denzel’s changing hairstyle/glasses combinations.
Now, none of this is to say that movies named after characters are bad, or that I have no interest in seeing them. But in an age when movies have to compete more fiercely than ever with streaming, VOD, and the easy distraction of smart phones, you’d think that studios would want to give their product every advantage.
Instead, they’re priming their audiences to ignore the very thing they’re trying to promote.