Copperhead: A Case Study in Bad Marketing

CopperheadRon Maxwell has his fans and he has his detractors—but what he really needs is a good marketing department.

Case in point: I recently ordered a copy of his movie from Copperhead from Amazon.com. At $5, it was hard to pass up.

When I opened the box, the film’s packaging hit me with so many conflicting messages, my head nearly exploded.

I liked Maxwell’s film Gettysburg, but I thought God’s & Generals was a dreadful slog through the Civil War in real time. As a result, I avoided Copperhead during its theatrical release (not that I was able to find it anywhere even if I’d wanted to). Last year, though, I met the film’s screenwriter, Bill Kauffman. Bill was a really nice guy, so I decided I’d try to catch his movie once I could.

Since ordering it, I haven’t had the chance to watch Copperhead yet, but I’ve spent considerable time mulling the film just the same. The packaging has fascinated me in the same horrible way a car accident attracts the attention of drivers who pass by.

Copperhead PackageLooking at the marketing messages on the package, it’s no wonder Maxwell’s films have done as poorly as they have. I’m not sure most people would even notice the dissonance and confusion, at least not consciously, but I used to be a PR/marketing guy before I got into academe, and I helped create a strategic communications major once I got there, so this stuff is never far from my mind.

First, let me list the mixed messages (and then I’ll discuss them in greater detail):

  • “From the critically acclaimed director of ‘Gettysburg’ and ‘Gods and Generals’”
  • “Divided by War, United by Love…”
  • “The Third in a Series of Civil War Films Like No Other”
  • “Inspired by True Events in the Age of Lincoln”

The first marketing message tries to take advantage of Maxwell’s reputation (reinforced by “A Ron Maxwell Film” above the movie title). While well known in the Civil War community, his work is not well-loved. I can’t recall many critics who “acclaimed” Gods & Generals, for instance. He does have brand strength, at least: “Ron Maxwell = Civil War movie.” That becomes a nice tool that positions Copperhead in a particular genre beyond “young guys in olden-days clothes.”

“Divided by War, United by Love…” Oh, so this is a love story, is it? And not the battlefield glory and guts I remember from his other films? I thought “Maxwell = Civil War,” but apparently we’re getting something different. Maybe date night for Civil War buffs?

“The Third in a Series . . .” This message ties Copperhead back to Maxwell’s other two films (just as the top slug did, too, by mentioning the films by name). In other words, this is a story of battlefield guts and glory. Right?

And don’t get me started on the vacuous phrase “Civil War Films Like No Other.” Gone With the Wind, Glory, and Lincoln are Civil War films like no other. Gods & Generals and Gettysburg, meanwhile, were a lot like The Blue & The Gray and North & South and Shenandoah and Red Badge of Courage and all sorts of other war films. Is Copperhead, as part of a series, like the first two Maxwell films or not?

Besides, what does the phrase “films like no other” really mean, anyway? Nothing! The phrase is so vague it doesn’t say anything at all.

“Inspired by True Events in the Age of Lincoln”—Now they’re just riding someone else’s coattails. Thank you, Steven Spielberg, for making a movie that got more attention than this one. These folks are going to try and milk your work.

The images on Copperhead’s package are as disjointed as the printed words. There’s the just-about-to-kiss couple at the top of the image, suggesting this is a love story. But then there are the six young men walking through the forest, suggesting an 1860s version of a boy’s tale in the tradition of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Which is it?

The DVD cover is an entirely different image than the one used to promote the movie during its theatrical release. Apparently, some marketing genius somewhere decided the original image didn’t resonate with audiences and needed to be swapped out in favor of this one, which they decided was somehow superior. Instead of one unrecognizable scruffy dude walking toward the camera, they opted for six—and maybe one of them is the dude about to kiss the girl at the top, but maybe not.

Most places do market testing on that kind of stuff, so I can only imagine the process that led to these movie posters.

I always thought the original marketing seemed appropriately provocative: “Patriot to some. Traitor to others.” In the modern age of polarized politics, that’s a relevant dichotomy and a theme that could potentially give the movie real relevance. I didn’t see it anywhere on the new version of the artwork, though, and I don’t know how thematically woven it is into the film.

Bottom line: there seems to be no clear message to sell this movie. Instead, it’s a hodge-podge of mixed signals that are trying to give me a whole bunch of reasons to watch it—as though that will somehow overcome the movie’s many poor reviews and dismal box office performance.

In the end, I’ll watch the movie because Bill Kauffman was a nice guy and I like to support the work of other writers. Bill has been, by far, the best marketing this film has ever had.

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2 Responses to Copperhead: A Case Study in Bad Marketing

  1. Give the movie a try. I liked it. It resonates in the context of our polarized political culture today and gives folks a look at how war influenced those way up North beyond the sound of the gun.s

  2. Very interesting, Chris. I actually got the movie from the library a week ago and still have not watched it, though I hope to in the near future. I hadn’t thought much about the mixed messages, but you’re absolutely right. Having worked on a book cover and other marketing devices, I agree – the catch phrases are contradictory and the DVD cover is kind of blah – looks like a romance film with war. But I do want to watch it – it’s not often there’s a movie solely about civilians.

    Have you seen “The Conspirator”? It’s about Mary Surrat’s trial and I thought it was pretty amazing film.

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