Hollywood Is Tricking Audiences Into Theaters With Bait-And-Switch Trailers

They say not to judge a book by its cover or a movie by its trailer. But let’s be honest – we all do sometimes. And recently, that teaser intro hasn't been telling us the full truth.

By Jillian Schroeder4 min read
Warner Bros./Wonka

Sony’s female-led comic book film Madame Web was released last week to some of the worst reviews in comic book film history. Considered by some to be “the worst movie of all time,”  Madame Web has a chaotic web of reasons it flopped so spectacularly, but among them is this: The film’s trailer lies to its audience about the kind of movie they’re going to see.

The film’s trailer hints at a multiverse-style battle of Spider-women, featuring stars like Sydney Sweeney clad in iconic comic book outfits. It seems to promise an origin story to a whole new Spider-verse of heroines. In reality, though, the film barely shows the young Spider-women. Madame Web is pure backstory, and the few glimpses we get of the Spider-women are the same ones we see in the trailer. It’s a major bait and switch – luring us in to watch one kind of movie and making us sit through something else entirely.

Why have we seen misleading trailers increase in recent years? And why are production companies leaning so heavily on this kind of advertising?

The Recent Trend of Bait-and-Switch Movie Trailers

When the trailer for spy thriller Argylle was released, it was pretty evenly divided between two plotlines – that of fictional super spy Argylle (Henry Cavill) and his nemesis Lagrange (Dua Lipa) and that of their creator, author Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard). 

But if you’ve seen the film – heads up for spoilers if you haven’t – you know that Dua Lipa features in only one early sequence of the entire film. Cavill has only two other major scenes that aren’t depicted in the trailer. After a trailer that pushed the presence of Cavill and Dua Lipa so heavily in its marketing strategy, I felt a little cheated leaving the theater, and many other fans of Cavill and Dua Lipa felt the same. Argylle’s marketing lured its audience in with one of the more common bait-and-switch trailer tactics: featuring certain stars in the trailer far more than they are actually featured in the film. It counts as honest advertising on a technicality, but it misleads the audience nonetheless.

This isn’t the only bait-and-switch strategy, though. When the first full-length trailer for Mean Girls was released, not one of the film’s musical numbers was included, not even as background music for the trailer. The clips of the film selected for the new trailer hearken back to the 2004 cult classic, obscuring the fact that the remake of Mean Girls is an adaptation of the Broadway musical, not a remake of the film. Lovers of Broadway theater may have known what they were in for, but audiences at large were shocked and disappointed to find that at least half of the new film was musical numbers.

At least Mean Girls did have one teaser trailer indicating the film was a musical. Christmas release Wonka, aimed at the family movie crowd, released two major trailers, neither of which included the film’s numerous musical numbers. Other than a reworking of the song from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1975) playing lyrically in the background, there was no indication that the film would be not only family-friendly but specifically a musical.

Both the Wonka and Mean Girls trailers used a different kind of bait-and-switch tactic. This one misleads the audience about the film’s genre, instead of its stars. For people who love musicals (like myself), this wasn’t a major inconvenience, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that this kind of marketing is dishonest. It selects clips for a trailer that will attract the largest audience possible and doesn’t tell the truth about the movie the audience is about to watch. 

Ana De Armas and the Case Against Bait-and-Switch Trailers

Last year, the case against bait and switch trailers came to a head when two fans of actress Ana De Armas saw the trailer for Danny Boyle’s comedy Yesterday and decided to rent it for $3.99 on Amazon Prime. 

The fans were upset when they discovered upon watching the film, however, that De Armas was only supposed to be in one scene – and this scene hadn’t even made the final cut of the film. In a class action suit, they sued Universal Studios for $5 million on the charge of false advertising. The suit claimed that De Armas’s fans “were not provided with any value for their rental or purchase” because De Armas did not appear even once in the final film that they rented.

Let’s reality check here. It’s unreasonable to expect that $5 million in damages is merited for a disappointing $3.99 movie rental on Amazon Prime. This is no doubt the reason why the suit was dismissed by a U.S. district judge in August of last year. From my perspective, Disney fans have a better case for restitution from the travesty that was Wish than these two disgruntled movie renters. 

But the Yesterday false advertising suit speaks to a growing frustration over the marketing tactics used by production companies to sell their films to audiences, and I think the frustration is valid. After all, two hours is a lot of time to devote to a movie. The average ticket price for an adult in the U.S. begins at $15 – not a throwaway price by any stretch of the imagination. We want to know that our time and money are invested where we really want them. To watch a trailer that promises a certain kind of story or experience, but delivers something else, is the definition of false advertising. It can feel like a waste of money – and worse, an insult to the audience's intelligence.

Did the Covid Shutdowns Increase Bait-and-Switch Marketing?

So, what’s behind this increase in bait-and-switch marketing? Is it yet another tactic used by baddie corporations to pull the wool over the eyes of their audiences?

To really understand the turn toward bait-and-switch trailers, we have to look at the goal behind it. When a production company puts together a marketing plan for a film, they aren’t simply trying to create an audience – they’re trying to draw the audience to watch the film in the movie theater. In 2019, only 55% of American adults stated that they would see a movie in the movie theaters, and of that 55%, only 23% would see more than one film in the theater. This downturn in movie theater attendance affects the overall profits of a film significantly. Most production companies can’t wait several years for a film to generate revenue on a streaming service platform. They need the revenue of a theater run to stay afloat.

Seen in this light, it makes a lot of sense that we’ve seen an increase in bait-and-switch advertising since the Covid shutdowns of movie theaters. When movie theaters were mandated to stay closed – ostensibly to keep people safe – streaming services saw a boom in subscriptions. Since theaters reopened, nearly 70% of audiences who are unlikely to return to a theater have stated that their reason is because they can find what they want to watch on streaming.

Basically, in a world of streaming media, the competition is steep. Production companies are fighting to get people away from their streaming services and back into movie theater seats. To do this, their trailers need to attract the maximum audience possible. If that means misleading people about the film’s content or major stars, well, at least it got them in the theater.

The irony of these tactics, of course, is that they are a temporary solution to the larger problem. Instead of bringing people back to theaters with an experience they will enjoy, bait-and-switch advertising makes the audience feel cheated out of their time and money. Ultimately, a bait-and-switch trailer discourages the audience from coming back to the movies.

Closing Thoughts

Whether movies are getting better or worse, one thing is for sure: Movie advertising is getting less honest. Increasingly, audiences are being lured back to theaters by trailers that mislead them – about the film’s genre or real stars. Instead of counteracting the effects of the Covid shutdowns on movie theaters, this will ultimately only discourage audiences from returning to the theaters. 

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