The long-delayed, highly-anticipated sequel to the 2017 film Wonder Woman finally hit screens last month. Wonder Woman 1984 opened to decidedly mixed reviews, but it would be hard to live up to its predecessor. The original film was a commercial and critical blockbuster hit, earning over $820 million to date and a 93% Certified Fresh rating on the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. There were many reasons the film did well, including strong performance by Gal Gadot, a solid script, an empowering female-led cast and crew, good special effects, and so on.
Less attention has been paid to the savvy grassroots marketing of the film, which effectively harnessed social media and social justice outrage. A closer look at the situation through the lenses of media literacy and critical thinking reveal a fascinating—and fabricated—story.
The most effective advertising and marketing campaigns are those in which the audience willingly—even enthusiastically—engages with the brand. The vast majority of advertisements are ignored, many are outright mocked and some are vilified. American media consumers, having grown up in a world cluttered with commercial jingles and ads, are largely jaded and cynical.
Technology makes it easier than ever to skip over ads, and many people pay premiums for advertisement-free entertainment services. Spam filters are very efficient at diverting emailed advertisements, and phones are more adept than ever before at blocking advertisements routed by telephone (an estimated 4 to 5 billion robocalls are made each month to people in the United States, with only a tiny percentage of them—annoying as they are—reaching consumers).
But now and then advertisers strike gold, finding ways to make audiences do their work for them, sharing their memorable message on social media in ways that only billions of marketing dollars possibly could. Superbowl halftime ads, for example, generate attention and interest weeks before the event, with news media playing their role in “reporting” on the funny/shocking/cute/edgy ads that “everyone will be talking about around the office watercooler” the next day. Rarely are so many TV viewers so eager to watch television commercials.
The Superbowl only comes once a year, however, and clever marketers have found other ways to use the news media as their platform, seamlessly blending social commentary and advertising. One of the best known examples is the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, which garnered girl-power cred—and some inevitable backlash from feminists—by emphasizing the beauty in “ordinary women.” Its (real or perceived) newsworthiness kept it in the public eye for years.
The wildly popular and much-discussed campaign was produced by Dove/Unilever, a multi-billion dollar brand. Smaller, independent companies who can’t afford such a slick campaign need to be resourceful and find cheap but effective ways to distinguish themselves from competitors; often this means guerrilla and grassroots marketing using stunts or gimmicks to gain news media attention.
Making your brand legitimately newsworthy isn’t easy, but doing so is part of many marketing strategies. Every minute of being mentioned in “news”reports—assuming the coverage is positive or at least neutral, of course—is worth far more than a comparable minute of straight-up traditional advertising or infomercials. Many people skip over, tune out, and ignore commercials, but when a company or brand is mentioned as part of the news, it garners much more active attention.
Sometimes this technique backfires, as happened in 2007 when mysterious devices promoting the Turner Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force show were mistaken for bombs and caused terrorism scares in Boston and other cities. But usually such campaigns make a small blip and then quickly fade away.
One way to give your advertising campaign longevity is to piggyback it onto a topic that people already care about—and, ideally, consider themselves activists for, such as environmentalism or social justice—and let them do your work for you. Instead of creating a demand and then selling your product to fill that demand, demonstrate how your brand aligns with their pre-existing worldview and concerns, and let the social media public promote you.
Which brings us to the Alamo Draft House, a small theater chain founded in Austin, Texas, in 1997. Part of the Alamo’s appeal (and its fame) is its quirky cinemaphile focus. Patrons are not merely discouraged from talking or texting during screenings but have been removed from the theater for doing so! Toddlers are restricted to certain showings, and audience members are often encouraged to participate by dressing up for themed occasions. The chain has 40 theaters across the country, half of them in Texas.
The ‘Clowns Only’ It Screenings
In 2017, and again in 2019, the Alamo held “clowns only” screenings of the horror movie It (parts 1 and 2, respectively) featuring Pennywise the clown. Non-clowns (or at least those not dressed as clowns) were (supposedly) barred from the screenings.
As an Uproxx article noted, “Who needs nightmares when you can be traumatized by creepy-ass clowns in person? The Alamo Drafthouse is celebrating the arrival of the 2017 cinematic take on Stephen King’s It with a clown-only screening of the movie. The Austin location of the theater chain will cater to a clown-specific audience on September 9th with a special screening of It. All attendees are expected to be done up like a clown (I can count the Captain Spauldings already) and can also visit ‘an IT pre-party where we will have face-painters available for clown ‘touch-ups,’ a photo booth, raffles for prizes, and other terrifying merriment.’” A writer for GQ attended the 2019 event and noted that clown attire (such as red noses and funny hats) was available at the door for people who showed up for the screenings without the “required” clown costume.
Headlines universally described the Alamo’s “clowns only” screening—but in fact no “clowns only” policy was enforced; for example the September 9, 2017 “clown-only” screening at the Alamo merely requested that “all attendees should arrive dressed as a clown.” It was just a silly publicity stunt that got the desired national media attention. Few questioned the truth of the advertising claim or the news media’s reporting of it; after all, it’s not as if any non-clowns were upset at being excluded. A few years earlier, however, it had been an entirely different situation.
The ‘Women Only’ Wonder Woman Screenings
When it came to scaring up controversy, Pennywise had nothing on Wonder Woman. As successful as the “clowns only” screening was, the Alamo had been more successful at courting publicity and headlines in 2017 by advertising an all-female screening of Wonder Woman; not only would female patrons be the only ones be admitted according to advertising, but “Everyone working at this screening—venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team—will be female.”
Given the Alamo’s well-known strict intolerance regarding violating theater etiquette and policies, the idea that it would hold female-only screenings sounded perfectly plausible. Most people took it seriously, and misunderstood what was going on. Dozens of journalists jumped on the bandwagon, smelling a great story.
When the screenings were announced, they were greeted with widespread approval. The first screening sold out in hours, and additional screenings were slated. The stunt worked perfectly, generating controversy and sympathetic news headlines while scoring female empowerment points and endearing the theater chain to legions of fans. A handful of people complained, sparking a predictable backlash of outrage that garnered the theater millions of dollars in further free publicity.
As it turned out, however, the Alamo was joking; paying male patrons were not refused entry to any “all-female” Wonder Woman screenings. It was a clever response by Alamo, anticipating and exploiting an equally predictable social media “outrage.”
The Alamo expertly manipulated social justice activists by creating a marketing narrative in which they were the heroes, bravely battling censorship and standing up for women’s safe spaces, “girl power,” and feminism. Activists and journalists didn’t get the joke, and the Alamo laughed all the way to the bank (at least at first). In their rush to generate clickbait headlines about a company providing women refuge from our society’s rampant misogyny the news media got it wrong—not once but twice. Not only did the news and social media misunderstand whether the “women only” screenings had actually occurred, but they also misunderstood who was complaining about it and why.
Was There a Women-Only Wonder Woman Screening?
As with the “clowns only” It screenings—which encouraged clowns but did not prohibit non-clowns from attending—the “women only” Wonder Woman screening encouraged women (more specifically, “people who identify as women,” presumably signaling Alamo’s nonbinary inclusiveness) to attend but didn’t actually prohibit non-women from attending.
Not only were men not denied entry to Wonder Woman, but the stunt backfired when two complaints were made about the screenings. These complaints added fuel to the fire and amplified the narrative that imagined hordes of misogynists were throwing petulant tantrums about not being allowed to see that specific screening. The Alamo enjoyed a second wave of publicity, this one greater than the first.
Amid all the hand-waving, self-righteousness, and troll-baiting, a little detail was lost: the screenings were in fact illegal. Even though no enforced “women-only” Wonder Woman screenings took place, the Alamo’s advertisements that there would be violated the law. Austin equality codes prohibit any public accommodation (restaurants, movie theaters, bars, community centers, etc.) from limiting their services based on a variety of factors including race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.
Many news reports simply stated that “some men” were upset at the women-only screenings. Few, however, bothered to take a closer look at who, exactly, those “some men” were, and what specifically their complaints were. Journalists accepted the most obvious answer—and took at face value the seemingly self-evident assumption that tone-deaf misogynists were the ones making a fuss. Many journalists didn’t bother to survey the social media responses beyond simply offering screen captures of various tweets, a process guaranteed to highlight the most extreme voices and thereby exaggerate the controversy (New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg hyperbolically referred to the incident as “causing an international uproar” in his June 5, 2017, article; the Times did not respond to a request for clarification).
To be sure, there were plenty of tweets to choose from, and in a social media world where even innocuous cat videos can generate controversy—never mind “debates” about the color of a dress or which way toilet paper should correctly unspool—it wasn’t hard to sift out some obnoxious responses.
The mayor of Austin, for example, received a bizarre, ranting email from a Richard A. Ameduri who wrote in part, “I hope every man will boycott Austin and do what he can to diminish Austin and to cause damage to the city’s image. The theater that pandered to the sexism typical of women will, I hope, regret its decision.” The mayor gamely counter-trolled: “I am writing to alert you that your email account has been hacked by an unfortunate and unusually hostile individual. Please remedy your account’s security right away, lest this person’s uninformed and sexist rantings give you a bad name. After all, we men have to look out for each other! . . . You and I are serious men of substance with little time for the delicate sensitivities displayed by the pitiful creature who maligned your good name and sterling character by writing that abysmal email. I trust the news that your email account has been hacked does not cause you undue alarm and wish you well in securing your account.”
The rant was widely and rightly mocked, and, with Ameduri quickly and spectacularly shot down in flames, another man soon became the new face of the seemingly misogynistic anti-Wonder Woman crusade. Unlike the noisy, mostly-anonymous online trolls and Ameduri, he took it to a whole new level and actually filed a formal complaint with the city of Austin. The Alamo’s many supporters on social media greeted the news with a mix of outrage and mockery.
Who was this angry incel, this misogynist who couldn’t stand to let women have their own screening? It was a law professor in Albany, New York, named Stephen Clark. As Salon noted, Clark “explained that the promotion of the screenings didn’t sit well with him. ‘I’m a specialist in anti-discrimination law, so I was fairly certain that this was not lawful,’ he told MyStatesman. ‘If they were trying to do a gay-only Brokeback Mountain, I would feel the same way.’” (Salon writer Alessandra Maldonado, like the Alamo, denigrated Clark’s defense of anti-discrimination laws as “whining.”)
Peter Holley profiled the chief complainant for The Washington Post: “Stephen Clark almost let it slide. The theater was 2,000 miles away in Austin, and there was no chance he was going to show up there to see a movie anyway. As a gay man who considers himself sensitive to historically disadvantaged groups, there was even a part of him that saw the value of a celebratory, women-only screening of Wonder Woman. But Clark… changed his mind when he looked up Alamo Drafthouse’s Facebook page and began reading the heated exchanges between the theater’s management and the frustrated men calling the venue’s women-only events ‘discriminatory.’”
The Alamo’s snarky tone on social media in response to (what turned out to be legitimate) complaints was another calculated effort to endear itself to audiences. Alamo fueled the flames of controversy by characterizing the complaints as completely baseless, misogynistic, and malicious. Morgan Hendrix, Alamo creative manager, said that the fact that the event “has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right.” Clark found that attitude “brazen” and dismissive: “I understand the reason for creating a women-only event, but the equality principle is fundamental…. There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women’s empowerment. There are women in Austin who would like to go to this event with their gay best friend, and they can’t under this rule.”
The Washington Post added, “He alleged that the Drafthouse’s women-only event—as it was described in the theater’s advertising—discriminated against male customers based on their gender. Citing the theater’s promise to staff only women at the events, Clark also alleged that the Drafthouse was illegally engaging in employment discrimination. ‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ he told the Post, ‘I’m a gay man, and I’ve studied and taught gay rights for years. Our gay bars have long said that you do not exclude people because they’re gay or straight or transgender—you just can’t do that for any reason . . . . We have to deal with the bachelorette parties that come to the gay bar,’ he added. ‘They’re terribly disruptive, but if you forbid women from coming to a gay bar, you’re starting down a slippery slope. It’s discrimination.’”
It was of course too late for the Alamo to publicly admit that the women-only screenings were a prank, something they never really planned to enforce; they had legions of fans defending them and encouraging them on social media. It’s not clear when they realized that their actions may have been illegal, but at any rate the theater chain decided to double down. While (justifiably) flipping the bird at the (seeming) hordes of cranky basement-dwelling misogynist manbabies online who apparently couldn’t bear women having their own screenings, they also did the same to advocates who had no problem with women—but had a very real problem with gender discrimination. That would be their undoing.
Stacy Hawkins, an associate professor of law at Rutgers University who specializes in employment law, civil rights and diversity, agreed with Clark, explaining to The Washington Post that “As far as public accommodations are concerned, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the reason this case was filed under the Austin city code is that it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.” Hawkins noted that “the entire controversy could have been avoided with a simple tweak in the theater’s advertising. ‘Just eliminate ‘no men welcome’ language,’ she said. ‘You try to make sure you demonstrate this is an event for and about women and, most likely, men aren’t going to show up.’” It’s classic human behavior: Tell people they can’t do something, and suddenly they want to do it—just to prove a point, not because they necessarily care a whit about it. The Alamo understood this bit of psychology and deftly used it to its advantage.
A second complaint, from an Austin resident named Mingfey Fan, also argued that “the very act of advertising violated the Code . . . the discriminatory screening should not be allowed.” Fan withdrew the complaint after the Alamo addressed his complaint with respect instead of mockery, admitted it had in fact violated the law, and sent him a DVD of the film.
Once lawyers got involved, after profits had been made and publicity garnered, the Alamo decided to come clean. First it admitted that the women-only Wonder Woman screenings were a prank, something they had led people to believe they would do, but never actually did, and had in fact never planned to do: As the Dallas News reported, “The chain’s director of real estate and development, Missy Reynolds, said . . . that the theaters would not, in fact, have turned away any men who bought tickets to the screening.”
In a letter to the city, the Alamo apologized for the screenings and admitted they had made mistakes, violating Austin’s anti-discrimination laws. It read in part, “Respondent did not realize that advertising a ‘women’s-only’ screening was a violation of discrimination laws. . . . Respondent has a very strict non-discrimination policy in place, but this policy did NOT include a specific prohibition against advertising.”
The Alamo agreed to revise its anti-discrimination policy to comply with local ordinances, and the matter was done. When the dust had settled (and after outrage profits were reaped), with hindsight it’s clear that the imagined hordes of angry men pounding on the Alamo theater’s doors demanding to be let in to see Wonder Woman never existed except as virtual boogeymen in the skewed online world, where public perception often veers markedly from reality. The myth wasn’t created by accident or coincidence, but instead was a golem cobbled together from scraps of advertising gimmickry, social narrative, clickbait outrage, and superficial journalism.
The idea of the “clowns only” It screenings—like that of the “women only” Wonder Woman screenings—was a misleading media myth that the Alamo had no reason to correct and every incentive to promote. When a priceless publicity stunt works, you stick with it. While some may feel that the Alamo profiting from social justice was crass, others marvel at the genius of its marketing stunts.
Social Justice-Driven Box Office
Other films in recent years have also generated free publicity (and millions of dollars) by casting themselves as somehow oppressed, or outsiders battling the status quo. Perhaps the best known example is the 2014 film The Interview, which sparked controversy when its studio, Sony Pictures, was warned not to release it—presumably at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who in the film is not only mocked but also the target of an assassination plot. Apparently giving in to censorious threats, Sony reportedly cancelled all plans to screen The Interview, on the premise that it was better that no one saw the film than anyone be injured or killed by a terrorist act at one of the screenings. This in turn led to an outpouring of public support, with moviegoers proudly announcing their determination to see the film (sometimes repeatedly), in an explicit effort to spite Kim Jong Un. Sony came under fire for caving in to terrorist threats by scuttling the film.
However, as in the Alamo screenings, Sony’s critics were acting on—and reacting to—misinformation. As The New York Times noted, Sony never planned a total blackout of the film, as had been widely reported. They had left the choice of whether or not the screen the film to theater owners—who had chosen not to. (For more on this, see my January 7, 2015 article “Censorship and Free Speech: Did Sony Really Cancel The Interview?”)
The internet being what it is, just about any news story will inevitably bring out some contrarians and trolls. This is especially true for controversial topics such as gender, race, religion, gun control, and so on. Faux outrage, marketing stunts, and manufactroversies are nothing new, of course. But they can have real consequences when people don’t see through the deception. Tens of millions of Americans, for example, likely remember a fictional widespread misogynistic outrage at an independent theater that dared to hold Wonder Woman screenings just for women.
As is always the case, the initial outrage got widespread publicity while the second half of the story—including the fact that the Alamo admitted that its women-only Wonder Woman screening had been a hoax (and publicity stunt)—got very little attention. There are plenty of real-world, legitimate examples of widespread sexism, but the reaction to the “women only” Wonder Woman publicity stunt was not among them. Skepticism, critical thinking, and media literacy are the best defenses against being manipulated by the media.
A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.