Maybe it’s not the worst marketing blunder in history, but it still blows my mind. When Persuasion (1995) was released on VHS the year after it appeared on television and in American cinemas, the cover of the tape sent to video stores did not feature the two stars, but two anonymous models.
The reason? Early reviews of the film were negative regarding the physical appearance of Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Root was described as “homely” and “thin lipped” while Hinds was “pock marked.” So extreme was the reaction that the American marketers decided they had to use doubles.
For good measure, they made the executive decision to sex things up, choosing a classic romance novel cover pose for the photo shoot. Now, I know that the essence of marketing is to aim low. But to my mind, it IS possible to insult one’s audience. Mind you, I have nothing against romance novels or their covers. But any reader of Jane Austen knows that the heaving bosom is wrong, wrong, WRONG! There is no major décolletage and certainly no kissing in a Jane Austen book.
The marketers’ logic in this case seems to have run as follows:
1. These two uglies will never do.
2. Nobody on this side of the pond has ever heard of them, so they won’t notice if we substitute a couple of models.
3. We don’t know this book (Jane who?) and therefore nobody else does.
4. It’s a love story, so make sure the idiots out there in Middle America recognize the genre.
5. It’s a Victorian thing. You know, a costume drama from before 1950. Find one of those Scarlett O’Hara dresses for her.
6. No men are going to watch this anyway. Maybe we should call Fabio?
The mid 90’s were a golden period for Jane Austen adaptations. There was the 1995 Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, and the movie of Sense and Sensibility directed by Ang Lee, with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Initially released only in art house cinemas, Persuasion was lifted on the wave of Austenmania, and over time, the critical reception improved dramatically. Meanwhile, the DVD made its debut.
This version of the cover features a relatively chaste kiss exchanged by the two lead actors. The film features a different kiss at the end, one which created a minor controversy because of its non-Austenness. The filmmakers and Amanda Root defended it, saying that after the extreme sexual tension in the rest of the film, it would be wrong not to provide some relief. After all, film is a visual medium.
The film kiss occurs in the midst of a parade with Carnivalesque stilt walkers and a fire-eater (in a not-so-subtle reference to the smoldering passion of Wentworth and Anne). The marketing kiss comes from a publicity photo taken in an empty street.
The final American product, with its fake rose bower, is saccharine by comparison. It was felt necessary in both American versions to include a stately home in the background. Almost as though they knew that Downton Abbey was going to happen, and they were reaching for it even then… because American women fantasize more about big houses than big anything else.
Since then, we have seen a few variations on the cover. This Russian version includes a different stately home, and also Wentworth’s rival, Mister Elliot!
Haha! I have to admit that if I were a marketer presented with these two grim visages, I might be tempted to replace them.
Some versions of the DVD are so bold as to leave off Captain Wentworth and include only Anne. This version is quite elegantly designed. But to judge from the reactions of viewers (amply recorded online), Wentworth is the main attraction in this film.
The whole episode raises some interesting questions about our perceptions of beauty. Now that the film is a beloved piece of Austeniana, does that make Ciarán Hinds and Amanda Root better-looking?
And since I am on the subject of Persuasion, this is the perfect time to show off a very special gift I recently received.
Go here to see more of Guylty’s amazing handiwork. I feel honored to be the recipient of this wee treasure.