Revealed: The sly PR ruse that made Rambo PC

Hollywood has had publicists as long as it's had movies. But getting audience bums on seats to see an ageing Sly Stallone is evidence of creative genius writes Mark Borkowski

The old silent movie publicist and space grabber, Maynard Nottage, oncewrote that it is essential to think about the after effects of a photo opportunity. One of his cardinal rules was never to place anything on the actor's or actress's head when posing for a photographer.

Perhaps Barack Obama should have read Nottage's 1921 Photoplay article before allowing cameras to snap him in 2006 dressed as a Somali elder on a trip to Kenya. The spinmeisters' leaking of Obama in Muslim costume, and then poor Barack spending hours discrediting the lie that he is Muslim are arguably low PR tricks, but despite all the hand-wringing this week about the dirty tricks in the US presidential campaign, there is something much cleverer going on in the film distribution world.

I'm referring to the campaign to get audience's bums on cinema seats to marvel at the new offering in the Rambo franchise series. If I had to give a perfect ten for a creative publicity campaign, this would be it. I don't think I have seen a movie campaign with such a dazzling, platinum- thread of cultural engineering. We are all conscious of the predictable ad campaigns for Hollywood films, classically run and costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But the unseen hand of a publicist involved in constructing a cheap and effective stealth PR campaign is perhaps a little more difficult to spot.

So sit back and consider a PR strategy of dark genius. Rambo, a seemingly anachronistic icon of ludicrous Eighties machismo, is suddenly repackaged as a twenty-first century human rights campaigner in Myanmar (formerly Burma). With the film already in the can (though not shot in that country), right on cue, crowds take to the streets in mass protests against the authoritarian regime. The demonstrations were triggered by the government's announcement of drastic increases in fuel prices. According to American PR gossip blogs, film executives from Lions Gate Entertainment, the company behind Rambo, and suits from the US PR goliath Burson-Marsteller were visiting Myanmar on official business only days before the announcement.

Exactly what the PRs were actually doing there is not clear but the happy coincidence is that the protests generated extraordinary publicity for the film with mass coverage by the world's media. The publicists were then able to position Stallone as a voice of protest, via the movie, for state cruelty in Burma.

Sly has embarked on a country to country campaign, working his arse off. He has voiced his pain about Myanmar's regime, slipping in mentions of reports that Myanmar police have prohibited DVD sellers from stocking pirated copies of his movie, and that some of the film's Myanmar actors have had members of their family arrested.

This masterful strategy was designed to get into the global public consciousness a movie which is, in essence, another Rambo "blood fest". Undeniably, this is a film about retribution in its most brutal and atrocious form and the audience is given permission to really enjoy the mass carnage of the finale because of the good causes outlined in earlier scenes. There is no real political understanding and no moral understanding. The film vindicates violence and makes it heroic: it's ruthless stealth PR. They have taken the core brand values of the Rambo franchise, multiplied them by ten, and then ladled in a dollop of political point-scoring by setting the action in Myanmar. Stallone has seemingly forgotten his comments to Mark Kermode, about not doing anymore Rambo movies as it would just be "stupid".

This manipulation is a sophisticated, grown up version of Nottage's ground- breaking PR ideas of the 1900's. One of his stunts involved an attractive young woman climbing on the handrail of a bridge in New Jersey. A crowd gathered and a police officer tackled the woman who clawed at him and screamed: "My unborn child! You do not understand. I must die. My unborn child!" The woman refused to identify herself. The story remained in the news until reporters learned that the woman was an actress paid to publicise a movie titled My Unborn Child. Simple, but a clever tactic and the root of the stealth campaign we are witnessing with Rambo.

I watched the Oscars on Sunday, mesmerised by all the faceless women hovering around the stars, tapping notes into their Blackberrys. Some people think that's all there is to PR, managing celebrities. Forget it – the real art is alive and well and continues to get more sophisticated. So marvel at the ability to spin a morally repugnant film into a humanitarian blockbuster.

Mark Borkowski's The Fame Formula – how Hollywood fixers and star makers shaped the PR industry is published by Macmillan in August.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Guru Careers: Sales Director / Business Development Manager

£35 - 45K + COMMISSION (NEG): Guru Careers: A Sales Director / Business Develo...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Manchester - Urgent Requirement!

£30000 - £35000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Sauce Recruitment: Senior Management Accountant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for a independently owne...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness