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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.