Culture

5 Most Ridiculous Hunger Games Marketing Schemes

Advertisers want fans to identify with elites who force children to fight to the death in the name of entertainment and oppression.

Photo Credit: MURRAY CLOSE/AFP

Just two days before the first Hunger Games movie opened in theaters in March 2012, Forbes.com asked:

“IfThe Hunger Games is so popular, where are the promotional tie-ins?”

The response, at the time, would have seemed pretty obvious to anyone who had read even one novel in Suzanne Collins’s wildly successful young adult series. The highly anticipated film was going to be about a dystopic future in which children are forced to kill each other, live on television, for the amusement of the ruling elite. TheHunger Games novels are great, and they’re insightful about things like violence, spectacle, and mass entertainment in contemporary culture, but the premise didn’t really seem like the kind of thing that sells kid’s meal toys, Slurpees, or Lunchables (the Forbes article’s actual examples).

Just 18 months later, though, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fireopening on Friday, the marketplace seems to have revised its answer. Advertisers have figured out the way to use Hunger Games to sell products is to cast us—the American movie-going, merchandise-purchasing public—in the role of the story's villains.

Consider the following:

1. Hunger Games Makeup

CoverGirl takes the cake for outrageous promotions, at least in the buildup to the secondHunger Gamesfilm. The makeup giant is advertising The Capitol Collection, with 12 separate looks: one for each of the stories’ oppressed, impoverished districts. In their online "Capitol Beauty Studio,' you can explore the 12 different shades of eye makeup, lipstick, and nail polish that are meant to evoke the districts’ designated industries.

In Katniss’s home of District 12, located in “what used to be called Appalachia,” the industry is, of course, coal mining. The model on the Cover Girl website wears black and yellow to represent the colors of this district. Katniss Everdeen, it must be said, doesn’t wear mascara, shadow pencil, or “sizzle gloss," but gaudy elites in the story dress up in the colors for which they're rooting.

To understand CoverGirl’s marketing, imagine a Star Wars promotion where the only role available was the Imperial Stormtroopers, Lord of the Rings-themed orc makeup, or blonde hair dye and sunscreen to look like Harry Potter’s foil, Draco Malfoy. Or, picture a Nazi costume sold in a box that says "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

2. Hunger Games Birthday Parties

Online retailers package Hunger Games party invitations, mockingjay cupcake rings and cake toppers, along with toy bows, arrows, and grenades.

However, in The Hunger Games, a child’s birthday brings her another year closer to the “reaping,” the lottery that determines who enters the arena to kill and die for the nation’s amusement.

Here’s Katniss Everdeen, the novels’ heroine, on children getting older:

"You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen, twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eligibility, when your name goes into the pool seven times."

Children’s birthday parties, it seems obvious, are not something to celebrate in her world.

3. Hunger Games Weddings

Ahead of its time in March 2011, Bridal Guide ran 500 words, and 20-some images, on “Hunger Gameswedding ideas,” including invitations notifying guests: “You have been selected by the lottery of PANEM to represent your district.” It brings you to a host of Pinterest pages that turn the novels’ iconography and language into wedding decorations and vows. Recall, here, that Katniss and Peeta are 16 years old when the story starts, and that by the time they say or do anything romantic, they’re running for their lives.

Bridal Guide does mention the elephant in the room, but dismisses it with starry eyes: “if you can look past the twisted premise (a televised survival competition where districts must battle to the death for the sake of entertainment), you'll find that at the heart of it all is an incredible love story that sparks a revolution.”

In the novels, it’s clear that to the lovers themselves, the battle to the death takes precedence over the love story (which they find to be mostly forced, for spectacle).

Katniss, on her "love story":

"The star-crossed lovers . . . Peeta must have been playing that angle all along . . . our 'romance' must be so popular with the audience that condemning it would jeopardize the success of the Games."

And here she is on weddings:

"Back home everything is so much simpler. A woman usually rents a white dress that's been worn hundreds of times. The man wears something clean that's not mining clothes. They fill out some forms at the Justice Building and are assigned a house. Family and friends gather for a meal or bit of cake, if it can be afforded."

4. Hunger Games Theme Parks and Kids Camps

Lionsgate Entertainment, as AlterNet reported last week, is pursuing the idea of opening Hunger Gamestheme parks. In the summer of 2013, a week-long children’s summer camp in Florida opened with a reenactment of the Games’ opening ceremonies, where 24 children parade through the Capitol in advance of 23 of their violent deaths. The camp drew criticism when the 26 10-14 year old campers who attended expected—and made plans—to kill each other in a real-life Hunger Games at the end of the week. In Boone, NC, Appalachian State University holds an annual Hunger Games: a food drive and, yes, mock battle until only one tribute remains standing.

Katniss, on the Games themselves: To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others.

5. Hunger Games Fast Food

Subway is advertising “Fiery Foot-Longs,” a play on the title.

“How Bold,” the ad’s titles demand of the television audience, “Will You Be?”

“Bold,” its announcer informs, can be any of the stands that Hunger Gamesheroine Katniss Everdeen takes, or the daring acts she performs, to protect herself and her family and to overthrow a vicious and repressive government—or it can be the hot sauce on Subway’s new Sriracha Chicken Melt.

 You will be bold enough to eat a spicy sandwich and watch Katniss on a theater screen.

To be sure, there are plenty of costumes, decorations, parties, events, and even theme parks that incorporate the unsavory and frightening aspects of other popular fictions, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings. Rarely, though, is the casual fan so explicitly encouraged to identify with the villains.

In the Hunger Games trilogy, the Capitol is the seat of power in the nation of Panem. The twelve districts that surround it, somewhere in the novels’ prehistory, staged a rebellion against the Capitol. The Hunger Games are the districts’ punishment for the uprising. People in the Capitol do wear heavy makeup and brightly colored wigs, and undergo extensive cosmetic surgery to do things like dye themselves colors and implant gems underneath their skin. It gives the films some eye candy, but it’s meant to be more than a little obscene—especially in such direct contrast to Katniss’s plainness. Their appearance, which we’re invited to mimic, is inextricable from their affluence, which in turn is built on the poverty, oppression, and brutalization of the characters we’re supposed to root for.

So, how can a reasonable marketing campaign treat consumers this way? Why buy the goods that turn you into the villain? One answer lies in the way entertainment works. This weekend’s highest-grossing film, the nation’s most popular entertainment (save, perhaps, the NFL, about which many more parallels to the Hunger Games can be named), will be about children and teenagers fighting to the death for the amusement of the viewing public. There will be viewing parties. There have already been, and there will continue to be, red-carpet galas. We really are reading, watching, consuming the Hunger Games for festivity and entertainment. It’s fiction, of course, but it’s not hard to see—in the increasing income inequality, in the disparity in political power, in the way we’ve turned real-life violence and war into television programming and entertainment—traces of Panem in contemporary U.S. life.

In real life outside the novels, perhaps more disturbing is our relationship to the novels’ backstory. The Hunger Games, remember, takes place in the future. Panem, Katniss, tells us, “rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America,” after “the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.”

Suzanne Collins wrote that in 2008, and the disasters, droughts, storms and fires have been piling up ever since. Popular and scholarly opinion alike are moving towards the consensus that Typhoon Haiyan, responsible for thousands of deaths in the Philippines, is attributable to manmade climate change. There, and elsewhere in parts of the world ravaged by disaster, famine, and poverty, brutal war for what little sustenance remains is no fiction at all. With every plastic mockingjay, kids’ meal toy, Slurpee cup, Lunchables package, or other fossil fuel-based Hunger Games paraphernalia that flies off retail shelves in the upcoming weeks, we contribute to those conditions.

The promotional tie-ins have arrived. To borrow a phrase from Hunger Games: the odds seem increasingly not in our favor.

Jacob Leland is a writer and musician who lives in Oakland, Calif. He tweets @JacobMLeland.