A few weeks ago I talked about how the movie Smokey and the Bandit had the greatest movie product placement of all time, Bandit’s jet black Firebird Trans-Am. The movie had an immediate impact on sales of the sporty Pontiac, and the car is still highly-prized by vintage car collectors to this day.
The car played an integral part of the movie Smokey and the Bandit, and did so in a way that wasn’t forced, that made sense to the audience and that actually made the car seem cool and desirable. While Smokey and the Bandit was at its heart a comedy-adventure movie, General Motors no doubt saw the movie as a 2 hour promotional video for the Pontiac Trans-Am. And a far better one than GM could have produced.
That brings us to 1986’s blockbuster movie Top Gun. The film’s protagonist is Pete Mitchell.a brilliant fighter pilot, who is constantly being disciplined for refusing to follow all of the ‘rules of engagement’ while flying. Pete is the son of Duke Mitchell, who was also an excellent fighter pilot, who flew in the Vietnam War. Pete has been told by the government that his dad disappeared behind enemy lines, and his family name has been engulfed in controversy as a result. In fact, we learn in the movie that Pete was denied entry into the US Naval Academy because of the actions of his father.
So understandably, Maverick flies with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, to not only live up to the flying skills of his father, but to prove himself to fellow pilots that doubt him based on the reputation of his dad. Maverick is eventually given the opportunity to join Top Gun, the premier school for teaching dogfighting skills to pilots. This school is for the elite of the elite, so it’s the perfect place for a pilot with a chip on his shoulder to prove himself. Maverick quickly positions himself as one of the top pilots in the school, but a tragic accident while training leaves him questioning if he should quit the school or not. Before deciding to leave, he visits one of his instructors, who tells him that he had actually flown with his dad in Vietnam, and that the story he had been told for years about his father was wrong. The instructor told Maverick that he and his father were hopelessly outmatched in an aerial combat exchange. Maverick’s father had a chance to leave the fight and save his own life, but he stayed to save the lives of several teammates, before his plane was finally shot down.
The story itself is interesting enough, but what makes the film is the breathtaking flight sequences. It was actually a wonderful recruitment tool for the US Navy, who saw a massive spike in enrollment because of the movie. Saavy recruiters even set up booths in the lobby of movie theaters so they could talk to candidates as soon as they left the movie, no doubt excited about what they had just experienced.
And the Navy will likely see another spike in recruitment when the film’s sequel, Top Gun 2, is released next Summer. As you can see from this trailer, the flight scenes are absolutely incredible:
If you were to argue that the Top Gun films are simply a protracted recruitment video for the Navy, you wouldn’t be completely wrong. The Pentagon worked with the studio to make the original Top Gun movie and has worked with the studio on the sequel. Because the government knows that storytelling is a very effective marketing tool. We talked yesterday about using storytelling to make your blog writing more interesting, and it also works incredibly well for movies.
Help your customers understand how your products or services are valuable and make their lives more meaningful. That’s great marketing at its heart. Top Gun inspired many Americans to join the Navy to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And hopefully fly cool planes as well. But it was all marketing. The fact that it didn’t really feel like marketing is what makes it so effective.