Oh, What a Giveaway: Remembering Our ’80s Promotions

It was the go-go days of home video.

Video stores were popping up on almost every street corner. Studios were releasing their latest Hollywood hits to the stores quicker and quicker. Everyone was trying to get into the act, from gas stations to 7-11 to 7-11 with gas stations.  

And then there was Movies Unlimited, one of the country’s first video retailers. The company established itself as a pioneer, blazing trails by selling videos through the mail, establishing one of the first rental—er, “preview”—programs, receiving awards from the film studios for innovative marketing and from the Video Software Dealers Association as “Retailer of the Year,” being featured in Newsweek Magazine in a cover story about the booming video industry.

But with all of the “shacks,” “villages” “West Coasts,” “stations,” “huts” “Hollywoods” and “Erols” marching down the paths that Movies Unlimited blazed, how was the innovative independent underdog from Philly gonna keep ahead of the hungry pack of video interlopers?

The answer came in two words: Promotion and Promotion.

Taking a tip from William Castle, the enterprising schlockmeister behind his attention-getting stunts for such films as The Tingler and Thirteen Ghosts, Movies Unlimited went into action with giveaway items for video rentals that would get the public and media talking.

Movies Unlimited patrons were used to receiving neat items when they came into the stores to rent a movie on VHS or Beta. There was free popcorn, free issues of Video Review magazine and other goodies. 

But certainly customers didn’t expect to get a complementary wire hanger when they rented Mommie Dearest, the 1981 movie in which the monstrously obsessive Joan Crawford, played by Faye Dunaway with cold cream-slathered face, freaks out on daughter Christina when she discovers she didn’t utilize a wooden hanger to put away a dress.

“I told you! No wire hangers—ever!” Joan screams.

Then Crawford tosses Christina’s whole wardrobe from her closet and begins beating her with a wire hanger.

White stickers applied to each hanger reminded renters that they got the movie—and the hanger—from Movies Unlimited. The stickers bore a photo of Dunaway’s Crawford with a sinister half-smile. “To my darling Christina with love…Mommie Dearest,” was handwritten in the corner.

People who hadn’t seen the film yet were not sure what the hanger giveaway made reference to, but it certainly piqued their curiosity enough to at least rent the film. The film was so over-the-top, it was considered kitschy from the start. Some may have seen the promotion in pretty bad taste and definitely politically incorrect, but it had people buzzing and the media calling.

At the time, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s most-read column was “On the Scene,” written by man-about-town Clark DeLeon. He mentioned the hangers and printed a picture of the item. It brought more people into the store, eager to own the kitchsy collector’s item and check out its place in the movie. Some folks came back to return the movie and recognized the offbeat humor of the promotion. “This is sick,” they said. But they smiled.  

The success prompted other Castle-styled keepsakes from Movies Unlimited.

mark-of-the-devilWhen the horror film Mark of the Devil was first available on VHS and Beta, MU took a cue from the folks who distributed the film in the theaters in 1972. “Stomach distress bags” were ordered for renters of the only movie “Rated ‘V’ for Violence,” and handed out by store employees with a smile to the brave viewers-to-be of “the most violent movie ever made.”

As one of the unlucky ones to see this European masterpiece of depravity at a packed house at the Tyson Theater while in high school, I was pretty much left speechless by the acts on screen and in the audiences. The film certainly had a reputation, and it carried over to its home video release, where the curiosity factor and hubbub turned it into a big hit at Movies Unlimited.

Of course, not all of the freebies offered to customers were in the distasteful mold. For Stripes, the Bill Murray-John Candy comedy, a colorful medal pinned to a collector’s card was presented. An impressive book of U.S. road maps came with each rental for Mel Gibson’s The Road Warrior, while boxes of tissues were handed out when customers “came to laugh, came to cry, came to care and came to terms” for 1983’s Oscar-winner Terms of Endearment.      

In addition, Movies Unlimited staged some unusual in-store promotions. We had the real “Otto,” the automatic pilot from the Airplane! Movie, for a while and a Dolly Parton lookalike greeted customers. Then there was the time the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles appeared in three Movies Unlimited locations at the height of their popularity—and drew amazing 1000-plus per store crowds to meet them. Talk about shell shocked.  

There were also contests. In one, a customer won a day in New York City, transportation and food included.  As his guest, the customer brought a young woman—who was dressed like Boy George. Hey, it was the early 1980s. 

As one would expect, the more offbeat the promo item, the more talk and press it would generate. Still, customers were thrilled when they got home, hunkered down for a night in front of the TV set watching movies they rented from Movies Unlimited on VHS or, dare we forget, Beta…and found an extra bonus in the bag to boot. It was like video Cracker Jack.    

And no wonder. After all, it took them away from the nightly news and reporting on the troubles in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the threat of nuclear proliferation, and commercials for G.I. Joe, Transformers and My Little Pony. 

This is the latest in a series of recollections being featured on MovieFanFare in honor of Movies Unlimited’s 35th Anniversary.