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a critical and rhetorical look at the art and artifice of the movie trailer




What are they? What do they do? How do they do it?

In the simplest terms, the most convenient definition: a trailer is an advertisement for a movie.

The “project” of a trailer is to convince you to see the movie it advertises. Trailers will do this in a variety of ways. Let's talk about those ways in terms of convention and in terms of rhetoric.

First: convention. Most trailers will use elements taken from the film itself in order to present a short overview or synopsis of what you can expect to see if you watch the movie. Insofar as they only utilize the images and sounds – and tone and thematic material and plot! – from the movie itself we can call a trailer “pure”. In this way, “pure” trailers are unlike most forms of advertising, in that they use the product to sell the product. Trailers actually have more in common with the “free samples” you might get at a grocery store, or pharmaceutical company, or local drug dealer, than they do with the TV, radio, and print ads we see on a daily basis.

While most trailers stick to this convention, they are by no means required to treat it as a rule. Depending on how much of the filming or post-production has been completed when a trailer is released it may use music or images that will not appear in the final product. They may also present alternate takes not used in the final cut (or) they may present the elements of the film out of narrative order (or) they may present the audio/dialogue from one part of the movie over images from another part. “Teaser” trailers are often released well before a movie has even reached the editing or post production stage, and therefore may rely on material produced specifically for that trailer. These trailers often resemble the TV, radio, and print ads mentioned earlier. While these types of trailers are also worthy of closer aesthetic examination, I would prefer to discuss examples that approach the standards of “pure” trailers as already outlined, mainly because they represent a unique form of advertising, entertainment, and artistic expression.

However unique the trailer may be as a format, like all advertising, trailers often tread a thin line between persuasion and manipulation. For the purpose of this discussion I would like to define “persuasion” as an appeal to one’s logic or reason, while “manipulation” will be defined as an appeal to one’s emotions. It may be difficult to imagine how the two and a half minutes of cleavage and explosions typical to movie trailers may be an appeal to the intellect, but we’ll save that for another post. At this point I’ll just leave you with…


1) Bad trailers are manipulative.
2) Good trailers are persuasive.
3) Great trailers are manipulative while appearing to be persuasive.


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