Movie Taglines: The Psychology of “Be Very Afraid”

Recently the topic of movie taglines caught my interest. I’d been watching a DVR-ed interview of Tina Fey on Inside the Actors Studio, and something kept blipping across the bottom of the screen—as is often the case these days. (Interesting side note: these things, I’ve now learned, are aptly called snipes.) It was an ad for another show on Bravo: “3 out of 4 voices in your head agree…you should watch LA Shrinks.”

Nice. From a show that’s about therapy.

But this distasteful marketing ploy for LA Shrinks got me to thinking about the use of movie taglines to get our attention. What have been the most effective or interesting ones?

Come to find out, a survey has actually been done about this very thing by a site called Tagline Guru. A bunch of advertising, marketing, and branding professionals weighed in on movie taglines and came up with a top 100. What I quickly saw was that many of the “best of” get to us by playing on our fears and anxieties. The top five:

  1. Alien (1979): In space no one can hear you scream.
  2. Apollo 13 (1995): Houston, we have a problem.
  3. Poltergeist II (1986): They’re back.
  4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): We are not alone.
  5. Jaws 2 (1978): Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.

Number 8, The Fly (1986): Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Similar in nature is 16, Apocalypse Now (1979): The horror…the horror.

On the other hand, some well-known scary-type movies have gotten taglines that are actually more satirical or witty. Number 20 is Psycho (1998): The classic story about a boy and his mother. Number 28, Mommie Dearest (1981): The biggest mother of them all. Number 36, Jaws: The Revenge (1987): This time, it’s personal.

Then there are the movie taglines in the top 100 that address Minding Therapy-type issues:

  • Number 34, Forrest Gump (1994): Life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get.
  • 51. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Family isn’t a word, it’s a sentence.
  • 79. Waiting to Exhale (1995): Friends are the people who let you be yourself…and never let you forget it.

Finally, the following list includes movies I’ve previously reviewed or addressed on Minding Therapy, only two of which made it into the survey:

  • At number 24, The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.
  • Number 50, Postcards from the Edge (1990): Having a wonderful time, wish I were here.
  • Ordinary People (1980): Everything is in its proper place… Except the past.
  • What About Bob? (1991): Bob’s a special kind of friend. The kind that drives you crazy!
  • Good Will Hunting (1997): Some people can never believe in themselves, until someone believes in them.
  • Analyze This (1999): New York’s most powerful gangster is about to get in touch with his feelings. YOU try telling him his 50 minutes are up.
  • Prime (2005): She thought she could tell her therapist anything. But she’s about to discover that she’s already said too much…
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006): A family on the verge of a breakdown. Also, Everyone just pretend to be normal.
  • Shrink (2009): The doctor is out.
  • 50/50 (2011): It takes a pair to beat the odds.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012): Watch for the signs.
  • Side Effects (2013): One pill can change your life. Also, This is your insanity on drugs.

How many of the movie taglines in this post were already familiar to you? Did you immediately recognize all or most of the survey’s top picks? How scary is that?

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