Exploitation Filmmakers: Viral Marketing, Old-School

Amazing what you find in your Inbox. I find it to be a continuing source of synchronicity. Here I am, staring at my site statistics page, contemplating all the usual viral marketing methods. Are they genuinely effective at reaching mass audiences in a cloistered, disaffected age such as ours? How does one put butts in seats when everyone seems content to isolate themselves into provincial, mutually-antagonistic sub-cultures?

Pondering all this, I stumble across a bit of spam from Franklin, Indiana’s own B Movie Celebration. Among the heads highlighted on their Spotlight page, I found the life story of one Howard W. “Kroger” Babb. Born in Lees Creek, Ohio, 1906, Babb earned his nickname working at a grocery story. He fell in with Cox and Underwood, those legendary roadshow movie makers, at some time in the 30s,  and cut his teeth in 1938 shilling a best-forgotten portrait of Ozarks Mountain life called Child Bride . With Child Bride, Babb combined the usual exploitation tactic of aping a salacious film’s “educational” value with an old fashioned, Midwestern, carny barker’s style. This generated far more denero than a no-budget morality play about hicks who marry underage girls (staring a twelve-year-old Shirley Mills, two years out from her role in The Grapes of Wrath) would seem to warrant.

Child Bride‘s trailer showcases Babb’s early work. Incidentally, Babb met his wife during the film’s distribution, who later in life described the film as “the most atrocious thing I ever saw”.

Babb’s real triumph came in 1945, when he produced and, more importantly, promoted the  “sex hygiene” film Mom and Dad. Shot in a week by a professional crew of “one week wonder” makers from Monogram Pictures, including director William “One Shot” Beaudine. Mom and Dad has little of value to recommend it, but thanks to Babb’s canny marketing sense it went on to mind-boggling financial success.

Utilizing the controversy generated by the very idea of frank sexual discussions, Babb packed theaters wherever he found them. He saw to potential in that old saw “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and made sure to seed the ground ahead of time by placing fake “letters of concern” in local newspapers. Purportedly written by the mayors of small towns who’d already suffered through Mom and Dad screenings, the writers narrated their own consternation over the film, stating they initially suspected its potential to give impressionable young people (particularly – horror of horrors – young women) ideas…until a local, church-going seventeen-year-old girl found herself “in trouble,” and found the courage to tell her parents after attending a girls-only screening of Mom and Dad.

Rather than pay theaters to show his film, Babb rented theaters outright for entire weeks, turning them into personal, mini-Big Tops. Inside, he made sure to segregated his audience by gender, and employed a rotating troop of performers to interrupt the film halfway through and lecture the audience as “The Eminent Hygiene Commentator Elliot Forbes.”

As Joe Bob Briggs wrote for Reason:

If anyone checked the credentials of Elliot Forbes, he would have discovered that the speaker was the busiest man in the history of the lecture circuit, appearing 78 times a day in cities scattered from Maine to Oregon. There were actually 26 Elliot Forbeses, one for each roadshow, and Babb hired most of them from the ranks of retired or underemployed vaudeville comedians. They knew how to work crowds with a combination of earnestness, humor, and downhome “just folks” patter that would always crescendo at the moment when they held up two paperback books — one called Man and Boy, the other called Woman and Girl — and made a spiel for “a set of these vitally important books to be read in the privacy of your own home.” Two women in nurse uniforms — supposedly stationed in the theater to take care of people who fainted or had heart attacks — would then pass among the crowd collecting money and distributing the volumes.

The books themselves were rehashes of venereal disease and pregnancy information that could be obtained at any public health agency. The Elliot Forbes speech was what is known in the carnival world as a “blowoff,” long used in 10-in-one freak shows to hustle additional money from people who had already paid an admission price. In any good blowoff, there’s the constant implication that the “good stuff” is in the attraction you haven’t paid for yet — in this case, the book. Forbes’ main job was to sell the books, which frequently augmented the box-office take by as much as 50 percent. In 1957, for example, at a four-week showing of Mom and Dad in Baltimore, the box-office gross was $82,000, but 45,000 copies of the books were sold, resulting — after deducting printing and expenses — in a $31,000 additional profit.


The fact is, there were dozens of versions of Mom and Dad, including some that didn’t have any films-within-the-film [containing footage of live births or the predictably-disgusting results of venereal disease], so that the movie could still play in markets with strict obscenity laws. Babb was not above showing his “cold” version to local authorities and screening the “hot” version in the theater. He also always carried with him a “square-up reel.” In cases where he was forced to show the “cold” version, he would sometimes be faced with an angry audience that felt cheated by the absence of what they felt they had been promised by the advertising. To appease them, he would quickly rack an additional reel of what the carnies called “pickles and beaver” — footage of full-frontal nude bodies. Remarkably, it worked. The audience left feeling they had experienced at least a little of the “good stuff.”

All of which had its intended effect, making Mom and Dad one of the most successful movies of its time…possibly the third-highest grossing of it’s decade. This success triggered an explosion of imitators, creating the first and last great wave of sexploitation films, following Babb’s poverty-row production tactics. Few could match his old school conman’s marketing sensibilities, and because of this Babb remains an honored name in certain corners of our great series of tubes.

But there’s a downside to every marketing tactic. In Babb’s case, his tactics led to an unfortunate point sometime in the middle fifties when the marks began to take him seriously. By the time my parents entered high school, graphic sex “education” films featuring live births, weeping sores, and cartoon menstrual cycles stables of Health Class, essential tactics in America’s continuing crusade to scare its teenagers away from sex, drugs, and anything too “controversial” for the non-existent middle-American household to discuss around the dinner table.

In one sense, “controversy” ain’t what it used to be. Gone are the days when two seconds of tits would earn you a “C” (for “condemned”) from the Catholic Legion of Decency. Gone, too, are the days when saying “fuck” or mentioning (female) masturbation in a pop song would earn you a stern hand-wringing from Tipper Gore.

On the other hand, certain aspects of this pendulum seem to be swinging back toward the past. Knee-jerk, cultural conservatives are hard at work incubating their next generation. The national mania for abstinence-only propaganda and teaching the “controversy” around Creationism are sure signs of that jazz. Oddly enough, they give me a certain kind of hope. Con-men young and old will tell you the best marks around are provincial, sheltered, and, most importantly, ignorant. Kroger Babb built a career on the backs of such people. Can one become a “success” without doing the same? Does literate, intelligent art have a place within our nation, culture, or empire? Is there any point to selling the steak when sizzle seems to be the only thing anyone buys anymore?

Slow and low thoughts on a high, bright summer morning. To clense your palette, here’s a few minutes from Babb’s later work, the 1949 anti-“marihuana” scare picture and blatant Reefer Madness rip-off known by various names, including Devil Weed and my personal favorite, She Shoulda Said ‘No’! (that being its title in Brooklynese):

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