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Hacking the Hunger Games Marketing Campaign in the Name of Social Justice

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, November 25 2013

Will these three fingers mean as much in the real world as they do in Panem?

“Remember who the real enemy is,” implores Katniss Everdeen's mentor and friend, Haymitch Abernathy, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It is his succinct reminder that the Capitol, and not her fellow Hunger Games competitors, is the real bad guy. It is a message almost entirely lost in the media coverage and marketing campaign surrounding Catching Fire. The Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization, is trying to remedy that with a campaign called Odds In Our Favor that highlights the similarities between the inequities of fictional Panem and present-day America. So far, thousands have participated by uploading selfies in which they hold up the three finger salute that symbolizes solidarity and resistance against 'the few who control the many.'

If you're not familiar with the books or films, you should know that The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian world called Panem, in which the wealthy and technologically advanced metropolis known simply as the Capitol controls the 12 impoverished districts that make up the rest of the nation. The Hunger Games, in which two children from each district are selected to fight to the death in a nationally broadcast event, is an annual display of the Capitol's power over the districts. In Catching Fire, some of the districts begin to revolt against Capitol control.

That story's theme of inequality is almost comically lost in the marketing tie-ins with companies like CoverGirl, which is selling looks designed by “Dotti, CoverGirl Capitol Makeup Artist,” and Subway, which has the new tagline “Where Victors Eat,” not to mention these Hunger Games inspired chocolates.

Lionsgate's marketing chief Tim Palen created an online luxury fashion magazine for the imaginary Capitol, called Capitol Couture, full of tongue-in-cheek content, including this profile of Katniss's stylist and advice like "12 Districts, 12 Days, 12 Looks."

In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Slack, the executive director of the Harry Potter Alliance, writes that Lionsgate's marketing strategy “is turning an anti-classist epic into a platform for the novels' villains.”

A video released by the Harry Potter Alliance parallels The Hunger Games with the harsh reality of life in America. "People have full time jobs and still go hungry," a woman explains. It also contrasts the real life coverage of The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson by outlets like Access Hollywood with the Panem media coverage of Katniss and Peeta's wedding, which is meant to distract the districts from their suffering.

Odds In Our Favor asks people to submit selfies in which they hold up the iconic Hunger Games three finger salute, which they will use to “[flood] every Capitol advertisement with three-fingered salutes, information about economic inequality, and links to resources where followers of the Capitol can learn more about the people of the real-world districts and the worth goals they're trying to achieve.”

“We can't produce our own multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, but we can hack Lionsgate's,” writes Slack in the Los Angeles Times.

He elaborates:

Wherever the studio and its promotional partners post an advertisement for the movie, you'll see our members posting pictures of themselves doing the three-finger salute — the Districts' symbol for solidarity in the face of the Capitol. Instead of letting the studio's campaign silence or distort the film's message, activists will draw attention to the reality of economic inequality in America and to organizations that are working to end it.

Among the participants is the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Richard Trumka.

The Harry Potter Alliance has also launched a Tumblr called We Are The Districts, which posts information about the “real life” districts in the world.

In their desire for social change, the Harry Potter Alliance is joined by Donald Sutherland, who plays the sadistic, dictatorial President Snow in The Hunger Games movies.

"I hope that they [youths] will take action because it's getting drastic in this country," he told The Guardian.

What could they do? Sutherland elaborates: “They might create a third party. They might change the electoral process, they might be able to take over the government, change the tax system.”

In an interesting twist, liberals are not the only ones using The Hunger Games as a rallying cry. Earlier this year, the Tea Party released a parody trailer called “A Movement On Fire.” (Never mind that the dystopian world they depict—a muddy communist/socialist mess—is not at all like the dystopian Panem).

In the Salon article “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Whose revolution is it?” Andrew O'Hehir writes:

I have no idea whether Collins understood, while writing her best-selling trilogy of novels, that this would allow Tea Party libertarians to embrace Katniss Everdeen’s incipient rebellion against the tyranny of the effete, aestheticized and affluent Capital as easily as could Obama liberals or left-wing anarchists. Is this a story of the 99 percent rising against their corporate overlords, or of real Americans “taking their country back” from the cultural elite?

(My personal take: definitely the first one! That Tea Party video isn't hating on the glossy, high-fashion CoverGirl tie-in, but an imaginary system of “takers” and forced government handouts.)

For her part, series author Suzanne Collins thinks the contrast of the bold marketing campaign with the message of the film is “thought-provoking”:

“I’m thrilled with the work Tim Palen and his marketing team have done on the film,” she told Variety in an email.

She continues:

It’s appropriately disturbing and thought-provoking how the campaign promotes ‘Catching Fire’ while simultaneously promoting the Capitol’s punitive forms of entertainment. The stunning image of Katniss in her wedding dress that we use to sell tickets is just the kind of thing the Capitol would use to rev up its audience for the Quarter Quell. . .That dualistic approach is very much in keeping with the books.”

You have to have a lot of faith in consumers to think that the majority will pick up on that “dualistic approach.”