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Making the Most of ‘Skin Deep’ Ad Controversy

Times Staff Writer

There are few hard and fast rules in the fickle world of movie marketing, but one rule remains forever durable: Fanning the flames of controversy under a film is a sure-fire way to build lines at the box office.

The makers of “Skin Deep” this week followed that principle with aplomb. Within 24 hours of a decision by the three major networks to refuse to air two sexually suggestive “Skin Deep” commercials, publicists from every aspect of the film unleashed a round of phone calls to reporters. They represented Fox studios, the distributor; Morgan Creek, the production company; even Blake Edwards, who wrote and directed the picture.

Was the press aware of the networks’ “outrageous” behavior? Did reporters also know that “Entertainment Tonight” was having trouble getting its spot on the controversy aired? (As it turned out, E.T.'s producers were wrestling among themselves, seeking a way to tastefully air their report on TV.) Would reporters like to talk with their clients?

“We are getting good publicity,” confesses Jack Brodsky, Morgan Creek’s president of marketing and distribution. “But I would rather have had the commercials run, reaching millions of people rather than the hundreds of thousands you may reach with publicity (such as newspaper stories).”

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One fact left out of all this publicity hustling was that Fox’s own network also refused to air the original commercials.

“They turned us down too,” said Brodsky.

The story extends beyond the TV commercials. When older female moviegoers objected to an explicit “Skin Deep” poster in theaters, some of the film’s marketers argued that Fox should fuel the controversy--and ticket sales--by refusing to remove the offending ads, said Brodsky. Fox later did agree to change the posters, he added.

The source of the dispute over TV commercials is a scene involving a woman, her two lovers, a darkened bedroom, glow-in-the-dark orange and blue condoms and a fight that looks like a laser light show. (A Fox spokeswoman said the lights are actually elaborate flashlights tailored for the film.)

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The commercials that the network rejected don’t show any of this, but they do make references to the scene. Ritter, for example, is heard in the bathroom exclaiming, “Oh my God, you’re not going to believe this!”

“We can’t show you but we can ask you to use your imagination,” the commercial says. The movie is advertised as “the comedy that glows in the dark.”

“It was a matter of taste,” NBC’s Dom Giofre, manager of corporate information, said of his network’s decision to reject the commercials. “We felt it was inappropriate.”

Both CBS and NBC later agreed to air more tame versions.

Brodsky contends that the networks are applying a double-standard to film makers. NBC’s “L.A. Law,” he noted, includes scenes that are much more sexually explicit than the “Skin Deep” commercials.

But NBC’S Giofre said explicit scenes in programs like “L.A. Law” are not offensive because viewers tune into those shows knowing what to expect. Commercials catch viewers by surprise, he explained. Giofre also rejected Brodsky’s contention that the networks air commercials for their own programming that are more sexually explicit than the “Skin Deep” ads.


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