Sleeper-Cell Marketing

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Don’t you just hate those people down the street? The ones who have the flashiest new car, the latest electronic toys, the perfect decor, and the toniest parties? Everyone tries to keep up with them, but how do they afford it? And don’t you hate the neighbors on the other side of the street just as much — the ones who wear tacky clothes, drive an ordinary car, and have home parties trying to sell you their latest multilevel marketing gimmick?

These two couples live side by side in “The Joneses,” a movie that takes marketing and consumerism to an eerie new level. The Joneses — Mom Kate (Demi Moore), Dad Steve (David Duchovny), and teens Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) and Jenn (Amber Heard) — seem like the perfect family. They are tall, tan, athletic, and impeccably groomed, drive a sporty new car, wear the trendiest fashions, and carry the latest in personal communication devices (one really can’t call them phones anymore). As the film opens, they are moving into their new home in a wealthy suburban neighborhood of multimillion-dollar McMansions.

Like the Rizzo family in “City Island” (reviewed in this issue), the Joneses have something to hide. But unlike the Rizzos, they have donned their masks with diabolical deliberation. We know something is a little off when we see Steve, after being wonderfully affectionate and romantic with

Kate in public, trundle off to sleep alone in the guest room. It gets even creepier when, a few minutes later, Jenn slips out of her clothes and into Steve’s bed. (Yes, she’s the teenage daughter mentioned above.) Incest?

No. Marketing. “I’m a single 45-year-old failed golf pro former car salesman pretending to be someone else,” Steve quips cynically. The Joneses are not really a family, they are carefully selected sales reps, part of an elaborate advertising campaign designed to influence the residents of wealthy neighborhoods into coveting the goodies the Joneses drive, wear, eat, drink, and play with.

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is the name of the game, and these four play it to perfection. Like the alpha personalities described in Malcolm Gladstone’s “The Tipping Point,” they have that charismatic “it” factor that make people want to be like them and, consequently, to “want what they’ve got.” They can even convince their snobby upscale neighbors that it’s the height of fashion to serve frozen sushi from a box and drink rum punch from a foil pouch with an attached straw (yes, exactly like a Capri Sun fruit drink).

The Joneses aren’t the only ones in the neighborhood with dollar signs in their eyes, however. Neighbors Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly) welcome the Joneses to the neighborhood with a lovely basket of skincare products made by the multilevel sales company that Summer represents. She uses the “if you think it, it will happen” personal meditation technique of marketing. As hard as she tries, though, Summer doesn’t have “it.” She spends a fortune on her marketing techniques, but garners only a few sympathy sales.

The concept of this movie is clever and timely, demonstrating the hard-core nature of stealth marketing in the 21st century. Traditional commercials and print ads have become old-fashioned and ineffective for today’s buyers. Instead, product placement is now almost as important as the script and the director in movie making. Products are blatantly inserted into scenes, suggesting, for example, that if you want to be as masculine and heroic as maverick CTU agent Jack Bauer, you need to drive a Hyundai (Ford stopped sponsoring “24” last year, so you’d better dump that Bronco).

Hollywood celebrities are paid big bucks to wear certain clothing lines, carry certain accessories, and frequent certain night spots. Even President Obama ended up in a billboard ad for Weatherproof a few months ago when a smart photographer saw the marketing potential in a picture he shot — although I don’t think it was intentional on Obama’s part; he just happened to like that jacket, and I have to admit he looked great in it.

Although the concept may seem gimmicky, “The Joneses” is not as one- dimensional as it may sound. The film is honest in its portrayal of the errors of consumerism without being preachy. It acknowledges the keen dissatisfaction that occurs in the never-ending game of one-upmanship. Having proudly purchased a slightly newer version of the sporty car Steve has been showing off, Larry is furious when he sees Steve driving up a few days later in an even newer and flashier brand. Status based on material objects (not personal qualities) is fleeting.

Fleeting, that is, until the bills come due. Nothing makes the year pass as quickly as those sweet little words, “No payments for 12 months.” The Joneses are “selling a lifestyle,” but that style can lead to bankruptcy. Steve begins to feel uncomfortable about his role as an undercover marketeer when he sees what it does to the neighbors he has grown to care about, and this creates conflict in the “Jones” household.

The film also explores the question of what constitutes a family. Even fake families face problems. When Mick gets in trouble with the law for serving those rum punch pouches at a house party when the folks aren’t home,

“Mom” comes to his rescue. When Jenn has boyfriend trouble, she calls “Mom,” who hurries to her side with a sincere hug and a sympathetic ear. For better or worse, people acting like families become families. It’s as simple as that.

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