Mark Ritson: The Fifty Shades of stupid marketing


No doubt about it. Fifty Shades of Grey has exploded across cinema screens and looks set to spank box office records for 2015.


The film, which cost only £26m to make, is well on course to take more than £150m at the box office in its first week with at least £15m of that coming from British audiences.

With those kind of numbers and with most of them drawn from the increasingly difficult to reach 25 to 35 female demographic (and a few mortified husbands), it’s unsurprising that all kinds of brands have been attracted to the film – some less logical than others.

Dare you enter my personal branding dungeon? Will you allow me to push you to the very limits of your thresholds for taste and decent marketing? Can you endure the pain of dumb co-branding promotions? The safe word is ‘marketing’.

The, ahem, dominantly female target audience attracted several big supermarkets. Tesco has been selling its official Fifty Shades of Grey erotic lingerie for the past six months under its F&F label. I studied the range carefully online as part of my research for the piece, committed as ever, and they appear to be rather good. But in a sign of Tesco’s faltering commercial savvy, much of the range is currently discounted by 25%. Surely this is the one SKU this week that does not require a sales promotion, even at Tesco.

More fascinating was Walmart’s offering in the US. ‘Surprise that special someone with this romantic gift basket featuring a Fifty Shades of Grey theme’. That got me excited at the prospect of exactly what the retailer had sourced from its shelves to create its ‘special basket’. Ropes from the climbing section? Clamps from the DIY plumbing aisle? Electric car starters from the automotive area? No such luck. Aside from a pair of handcuffs, the rest of the $69 basket consisted of bubble bath, chocolates and ‘specialty dipping pretzel rods’ – not as exciting as they sound either. Trust me.

The lure of linking up with the film has been tempered, for many, by the cost of product placement. So there is a huge array of tangentially connected promotions that don’t quite connect to the film. In the US, for example, condom brand Trojan is running a ‘Fifty Shades of Real Pleasure’ campaign, which parodies the film. There are similar efforts by thinkThin protein bars (Zero shades of guilt), DaVinci Roofscapes (The best 50 shades of grey for exterior walls), and baby clothier Squiggly Boo, which is selling items emblazoned with ‘Nine months ago mommy read Fifty Shades of Grey’.

The big winner this week in the fifty shades of brand association was Audi. In the book and film, nearly everyone drives one. The main protagonist Christian Grey drives a rather tasty Audi R8 Spyder. Given he is a card carrying sadomasochist one might have expected him to be driving a second-hand Jaguar, but apparently he only enjoys pain in the bedroom. He’s not the only one. As the story progresses, he buys Anastasia an Audi A3 because he believes they are “the safest car on the market”.

Not surprisingly, given it did not pay a penny for this amazing publicity, Audi’s marketing team has been pinching itself. “Audi is a brand that symbolises performance, technology and modern design,” said Loren Angelo, director of marketing at Audi of America, when asked about the appearance of Audi cars in E.L. James’s books and film. “The natural inclusion of our hottest models in this series illustrates how Audi has become synonymous with sophisticated luxury.” And nipple clamps Loren, don’t forget the nipple clamps.

To coincide with the release of the film, Audi has launched a very appealing 60-second spot in which a handsome stranger drives around New York in an R8. By now you can probably imagine the spot – women look over their spectacles while brewing coffee in dowdy offices chewing their bottom lip while the Grey-alike grabs his leather covered joystick with wild yet controlled strokes of masterful abandon.


Apparently it’s all about BDSM. As I have no clue what that acronym means, I am going to assume it stands for Brands Doing Stupid Marketing. You are released.