The Sunset Boulevard Effect – 7 Marketing Lessons from the Film

The Sunset Boulevard Effect

“I Am Big… It’s the pictures that got small…”  – Norma Desmond, from Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Aside from: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up,” this is one of the most memorable – and quote-worthy lines- from the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson, directed by the great Billy Wilder.

Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a silent movie icon who is having… well sort of a reclusive adjustment to talking pictures.

If you are an internet marketing firm, consultant or self-styled social media guru, you might encounter what I like to call:

“The Sunset Boulevard Effect.”

The Sunset Boulevard Effect is essentially resistance to change. Denial. Denial that the world – or marketing and the social web in this case – has changed without you.

We get it: “Your business is BIG… it’s the customers/clients who got small…” Your marketing should have made you bigger, but resistance to change has made you smaller. Your audience, just like Norma’s is disappearing… They’re going to your competitors.

Here’s my advice to these small businesses, and to those of us who sell to them, based on Billy Wilder’s Classic film:

#1 Bases Are Loaded (Not in this Ballpark)

In the beginning of the film, when down and out screenwriter Joe Gillis meets with Paramount Studio executive Mr. Sheldrake, he pitches his baseball story entitled, “Bases Loaded.” Sheldrake gives him five minutes to pitch and proceeds to shoot the story down every step of the way in less than two minutes, and shows him the door.

The Final Cut: There are many small businesses that STILL don’t see the value of how social media marketing works and are playing catch up or simply don’t care to visit this ballpark (I read recently that only 47% of companies use social media marketing). They want to stick with traditional print advertising, which is as dead as yesterday’s door hanger (the caveat to this is: a combination of the two still can be effective marketing, just make sure the advertiser has their online act together as well).   Not to mention other SMBs have already been pitched these services and have fallen on deaf ears.  It’s not that Joe isn’t a good writer, he’s just pitching to the wrong team (check out Josh Bernoff’s Is Your Business a Social Media Laggard?).  Businesses get pitched all day long and it feels like Joe pitching Bases Are Loaded to Sheldrake.

#2 “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.”  – Joe Gillis

The big brands get it. Successful marketing is not a shotgun approach. Hire good copywriters. SEO copywriting is an art and most businesses still use general copy on their websites and marketing that, to use a script metaphor, leaves plot holes you can drive a truck through. In fact, take a hint from screenwriters like Joe Gillis: they understand that white space and the economy of words is most effective.

The Final Cut: I like what Susan Gunelius once wrote in her book Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps: Build the Buzz and Sell the Sizzle. Susan said: “Your product or service is far less important than its ability to fulfill your customer’s needs.” We hear a lot about CTA’s but so few businesses still understand this (even in a direct mail piece). As a small business you don’t have to have Domino’s million dollar marketing budget to succeed, but you do have to have a search marketing strategy.

#3 “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” — Norma Desmond

It’s not enough to have a face these days (or website). You need dialogue and that dialogue is happening without you. Speak up and socialize or be ostracized and outstripped by your competition.

The Final Cut: Search has changed business and how consumers find your business. I suggest Vanessa Fox’s great book on “Marketing in the Age of Google,”  to every business owner, marketing person and client I meet.

#4 Don’t Play Cards with Wax Works

Norma has her weekly Bridge club with her old crowd of silent movie stars, which Joe refers to as the “Wax Works.” Joe does not play, nor does he engage. In this classic scene, he watches his car being towed away (adding another obstacle) as Norma ignores him.

The Final Cut: In order to sell more, spend time with better prospects. Time is valuable. Don’t get distracted by Wax Works. Another opportunity could be towed away at your professional expense.

#5 Are They After You, or Just Your Isotta Fraschini?

In the film Sunset Boulevard, Paramount Studios keeps calling Norma Desmond and talking to Max, her butler, to set up a meeting. She believes it is her big comeback (she dislikes that word and prefers “return” BTW), but we sadly find out what they’re really after is her classic car (her Isotta Fraschini) not Norma Desmond the actress.

The Final Cut: Sometimes we spend time consulting, advising and meeting with clients and we’re not really sure what they are driving at (pun intended). We’re sold on it and passionate, but sometimes it’s just a dead end. Maybe they want to stay small.  Cut to the chase. Maybe the best deals are the ones you walk away from. There are plenty of businesses that do need what we offer and share our passion. They want to go along for the ride, and if it is the Isotta-Fraschini they’re after, then figure out a way to work with them or move on.

 #6 “I Am Big… It’s the pictures that got small…” 

 You got that right Norma… Mobile marketing is the way to go. Check out:

 http://mobithinking.com/mobile-marketing-tools/latest-mobile-stats

5.3 Billion subscribers (77% of the world’s population).  More US Adults Own a Smartphone Than Have a college Degree recently in Mashable. The benefits to advertising on the mobile platform are growing with Mobile marketing and should be integrated with your overall strategy and goals, and now the pictures are getting smaller along with mobile search. Mobile marketing is QR Codes, LBS, Foursquare, Facebook Places, etc. Use it!

The Final Cut:  There is nothing wrong with staying small when it comes to mobile. The ROI is BIG.

 #7 All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

There is no better place on earth than Hollywood when it comes to rejection. It is just the nature of the beast.  Norma Desmond paid a price for clinging to her past and so will businesses if they fall prey to The Sunset Boulevard Effect… think twice before you proceed… Joe Gillis got a little more than he bargained for.

And don’t forget to add Sunset Boulevard to your Netflix queue and enjoy this classic film…


Michael P. Naughton (28 Posts)

Michael P Naughton is the Co-founder of The Social Syndicate TM, located in Los Angeles California. He is a novelist and screenwriter and also the owner of 13 Hands Publications and has successfully published actor/poet Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde) who is best known for his cinematic work with director Quentin Tarantino. Prior to that he worked in management, sales and events at Borders and digital media and advertising in print, online and television.


  • Just rewatched Sunset Blvd. the other day! But it occurred to me that perhaps Joe is the villain and Norma is the hero of the piece?

    I go into a lengthy explanation why here:
    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-shower-philosophy-and-sunset.html

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