Movie Marketing Madness: The Legend of Tarzan

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I wish the Johnny Weissmueller Tarzan movies had been my first introduction to the cinematic versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic character. While I certainly saw at least most of them later on (I don’t think I ever caught up with Tarzan’s New York Adventures), I think the first Tarzan film I saw was Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. While I don’t remember much of the movie itself (other than some parts that were super-exciting to my pre-adolescent self), I remember it was one of those that in the mid-80s was on Cinemax or HBO pretty consistently, meaning it was good to watch on summer afternoons when there was nothing else on and nothing better to do. It’s hardly the definitive version of the character, but it did what it needed to do and I remember it being a relatively interesting take on the legend.

Now there’s another live-action version hitting screens in The Legend of Tarzan. This time around the story has Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), who was raised by apes after his parents were killed while on a jungle exploration, having acclimated to life in London after returning home, reclaiming his birthright and marrying Jane (Margot Robbie). One day, though, he’s lured back to the jungle where he was raised under false pretenses, only to find Jane has been kidnapped by a corrupt Belgian (Christoph Waltz) because…reasons. So it’s up to Tarzan to not only rescue Jane but to protect the jungle home he left decades ago from the intrusion of western civilization.

The Posters

legend of tarzan poster 1The first poster is all about the visuals, as we see Tarzan standing next to a roaring gorilla, his own eyes wide with fury (?) and some battle damage on his cheek. So we’re meant to believe this is a hard man leading a hard life in a wild environment based on this one-sheet. There’s no copy or tagline, which is a little surprising, just the title treatment and cast list.

The next poster featured both Skarsgard and Robbie walking through the jungle in the middle of a pack of apes as rain falls on all of them. The colors are all muted as they would be if it were pouring down like this in the jungle. The cast list is at the top and the words “Human. Nature.” are there, arranged and punctuated in such a way to make it clear there’s a divide between the two, presumably one that the movie will explore to some extent.

An IMAX poster placed Tarzan in the middle of a pack of gorillas, really playing up his connection to that world.

The Trailers

What the…

That was my initial reaction to the first trailer, which is kind of all over the place tonally. I get what they’re going for here as the spot tries to set up not only Tarzan’s origins as a man raised by apes but also his quest to…free Jane from the clutches of the bad guy? That’s just one story of the couple that are hinted at here, along with some sort of other story that has Tarzan in polite British society. A scene toward the end has Jackson imploring him “You’re Lord of the Apes…Taaar..zan!” which may take the cake as the best over-delivered line in recent memory.

Like I said, the tone of the trailer is all over the place. It never fully sells or completes any of the handful of storylines it presents the broad strokes of and so never really presents a compelling case for the movie. It’s all about spectacle – at least 3/4 of the shots of Tarzan are CG, not Skarsgard – and almost not at all about any kind of story or emotional connection. The primary emotion they’re going for here is “savage” but it’s all too clean to really sell that.

The next trailer starts out by showing us how baby Tarzan came to be left in the jungle and how he’s been accepted by the tribe of gorillas. Then we cut straight to how Jane has been kidnapped as a way to lure Tarzan out in the open. The rest of the trailer is full of him swinging around, rallying groups of animals and so on in an attempt to rescue her and bring vengeance on those who took her.

This one sells the movie as a straight-ahead romantic epic. It’s all about the love that drives Tarzan to do anything to rescue Jane and which keeps her confident he’ll do anything it takes to rescue her. It’s trying to appeal to two audiences here: The women who are going to be attracted by the story and the shirtless hero and the men who won’t mind the story when there’s so much cool CGI action going on.

An IMAX trailer starts out with a father doing what he can to protect his son just before he’s attacked by a group of apes. The boy winds up being fine, though, as he’s protected by some of the apes and he grows bigger and more powerful. Eventually he’s an adult and we see some of the same shots of Jane being abducted and held for him to come and rescue her.

Again, it’s not hugely different than the previously-released trailers, just a few things here and there.

One final trailer was released just days before the movie came out that has Jane explaining where Tarzan came from and how he learned to conquer the beasts he was raised with.

There’s no story here, just lots and lots of visuals and talk about how epic his adventure is. The studio really wants to sell this as a big-screen spectacle, but that’s an angle that hasn’t worked super-well this summer.

Online and Social

The Tumblr-based official website opens up and displays a version of the key art with both Skarsgard and Robbie along with some of their ape allies.

Opening up the menu in the upper right hand corner, the first section is “About” which is where you’ll find a decent story synopsis that lays out the conflict that will drive the action.

After that, the “Trailers” section has the trailers and “Videos” has…I actually don’t know because despite hitting the site on multiple days with different browsers it never loaded. So…yeah.

tarzan pic 1

The “Gallery” has eight stills from the movie. “Tumblr” takes you to the feed of stills, GIFs and other updates that have been made to the Tumblr blog.

Next is a link to the Stop Ivory campaign to halt the trade of elephant ivory where you can lean more about getting involved with the Elephant Protection Initiative.

The “Tarzan Challenge” is a series of exercises, recipes and more to help you get fit like Tarzan. Finally there’s “Partners,” which has links to the few companies who signed on to help promote the movie.

On Facebook the studio shared trailers, video featurettes, TV spots, promotional images and some motion graphics with factoids about Africa and more. Lots of live video there from the page itself as well as Vanity Fair and other partners. There’s also a cool recent 360-degree video of the African jungle from Discovery, a special video from the show “Naked and Afraid” and more. Similar stuff can be found on Twitter, which has the same marketing material and its own set of media and partner RTs and more. Instagram has photos, promotional images and short videos.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

TV spots ranged from 30 to 60 seconds and varied in their approach, sometimes emphasizing the jungle-based fighting going on and sometimes playing up the romance between Tarzan and Jane more strongly. Either way, the message here is that this is an epic story about characters you’re relatively familiar with, so come see it, preferably in IMAX.

Outdoor and online ads using the key art were also run.

In terms of cross-promotional partners:

  • Red Robin: Offered a free movie ticket with the purchase of a $25 gift card.
  • Xperia Lounge: Not sure what the connection is, but the link takes you to the site’s exclusive content and a prompt to download the app from Google Play.
  • ebay charity: Offered the chance to bid on an African safari for two along with a signed movie poster, with the proceeds going to the Elephant Protection Initiative mentioned before.

Media and Publicity

Just before the release of the first poster and trailer, a first look was offered in the form of official stills, which most everyone on the internet noted presented Skarsgard’s abs as a featured, if not starring player in the movie. As has become the norm with movies like this, some of the publicity came in the form of stories about how Skarsgard got himself into Tarzan-like shape for the role, including what his exercise and nutrition routines were. Robbie got a huge profile that allowed the actress to talk about the struggles she’s had with her career, approaching the iconic character of Jane and lots more. 

tarzan pic 3

Of course, as has been the case with other movies featuring a side of beefcake, some of the press death with how Skarsgard got in such amazing shape for the role. Skarsgard talked about how his father was a fan of the original Tarzan movies, the technical aspects of shooting the movie, character relationships and more.


Both stars also made the rounds of the talk shows to talk about the movie, stepping into such iconic roles and more.


The campaign started off on absolutely the wrong foot – that first trailer is a mess with nothing to tell the audience about anything – but it did eventually right the ship and get down to selling the movie as an epic action romance. So there are appeals here to guys who want to come see the big-screen throwdowns between man and ape and the visual effects on display and to women who want to come see a big love story about a man who will do anything to save the woman he loves. But that’s unfortunately kind of a dated story premise in an age where female characters are expected to have their own agency and take their fates into their own hands, not relying on any man to save them or prove their worth.

So not only does the whole premise of the story rest on somewhat shaky ground but it’s hard to figure out how this movie will differentiate itself from other big-screen visual-driven fantasy stories that have come and gone very quickly this year. (I’m looking at you, Huntsman.) Robbie is in many ways the bigger name right now but it’s clear it’s not her story we’re following here, it’s that of Skarsgard’s Tarzan. That makes sense, but it may not be what audiences are looking for right now. The movie looks like it takes itself super-seriously, which may actually be a factor in the wake of so much winking and nudging at the camp involved in many recent movies. (Still looking at you, Huntsman.) We’ll have to see how the audience reacts to a story about colonialism and damsels being rescued by their man that doesn’t feel especially essential right now.

By Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.