Advertising and Misreading: Subway, The Hunger Games, and Never Let Me Go

Catching Fire opened last weekend, earning just shy of $160 million to become the most successful November release ever. I’ve read the Hunger Games books (they’re fine) and I saw the movie: it was good, maybe better than the book; Philip Seymour Hoffman was a good choice, and people are excited about the story’s portrayals of gender roles. But what intrigued me most were the tie-in advertisements leading up to the film’s release. Especially Subway’s tag-line “where Victor’s eat” and their contest where you can “win your own victory tour.”

Now, Subway ads often feature athletes, so on its face the campaign makes perfect sense. But if you’ve read the books, or seen the movies, or have even a passing knowledge of what the story is about, it’s an awful campaign.

In case you’re not familiar with the Hunger Games trilogy here’s the basic idea, without spoiling too much. A dystopian totalitarian society (“the Capital”) enslaves a bunch of colonies (“the districts”) that had rebelled 75 years ago, forcing them to send two children, a boy and a girl, each year to compete in the eponymous games, where they all slaughter each other until only one person is living. That lucky survivor is rewarded with wealth and celebrity status, but also (we find out in the second two books) prostituted by the Capital. These survivors are known as “victors.” The term has a specific, and not positive, connotation. Victors are the people who managed to kill everyone else, and now stand as symbols of their own society’s enslavement. At least they get Subway sandwiches.

In the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, the books are something of political satire (Suzanne Collins reports getting the idea while channel-surfing between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war). The Capital is a cesspool of excess, with ridiculous fashion trends and body mutilation. The districts are starving, and a rebellion brews over the course of the trilogy. It’s during the protagonists’ “victory tour” through the enslaved districts that we witness the first bubblings of rebellion. Here’s a clip from the tour (the antebellum plantation imagery is even more overt in the film itself):

According to Subway, you can now win this tour, and so much more. That’s not a contest I’m particularly keen on entering.

I’m not the first person to notice the irony behind Subway’s ad campaign. The top results of a Google search for “subway where victors eat” are not Subway advertisements but Tweets, Facebook posts, and blog posts (like this one and this one) about how awful the ad campaign is. It’s also been covered in The Guardian, which also talks about Covergirl’s similar campaign.

I’ve been thinking about it, though, in relation to teaching. I have a vague recollection of an essay about using advertisements to teach historicized close reading (now that I look it up, it’s Richard Ohmann’s “Teaching Historically,” in Pedagogy is Politics), and in my literature and science course this semester we read another dystopian novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (there’s a film version, too, but it’s really bad). Ishiguro’s novel is very different from The Hunger Games, but misreading is thematically relevant. (So are advertisements — one of the novel’s key episodes is sparked by a torn-out magazine ad depicting an office).

The book takes its title from a song the narrator-protagonist (Kathy) listens to, the chorus of which repeats “oh baby, baby, never let me go.” NeverletmegoposterKathy, who can’t have children (for reasons I won’t explain so as not to spoil this wonderful and disturbing book), imagines “a woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies, who’d really, really wanted them all her life. Then there’s a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds this baby very close to her and walks around singing: ‘Baby, never let me go.'”

Kathy knows that’s not what the lyrics are about: “Even at the time, I realised this couldn’t be right, that this interpretation didn’t fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn’t an issue with me. The song was about what I said.” Kathy is interrupted by a woman, the mysterious “Madame,” who sees her and then starts crying. Later in the novel we get Madame’s side of this encounter:

When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else … I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go. That is what I saw. It wasn’t really you, what you were doing, I know that. But I saw you and it broke my heart.

So Kathy (knowingly) misinterprets the song, and Madame (knowingly) misinterprets Kathy listening to the song. You don’t need an English professor to tell you that you should sit up and take notice when you see a novel’s title appear in such a manner. This is a book that asks who earns our sympathy and why, and whether art can reveal our humanity. Interpretation is a big deal. One of the things this novel tells us is that just because multiple reactions are possible doesn’t mean anything goes and all interpretations are equally valid. Some misreadings are better than others.

Which brings me back to the Hunger Games. Donald Sutherland — who plays the villain — hoped that the Hunger Games would “stir up a revolution.” Now maybe this its own kind of marketing hype, but fiction has the power to move people, and I’d like to think a story’s political force can do some good. The Hunger Games’ success, in the words of the Guardian article about Sutherland, is partly because “the allegory can be read multiple ways.” But Subway’s reading is not one of those ways. It’s just bad, falling back on a word that completely misses the point of the context in which it appears.

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