Priscilla Dean and her tam, Photoplay, January 1921
The entertainment industry mastered the use of publicity and cross promotion from its very beginnings, creating elaborate ballyhoo campaigns to build word of mouth and huge box office receipts. It quickly realized that joining together with other organizations, businesses, and mass communications allowed a wider dissemination of the news to audiences at a much cheaper price, thereby helping both institutions or groups in the process.
Universal Feature Film Manufacturing Company deployed an extremely effective and relatively inexpensive cross promotional exploitation campaign in 1920 and 1921 for the Priscilla Dean film, “Outside the Law.” Employing a fashionable tam-o’shanter sold under the Pricilla Dean name, the stunt successfully spread the word of the film among female audiences, leading to high theatre grosses around the country.
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“Outside the Law” on YouTube.
Priscilla Dean reigned as one of Hollywood’s top female stars in the late 1910s and early 1920s, rising from one-reelers to serial queen to acting royalty. Dean joined her parents’ stage act as a child, gaining renown. She debuted in one-reelers at the age of 14, appearing in films for various companies including Biograph before being signed by Nestor, who co-starred her in a series of comedy shorts with actors like Eddie Polo and Lee Moran. In 1917, Dean moved to headline serials like “The Gray Ghost” for Universal, in which she displayed both her acting and stunt skills. Her winning smile, insouciance, and athletic derring-do won hearts, making her a star, and leading to certain promotional products with her name attached to them.
In 1917, Dean became one of Universal’s top stars, appearing in prestigious pictures which often bore her name above the title, many thrillers or action adventure stories. Several of these films were directed by Tod Browning, who often interjected a threat of menace. By 1920, Lon Chaney sometimes played important supporting parts in these films.
Priscilla Dean and her tam, Motion Picture Weekly.
The trio’s 1920 suspense thriller, “Outside the Law,” released early in 1921, represented one of Universal’s most prestigious pictures that year, released under its Jewel banner. The film tells the tale of Silky Moll (Dean) and Dapper Bill (Wheeler Oakman), a pair of jewel thieves working in opposition to gang leader Black Mike (Chaney), holed up in an apartment near San Francisco’s Chinatown. The film allowed Dean to show off her wide acting range, charisma, and physical skills.
Universal quickly realized the potential of producing a stylish hat under the popular Dean’s name, to help boost female attendance at her films. Beginning in fall 1920, Baer Bros. Manufacturing Company of Chicago served as the exclusive manufacturer of the Priscilla Dean tam, which ads proclaimed as mass manufactured of “suede-like” material” cleverly draped “with no harsh lines.” Available in every color, it made a “charming frame for a lovely face.” An elastic band allowed it to fit any head size. The Carbondale August 4, 1921 Daily Free Press claimed Dean designed the hat herself.
The Priscilla Dean Tam in a May 11, 1921, ad in the Bennington Banner.
A Millinery Trade Review story in November 1921 stated it was selling strongly thanks to ads in diverse magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal, People’s Home Journal, Butterick, and fan magazines. Individual hats sold for $2.50 each, or a dozen could be purchased for $13.50 and be available in ten days. It also noted the release of the Priscilla Dean Hat for Girls three to twelve, which cost $1.95 each. The story explained this was one of the largest millinery advertising campaigns ever put together, helping get the word out to an estimated five million people, through exclusive sales and tie-ins in each individual town.
Besides the campaign in newspapers, which included a coupon to send directly to the manufacturer for the hat, Universal devised promotional campaigns in which local theaters could set up promotional campaigns with newspapers and local fashion, millinery, and department stores. Stores arranged elaborate window displays, models paraded around the streets wearing the hat, and ads in newspapers offered free gifts or discounts when purchasing a Priscilla Dean Tam.
Going one step further, Universal’s publicity and exploitation department concocted an elaborate “Mystery Girl “ campaign to get the film title into the public airwaves and sell more tickets at local film theatres. They created a campaign using the Priscilla Dean Tam as hook to get women into theaters through a promotion campaign with newspapers and local businesses.
As the August 4, 1921 Carbondale Free Press explained it, “Mystery Girls” wearing the colorful, stylish hats would parade around town and those who recognized her and approached her with the correct slogan would win a free hat. The July 26 Rock Island Argus employed a “Mystery Girl” wearing the hat to visit stores in the areas and give away tickets to a theatre showing the film.
The Priscilla Dean Tam in Motion Picture Magazine.
The “Mystery Girl” campaign revolved around newspapers employing one of their lady journalists to visit certain business sections in their local communities while wearing the Priscilla Dean Tam, after stories appeared on the front page of the paper explaining the generalized area in which she would appear and the procedure to follow to win a hat. The journalist would write a story explaining the stores she visited and the people she met each day, thereby giving free publicity to each business. To make the contest even harder, decoys wearing Priscilla Dean Tams also walked around town.
The procedure involved to win a hat required a woman to approach the “Mystery Girl” and hand over the newspaper column about the hat, and then utter the words, “You are Outside the Law You are the Mystery Girl.” She would receive a ticket to a local store giving her a free Priscilla Dean Tam.
Per Universal’s Moving Picture Weekly, several cities employed the campaign to excellent results, setting ticket sales records. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Akron, Ohio, St. Louis, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois, Lima, Ohio, and Vallejo, California were a few of the cities reporting great success. Akron, Ohio’s Allen Theatre broke ticket sales records for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Mark of Zorro.”
A Priscilla Dean ad in the Columbia Evening Missourian, Aug. 18, 1921.
Several newspapers and the trade book reported about the popularity of the Priscilla Dean Tam “Mystery Girl” stunt, with many pointing out that many women either forgot the correct ways to say or what they were to do, failed to produce the newspaper column, or were too shy to approach the “Mystery Girl.” Some stole envious glances at those wearing the tam. Others occasionally accosted the decoys and then became angry when they weren’t awarded free hats. The decoys began carrying free tickets to give out to those who failed to accurately follow the rules.
Showmen’s magazines in 1928 and Variety in 1939 pointed to the success of the stunt, still remembered as one of the most successful promotional campaigns in getting a film’s title in front of American moviegoers.
Universal spent little money in concocting the “Mystery Girl” stunt to trade off the success of the Priscilla Dean Tam, but earned great returns for their smarts. The Priscilla Dean Tam thus married fashion and motion picture exploitation as a giant ballyhoo campaign promoting both products to average consumers.