Video nasties: when publicity stunts go wrong

I’m sure you all know this already, but I’m indebted to Total Film’s Jamie Graham for adding to the sum of useless but mildly interesting stuff that floats around my head. I always thought that the 1980s video-nasty panic originated in the tabloids, but Graham’s piece in the current TF points out that it was largely due to a publicity stunt that backfired.

It all started with Driller Killer and Cannibal Holocaust. The lurid ads for the former caused a lot of complaints, but the distributor for Cannibal Holocaust decided to kick things up a notch. Posing as an outraged member of the public, the distributor wrote to Mary Whitehouse expressing shock and horror that such filth was available for purchase. The distributor helpfully included a copy of the video so Whitehouse could be shocked too.

Whitehouse did exactly what the distributor hoped and went ballistic, but the issue gathered momentum, the tabloids seized on it and inevitably, there were demands that Something Should Be Done. That resulted in the Video Recordings Act, the expanded role of the film censors and notoriety for the 30-odd titles dubbed Video Nasties, but it also created the system that recently banned the computer game Manhunt 2.

The moral of the story? While it’s fun to wind up the self-appointed guardians of public morality in an attempt to boost sales, once you’ve wound them up you can’t always stop ’em. Headline-chasing games developers might want to bear that in mind.