[Author's Note: In order to retain the element of surprise, or a two-pronged ‘big reveal’ within the video essay, the author recommends reading this creator’s statement after viewing it. – M. Dollman]
Sponsored films could be considered the hybrid offspring of an educational father and a TV commercial mother.
– Walter J. Klein, The Sponsored Film (1976)
The video essay 'Mobilizing Women In a Few Easy Steps! (A Feminist Triptych)' compares filmic representations of two mid-twentieth-century travel experts and heads of corporate women’s departments, Shell Oil’s Carol Lane and Trans World Airlines’ (TWA) Mary Gordon. Carol Lane and Mary Gordon were both what are called ‘living trademarks’, meaning in this case that two or more women portrayed the pseudonymous travel experts simultaneously as the one authentic version. Both authored their own publications and advice columns for newspapers and magazines. They traveled the United States and Canada lecturing live before audiences of primarily women, and while in a locale, speaking to regional radio and television audiences as well. They also both starred in the two nontheatrical sponsored films examined in this video essay: Women Mean Business! (1950) and Let’s Fly to Europe (1956), respectively. Bracketing Lane’s and Gordon’s on-screen personas in video essay form had its challenges, ones that are arguably unique to a sponsored film’s often overlapping rhetorical modes and short format. In response to this dilemma, I necessarily rejected some of videographic criticism’s common tropes (the author’s voiceover narration and reliance on diegetic music), and embraced others (juxtaposition, remixing, and the videographic feminist diptych, or side-by-side comparison, which is the focus of this special issue.)
So to begin, what is a sponsored film? During their heyday (1897 - 1980) sponsored films had jobs to do. To paraphrase scholar and archivist Rick Prelinger in his book The Field Guide to Sponsored Film, these primarily short works were commissioned by advocacy and religious groups, corporations and smaller businesses, charities, educational institutions, fraternal and service organizations, state and local governments and their various divisions, and trade associations. 'From the earliest years of cinema', Prelinger writes, 'motion pictures have been produced to record, orient, train, sell, and persuade' (2006: 6). North Carolinian Walter J. Klein, who was a prolific producer of sponsored films during the mid-twentieth century, refers to the subcategory into which Women and Let’s Fly fall as the 'public relations (PR) film' (1976: 3). Close reading and creative repurposing of PR films’ grammar was particularly tricky, as its sole purpose is to turn 'the public around to the sponsor’s way of thinking' (Klein, 1976: 4). These films are made to persuade, and in the case of Women and Let’s Fly, they did so multimodally. They record Lane’s and Gordon’s live (albeit staged) lectures, and combined with direct addresses to the camera, the experts train or advise the film-viewing audiences. Male 'voice of god' narrations orient viewers with statistics and anecdotal evidence. Thus, in toto the films attempt to soft sell viewers – especially women – on the idea that they need expert advice, and to persuade them to act.
There is also a fair amount of product placement in both films. Shell’s and TWA’s logos pepper the footage, and their corporate sponsorship is clear from the opening titles. Even Lane’s and Gordon’s on-screen demonstrations are product placements of sorts – they give sneak previews of their travel-planning services. The short lengths of the films complicated matters as well. Women clocks in at 11:23 minutes and Let’s Fly at 14:45 minutes, so there was little in the way of visual grammar with which to work. With these common traits of the sponsored film in mind – male voiceover narrations, direct address, short length, etc. – I decided to work with the form instead of against it. In this video essay, I pay homage to the conventions of the PR film itself while also critiquing it.
The Videographic Feminist Diptych
While creating 'Mobilizing Women' I set out to use the videographic feminist diptych as my main critical lens through which to make sense of the similar depictions of Lane and Gordon. TWA’s 1956 Let’s Fly to Europe borrows significantly from its predecessor, Women Mean Business! Immediately this form of comparison uncovered the multiple ways Mary Gordon’s PR strategies – presentation styles, target audiences, outreach methods – mimicked Carol Lane’s, both on- and off-screen. I will not relate all of the many parallels I discovered, as they are covered in the video essay, but I will touch on two key, related issues. Each film avoids the fact that its featured expert is a living trademark. This omission is understandable, as the programs did not advertise this fact widely. However, the overall symmetry between the travel experts’ on-screen depictions effectively indicates that not only were their particular successive lineages of performers interchangeable, so were Lane and Gordon. In response to this twinning, this essay reimagines the two as one living trademark, or on the same team working together collegially instead of competing.
Another major difference between Women and Let’s Fly is their intended audiences. On the one hand, Shell produced Women as a way to introduce their gas station owners and regional marketing staff to the company’s new women’s travel expert and her advice regarding attracting and retaining women customers. It typifies the internally-focused PR film intended for employees only. On the other hand, TWA produced Let’s Fly for television-viewing audiences and local organizations such as women’s clubs or church groups who borrowed them for screenings. Placing the two films’ contrasting objectives side-by-side confirms there were very few discernible differences between how women were talked to versus how they were talked about during this period.
Creating a Videographic Feminist
Lastly, while setting out to create a videographic feminist diptych I actually created a triptych. Playing with the word ‘trip’ was satisfying, of course; however, I also created a triptych so I could strategically occupy the center square as a means to draw attention to some PR film rhetorical tropes. I use this middle space in three ways. First, I share it with the films’ male narrators, leaving it blank, to draw attention to their roles and messaging. Second, I cede the center to fictional side-character Frances from Let’s Fly whose internal landscape I illustrate with remixed footage from both films of women and domesticity, gender relations, women and work, and women and mobility. Third, when it is ‘my turn’ to use that space, I choose not to add to, or replicate, the cacophony of ‘voice-of-god’ narrations I critique in the essay. Instead, I establish my voice of authority through an aggressive use of on-screen text in an effort to ‘punch through’ the PR films’ subtly manipulative rhetoric. Similar to the way 'sponsored films could be considered', to quote Klein again, 'a hybrid offspring of an educational father and a TV commercial mother', 'Mobilizing Women' fluctuates between the ‘explanatory mode’ and the poetic (Keathley et al. 2016: 8 qtd. in Klein: 12).
Bird, K. 2020. 'Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)', [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, 7 (1). http://mediacommons.org/intransition/feeling-and-thought-they-take-form-early-steadicam-labor-and-technology-1974-1985
Dahlquist, M. and Vonderau. P. 2021. Petrocinema: Sponsored Film and the Oil Industry. New York, NY : Bloomsbury Academic, Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
Hediger, V. and Vonderau, P. 2009. Eds., Films That Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Klein, Walter J. 1976. The Sponsored Film. New York: Hastings House.
Korsgaard, M. B. 2022. 'The End ...Or Is It?', [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies,9(1). http://mediacommons.org/intransition/end-or-it
Murray, S. 2015. 'The Radio Made Betty: Live Trademarks, Disembodiment, and the Real', Feminist Media Histories,1(4), pp.46-70.
Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, 696, (United States Government Printing Office): Washington, D.C. 1955, p. 281.
Prelinger, R. 2006. The Field Guide to Sponsored Films. San Francisco, CA : National Film Preservation Foundation.
'Richmond at Buffalo'. 1889. The Richmond Dispatch, September 8, 3.
Shapiro, L. 2004. Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. New York: Viking.
‘The Current State of Live Trademarks’. 1957. Tide: The Magazine for Advertising Executives. 31, (March 22), p.26.
UPTO. (2022) https://www.uspto.gov/sites/default/files/documents/CSD.pdf (Accessed October 3, 2022)
 'Common Status Descriptors (CSD) icons', UPTO, https://www.uspto.gov/sites/default/files/documents/CSD.pdf (Accessed October 3, 2022); Murray (2015); Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office 696 (1955), 281; 'Richmond at Buffalo', (1889), 3; Shapiro (2004); 'The Current State of Live Trademarks', Tide: The Magazine for Advertising Executives, (1957), 26. ‘Living trademark’ as the marketing term for the phenomenon Carol Lane, Mary Gordon, and others such as Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker represent, dates back to at least the 1880s. It is the form I have chosen to use, as opposed to 'live trademark' which marketers, journalists, and scholars also apply on occasion. For instance, Laura Shapiro and Sarah Murray use the term 'live trademark' in their scholarship on Betty Crocker, and at least one trade magazine contemporaneous with the Carol Lane program, Tide, employed the term 'live trademark' to mean a living being in the fictional role (often presenting as a ‘real’ person). There is, however, a critical, legal, distinction. 'Live trademark' distinguishes a trademark that is still valid and active from a 'dead' one which means the opposite; and it is more widely used. Carol Lane’s trademark died in 1996; and I have yet to find a trademark history specifically for Mary Gordon.
 There is a burgeoning canon of single-authored books or essays in edited collections that have tackled nontheatrical sponsored films, but this particular subgenre which centers more on public relations (PR) is still under-studied but for the multitudes of publications by PR practitioners. This list below is not meant to be comprehensive, just more inclusive of corporate PR films. A short list: Dahlquist and Vonderau, 2021; Hediger, V., and Vonderau, P., 2009; Klein, W. J., 1976; Prelinger, R., 2006. There are also hundreds of sponsored films of all categories to view online. The Industrial Film Archive http://www.industryfilmarchive.com/; National Film Preservation Foundation’s 'Sponsored Films' https://www.filmpreservation.org/sponsored-films/sponsored-films: Prelinger Archives https://archive.org/details/prelinger; A/V Geeks https://avgeeks.com/; Tribesourcing Southwest Film Project http://tribesourcingfilm.org; The Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/collections/national-screening-room/articles-and-essays/advertising-and-promotional-films/, and many more I could mention.
 I appear, as of this writing (October 2022), to be the first author to contribute a videographic essay incorporating sponsored films. (If I missed one, please do contact me because I am the audience!) I do not conjecture why nontheatrical films, especially sponsored and PR films, go under-explored videographically but for reasons I lay out in the main text: they are often short in length, all too often from this period use male 'voice of god' narration, and scan uncomfortably like they are trying to sell you something (even if it is just another point of view). It is a challenge to dissect a film that has such a job to do. Mathias Bonde Korsgaard’s 'The End ...Or Is It?', ([in] Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, 9.1, 2022) and Katie Bird’s 'Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam, Labor, and Technology (1974-1985)', ([in] Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, 7.1, 2020) come closest in spirit, perhaps, to what I have tried to achieve in my essay. They successfully discuss labor (that of onscreen paratext and of actual camera operators or title designers) poetically and instructively.
Melissa Dollman, PhD, is co-founder of Deserted Films, a locally-focused home movie collection based in Palm Springs. Her publications include a fully digital dissertation, Changing Lanes: A Reanimation of Shell Oil’s Carol Lane; 'Tribesourcing Southwest Films: Counter-Narrations and Reclamation', KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies on Indigenous Knowledges (June 2021, co-author); 'Opening The Can: Home Movies In The Public Sphere', in Amateur Movie Making: Aesthetics of the Everyday in New England, 1915-1960 (Indiana University Press, 2017), and 'Gone Estray' in [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, 5.4, 2019.