All the Bait-and-Switch Tactics Fox Has Used to Trick ‘Simpsons’ Viewers into Watching the Show
When the still brand-new Fox network spun off The Simpsons from The Tracey Ullman Show in December 1989, promoting the show was a critical task. Granted, there was already a lot of buzz around The Simpsons, but all that buzz also carried with it a greater risk that Fox would lose control of the messaging. So, in the beginning at least, the network had to be fully in tune with what people were talking about regarding the show — from “Bart is a troublemaker!” to “Even though they’re cartoons, the Simpson family is so relatable!”
Nearly 35 years later, the promos for vintage episodes serve as a fascinating time capsule — concrete proof that no one knew what to expect back in those early days, including the network itself. And looking back on how Fox chose to promote the series — sometimes misleading viewers on the episode’s actual plot — is a fascinating lesson in both television and marketing history.
The Very First ‘Simpsons’ Promos
How much the Fox marketing team knew about The Simpsons’ early episodes when they started promoting the series in the fall of 1989 isn’t clear. The show was plagued by delays, and if you watch the original ads for Season One episodes — especially the first one — it would seem they had very little access to the final footage. As such, early promos for the show often used clips from the original Tracey Ullman shorts rather than upcoming episodes.
In fact, one promo for the premiere consisted entirely of clips from the final Tracey Ullman short “Simpsons Xmas”:
Here’s another that just used scenes from the Tracey Ullman short “Family Portrait”:
And yet, even when more footage from the first season became available, you’re still left with the impression that Fox didn’t know the actual plots of episodes. Based on what aired, Fox appeared more interested in establishing how entertaining the Simpson family was rather than telling viewers about the storylines.
A couple good examples on this count: “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” and “Moaning Lisa.” In the former, the actual plot is that Homer is embarrassed by his family’s behavior at a picnic at the nuclear power plant and makes them enroll in therapy, but the promo plot was the much more basic, “That Simpson family is wacky!”
In the latter, Lisa deals with depression and meets a jazz musician who helps her find her musical voice. But again, the promo was mostly, “Sometimes, having kids — and having parents — can be wacky!”
The Rerun Promos
As the show went on and production became more stable, Fox would be much more generous with their promos, sharing the story basics of the following week’s episode. It was when airing reruns of these episodes that Fox got creative, using brief footage of a gag from them, or sometimes gags from completely different, unrelated episodes. I think Fox hoped viewers would forget about these gags in the original episodes and trick them into thinking it was a new installment.
“Oftentimes, there were probably decisions in the marketing tower that believed they had a better angle to sell an episode that didn’t necessarily go along the plot line of the show,” Joe Cipriano, the voice you likely heard in the vast majority of promotional ads on Fox from the late 1980s through the early aughts, tells me.
Case in point: The rerun promo for Season Three’s “Radio Bart” had some brief clips from “Radio Bart,” but most of the clips were actually from Season Four’s “Marge Gets a Job.”
The same for Season Three’s “Homer Alone” rerun promo, where for some reason, the footage was from Season One’s “Bart Gets An F.”
Then there was the bait-and-switch-y nature of the promotion of other Fox endeavors via The Simpsons. For instance, to help promote Fox’s NFL coverage, Season Three’s “Lisa the Greek” was re-branded as “The Simpsons Football Special” in commercials, which also included a football clip from Season Five’s “Cape Feare” to really amp up the pigskin of it all. In reality, this was simply the fourth re-run of “Lisa the Greek,” an episode in which Lisa becomes good at betting on football games and Homer suddenly wants to spend every Sunday with her. Their relationship crumbles, however, when she suspects he only wants to be around her so he has a better at chance of winning money on the games.
The Guest Star Overpromises
Speaking of bait-and-switches, Season Five’s “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” tells the story of five weeks in 1985 when Homer and his barbershop quartet, The Be Sharps, were the talk of the American music industry. The syndication promos, though, asked, “Can a rock star save Homer’s band?,” implying George Harrison was a major part of their success. Harrison, however, only appears for one 20-second scene.
Similarly, the promo for “Bart Gets an Elephant” (also from Season Five) heavily suggested its primarily about President Clinton coming to Springfield. In truth, it was just a quick gag, and President Clinton was voiced by cast member Dan Castellaneta. Says Cipriano, “I’m willing to guess that the promo creatives got together and said, ‘If we did a promo about Bart getting an elephant, that would be the most boring promo ever, and who the hell cares? Who is going to run to the television at 8 p.m. to watch that? But, if you can use a gag from the episode where Bart meets Bill Clinton, now that’s a show people will want to tune in to see.’”
There was also a lot of presidential weirdness in the promotion for Season Seven’s “Two Bad Neighbors.” In the episode, former President George Bush (voiced by Harry Shearer) moves into the Simpsons neighborhood and ends up at odds with Homer. But the rerun promo was about how former President Gerald Ford (Castellaneta again) moves into the Simpsons neighborhood and gets along with Homer famously, completely spoiling the episode’s ending, where the Homer-friendly Ford moves into the house that the Bush family moves out of.
Toning Down Controversy
Fox was notoriously weary of Season Eight’s “Homer’s Phobia.” That’s the episode where after learning their new family friend John (guest star John Waters) is gay, Homer avoids hanging out with him and fears John will influence Bart to become gay, too.
The censors originally found it “unsuitable for broadcast” because of its subject matter, but after some staff turnover, Fox reversed their decision. Either way, the promo spot ignored all of this altogether — as well as Waters appearance — focusing primarily on Homer taking Bart hunting. Cipriano, however, believes this was more a matter of pragmatism than being afraid of courting controversy. “The promo department was probably thinking, ‘Should we promote the guy who has a small audience and has limited commercial success, or the outrageous thought of Homer and Bart with guns?’”
The Deleted Scene Promos
One more oddity occurred in certain promos in the mid-1990s as well: They would sometimes include a deleted or alternate scene that didn’t make the final episode. I suspect this was because the network received a few finished clips for promotion before the episode received its final edit. Interestingly, though, these scenes are often not even included in the show’s DVD sets, so these promos are the only place to see them.
Meanwhile, the promo for “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” (also from Season Seven) had a deleted scene of Homer being shown Apu’s arsenal of fireworks.
And the promo for Season Eight’s “Treehouse of Horror VII” had the temp track of Castellaneta as Bill Clinton instead of Phil Hartman’s voice from the final episode.
The Nature of the Promotional Beast
The thing is, everything above is basically the cost of doing (TV) business. Like Cipriano said, the job of the promotional department is to entice you to watch the show — facts be damned. Which, of course, is always gonna ruffle a few feathers, especially the most famous ones. “I’ll never forget the night I was at Chinois Restaurant in Santa Monica with my wife,” Cipriano says. “I saw Tracey Ullman at a table with a guest. I had been voicing Tracey Ullman promos for the Fox Network for the whole year. I was so proud to be the voice that told America about her very funny show. So I thought I’d go over to her table and tell her how much I loved voicing the promos for her show.
“But she looked up at me and said, ‘You’re the fucking asshole who gives away all our best jokes in the promos before the show even airs!’”