August 14, 2010 12:46 am

Eat, pray, love – and shop

The crew of Julia Roberts’s latest movie have taken a surprisingly worldy approach to marketing

On August 13, the film that is supposed to be the female answer to Dinner For Schmucks, Prince of Persia and all those other teenage boy-attracting films of summer arrived at cinemas in the US, and everyone at Sony Pictures was eating their popcorn, praying it would work, and loving Julia Roberts.

Slightly cringe-making wordplay, I know, but it’s clear what I’m talking about now, right? Yes, the Eat, Pray, Love juggernaut has come to the multiplex, starring the aforementioned Roberts, her smile, assorted kaftans and comfy yoga gear. (Also Javier Bardem, but I’ll get to him later.)

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Vanessa Friedman

And said film has not just arrived in the movie theatres: there are Eat, Pray, Love necklaces, prayer beads, tea, candles, and evening dresses by Sue Wong! You name it, you can buy it. Last weekend HSN, aka the Home Shopping Network, had a 72-hour selling marathon divided into three sections, each themed around a part of the title. For people who made a flick about finding inner truth, the Eat, Pray, Love crew have taken a surprisingly ... worldy approach to marketing. Who knew there was so much stuff in spiritualism?

Certainly not me, at least in the beginning. When it came to this film and its relationship to consumerism, I had thought it would satisfy much more personal, if equally materialistic, issues. (No, I’m not talking about Javier Bardem yet.)

See, it seemed to me that there had to be some useful wardrobe lessons in the journey of Roberts’ character (in real life the writer/journalist Elizabeth Gilbert), from New England to Italy to India to Bali. After all, those of us about to embark on exotic end-of-summer holidays to places like – well, probably not India, which would be awfully hot at this time of year – but certainly Rome, or for that matter any island paradise, are perennially wrestling with difficult questions such as: is there an alternative to wearing jeans on an airline when you know you will disembark into 100°F heat? And are sarongs – yikes – over?

Given that the wardrobe department of Sony must have addressed all these issues during filming, which was done on location around the world, it occurred to me that the film might actually provide some answers.

Unfortunately, there were no press previews of it until a few days before Friday’s opening (by which time it would be too late for the instructive purposes of this column). So, aside from some publicity shots of Julia Roberts in jeans and a leather jacket during the Italian section (good idea; Italy is big on skins) and in a fairly generic print tunic top in Bali (while canoodling with Javier Bardem), there just didn’t seem to be much information available, sartorially-speaking. I was left surfing the web and fruitlessly calling all the glossy magazine editors I knew, trying to ferret out people who might have seen a bootleg copy of the film. I didn’t find any answers, but I did find a lot of the aforementioned film-related products. Think of them as the grown-up version of Happy Meal toys, or Little Mermaid costumes.

. . .

It turned out that all the above products have been endorsed by the film studio itself, which licensed the Eat, Pray, Love logo to the brands. But other, unofficial brands have decided to piggy-back on the phenomenon – the other day I got an e-mail promoting “Eat, Pray, Love fashion from Sir Alistair Rai”, suggesting that we all “embark on the Eat, Pray, Love journey with Sir Alistair Rai’s authentic fashionable finds. Channel your wanderlust with pieces that evoke dreams of a far-off place.” Translation: “Wear my kaftans and other Goa-inspired pieces.” The theory, apparently, is that people who see the film will follow up by wanting to buy the lifestyle.

The problem is, the book – and possibly, the film – is all about not buying stuff. It’s about looking for answers on the inside. If the movie is successful, one would assume that those who identify with Gilbert’s journey – and a few million people bought the book, so presumably a lot do – will actually exit the film in an anti-consumer mood.

So what was that marketing department thinking? We can extend the benefit of the doubt to Sir Alistair, who may not have actually read the memoir but simply decided to mine its promotional potential, but you have to assume the Sony folks did understand the message, and chose to – well, ignore it.

Or overlook it. Or assume, I guess, that most of us are so driven by consumer urges that even if we are exploring our own inner truths, we will be unable to resist their outer accoutrements. It’s a pretty cynical view.

Whatever the success of Disney has taught the consumer world, feeling an affinity with a character does not, after the age of six, always make you want to dress like her or him.

On the other hand, if said character hooks up with Javier Bardem ...

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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