After needing to “go away and … dream it all up again,” U2 and Island Records/Polygram decided not to give Achtung Baby the same kind of flashy, over-the-top marketing push that other big albums of 1991 were getting. As mentioned on the History page, the band kept a low profile while Achtung Baby was recorded and in the lead-up to the album’s release. Rather than do a standard interview with Rolling Stone magazine to promote the album, U2 had producer Brian Eno write a first-person essay about the experience making Achtung Baby. And, in what was considered an odd move, U2 and Island Records didn’t make review copies of the album available to music critics until a few days before it was on store shelves.
But don’t get the impression that Achtung Baby wasn’t marketed at all. Quite the contrary.
According to Billboard magazine (Duffy, Thom (16 November 1991). “New U2 Relies on Fans, Not Fanfare”. Billboard. Vol. 103 no. 46. pp. 1, 77–78.), U2’s then-manager, Paul McGuinness, joined Island founder Chris Blackwell and other label executives in 1991 on a tour of nine Polygram distribution offices around the world to introduce them to Achtung Baby (which was still unfinished) and coordinate marketing plans.
Island Records produced a number of promotional videos and marketing pieces targeted at record stores, and there were TV commercials, plus radio and print ads promoting Achtung Baby to record buyers. (Some of these are embedded below.) In some markets, roadside billboards featured actual Trabants — the East German car that was later featured on the album and singles covers, and the Zoo TV tour. Record stores received posters and album flats to be given away to shoppers. Alternative newspapers/magazines were given posters to include in their publications.
The album’s marketing plan is detailed in a five-page document (PDF) that was sent out to retailers to get them to pre-order many copies of the album and promote it heavily in their retail stores. This document was part of a sales pitch called the Achtung Baby Solicitation Kit, a cardboard-boxed item that also included a VHS tape and cassette with several song samples — including a couple that are different from the song versions that we hear on Achtung Baby — plus a brochure reminding retailers of U2’s history and past successes. (This kit, by the way, has become a valuable collectors’ item among U2 fans.)
The Solicitation Kit was sent to all Polygram promotions staff, Polygram regional staff and field reps for Polygram distribution. As Billboard magazine reported, Polygram’s efforts secured pre-orders of 1.4 million units just in the U.S.
Album Format Controversy
Achtung Baby was the first album by a major artist to be released in both the traditional “longbox” format, where the CD jewel case is packaged inside a longer cardboard box, as well as the newer jewel box-only format.
Record stores didn’t like the jewel box format because they felt it made the CD easier to shoplift. In the early days of jewel box CD releases, stores would keep these CDs behind the counter and customers had to ask a cashier or sales associate to retrieve the CD to purchase it. As Billboard reported at the time, Tower Records (and many other chains) refused to order any jewel box versions of Achtung Baby despite a 4% discount because the chain wanted to “send a message to the labels not to even think about going to a jewel-box-only environment.”
Below is the promotional video that was included in the Achtung Baby Solicitation Kit. Note that the video references the song title as “She Moves In Mysterious Ways,” not “Mysterious Ways” as it appeared on the finished album. This video was edited into shorter promotional clips that were used on TV around the world.
Here are two TV commercials produced to promote Achtung Baby.
And lastly, back to the Solicitation Kit … which, as mentioned above, included an audio cassette with samples of four Achtung Baby songs. Here’s how they’re named on the cassette:
“She Moves In Mysterious Ways”
“End Of The World”
The audio from this promotional cassette can be heard below. You’ll notice that these are early versions of both “Mysterious Ways” and “One.”
Thanks to the U2 fans who’ve uploaded these clips to YouTube for the rest of us to enjoy!