An online video captures a television channel surfing through the advertisements and news footage of an alternate reality in which superheroes are a central domestic and international policy issue; a travel site allows you to set destinations, times and passengers for Oceanic flights but warns that the business has been shut down. Movies like Watchmen
and series like Lost
have made their reputation by being more than they appear – not just a graphic novel or a television series but interests and areas of study.
In a conversation with the New York Observer, Lost
executive producer Damon Lindelof rambled disconnectedly about online viral marketing – what worked, what didn’t and whether it really mattered. Few people understand the subject better than Lindelof but he revisits and contradicts his core beliefs on the subject inside of one interview.
Lindelof is a huge fan of Alan Moore’s Watchman
, but he began to worry about whether the film was too cultish to become a mainstream success when his personal trainer asked him, “Have you heard of this Watchmen thing? What is it?”
As he designs online marketing for the upcoming Star Trek
movie he muses, “You start to ask yourself, what is it? What is it for? Is it actually marketing or is it liner notes? Is it something that you’re doing to give love to the fans, to the core and the base, in the hopes that they will send this to the uninitiated or the fact of the matter is, I’m not winning over people who are like, 'What is Watchmen
Lindelof raises an interesting point – one that cuts the heart of most cult-mainstream hybrid offerings, especially his own. Traditionally the whole idea of advertising has been to make potential buyers aware of a product in a positive light. But as Lindelof points out, “"The people who are most into the movie or going to be playing these games, are already buying tickets.”
If a marketing campaign appeals almost exclusively to people who already love a product and are unlikely to forget about it, then is it a really a marketing campaign in the traditional sense of the word or is it something else? Should extended materials be measured more for their cultural value and aesthetic accomplishment than for their bottom line?
Carefully imbedded advertising can no doubt help to offset any cost. A quick survey of the thirteen original short fiction series Missing Pieces turned up ads for Sears and Yoplait, though the further off the beaten track a site was the less advertising jumped out at me. But I think Lindelof is getting at a bigger question than whether such sites simply break even financially. The question is whether they’re purely a well deserved thank you for the already loyal base or whether they broaden a project’s appeal by influencing people like his personal trainer.
Lindelof says, “Let’s face it, what is the subset of your audience that is going online to seek this out? So suddenly like Joe from Poughkeepsie who doesn’t give a crap about the Internet at all has heard that you need to basically have this online experience to understand Lost, then he gets turned off of the mothership. He’s basically like, 'I just want to watch the show, man. If you tell me I have to go online for an hour and unlock all these puzzles to understand the show, it’s hard enough as it is, don’t make it any harder.”
I’m sure he’s right that consumers aplenty feel that way. I’m not a digital economist, nor would I deem to tell Lindelof how this game is played. I would suggest, anyway, that a thousand word article is a much better forum for raising questions than answering them. So here’s what I would ask. Don’t cults, like any clubs, have the potential not just to make people feel excluded but to make them want to feel included? Wasn’t Lindelof’s personal trainer asking about Watchmen because he’d gotten the slightly uncomfortable feeling he was about to get left out of something? A ‘happening’?
In the one communications class I ever took in college we studied the power of positive affiliation. People want to be associated with a product if they view that product as prestigious and desirable. Wouldn't there be consumers out there who have no desire to do anything more than watch the episodes once on Tivo, but who would rather admit to watching a series commonly referred to as groundbreaking than one regarded as dumb? Would someone feel cooler, younger and more in touch if they watched Lost than if they watched Law and Order
or Wheel of Fortune
Sure, if a producer sets the bar too high, with time consuming rites of passage like reading graphic novels or finding hidden messages in the coding of websites, then you'll lose people with busy schedules as well as the unadventurous or passingly curious. But that's why web producers have been successful at making those materials separate side hallways off of a simple main corridor, allowing the option of a straight forward or exploratory experience.
Do people like my boiler-repairman uncle or Lindelof's personal trainer feel barred from watching Lost
because they can't cite appreciate the depth of every footnote? Or do they enjoy watching Lost
in part because it makes them feel like a part of something bigger?
Sticking the precise answer under a pin seems as elusive as explaining matter-of-factly the central unifying theory of the Lost
universe. But I wanted to turn to my team of experts, the people who have thought about the franchise's books, games and online expansions the most. What do you think? Do the puzzles and deep delving materials that Lost
produce end up drawing or repelling more people like Lindelof's personal trainer who start out unaware? Or does all the effort and creativity have no effect on them at all?
-Henry Jenkins, BuddyTV Staff Writer
(Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)