ON THE PROBLEMATIC PRODUCTIVITY OF HYPE: Notes from a recent essay on FlashForward’s Experimental Promotional Campaign

My friend, Dr. Enrica Picarelli, an Italian media scholar completing a post-doctoral fellowship at Leuphana University in Luneburg, German, sent me her essay (a short version of which recently appeared at the “In Media Res” website (a media commons project), and soon to be published in a book of essays from Goldsmith’s University in London. It’s called “On the problematic productivity of hype: FlashForward’s experimental promotional campaign,” and in it she describes a sophisticated and comprehensive marketing campaign undertaken by ABC on behalf of its 2009 seres FlashForward (since cancelled) which offers a number of valuable lessons and insights into marketing objectives, audience involvement and product realities.

In today’s post, I wanted to walk through some of her most interesting and compelling arguments.

Here is an abstract of her overall argument:
“This essay highlights aspects of FlashForward’s promotion and maps its expansion both in terms of ABC’s penetration into the viewers’ lives by means of ambient promotion, and recourse to multiple technologies of media consumption. This mapping envisions a strategy of anticipative engagement that attempts not only to colonise the lives of prospective viewers with promotional messages, but also to ensure that a specific set of expectations becomes productive for the network’s development of the show. In this respect, promotion operates not to impose a single message and set of meanings about FlashForward. On the contrary, ABC’s tactics reveal that promotion gets productive the moment it becomes inspirational of a potentially infinite universe of ‘storyworlds’ that the audience is incited to conjure and keep alive. The chapter contends that FlashForward’s promotion offers itself as a grid, or web, to capture bottom-up invention, at the same time that it provides audiences with new technologies and techniques of engagement with the series. The conclusions reflect on the shortcomings of this speculative approach, contending that it highlights a discrepancy between ABC’s ‘brand image’ and ‘brand identity.'”

[The marketing, Picarelli remarks, was cleverer and more thoughtfully developed than the series, which disappointed audiences who had been so successfully engaged in the campaign to make them watch. The lesson, of course, is that you can gild the turd or dress the turkey, but all you really can induce the audience to do is take a first bite. Even the best marketing can’t float a TV series or movie that can’t sustain itself.]

“The network’s marketers believed that multiplexity (promotion through multiple platforms) and interactivity could instigate new practices of audience consumption and bring ABC to the forefront of cross-media promotion. The goal of the campaign was, indeed, nothing less than to revolutionize consumption practices by creating an “experience” that enveloped prospective viewers, as in a role-playing game.”

[This was the big picture strategy for FlashForward, as described in interviews and trade articles by ABC, which was to be a replacement for the blockbuster series LOST, which was completing its final season.]

“Although full trailers were eventually circulated, along with other promotional material, the five teasers first launched the series and for this reason their aesthetics and odd presentational logic acquire a special significance in terms of how ABC built its campaign and how word about FlashForward began to circulate.”

[While she discusses several aspects of the multi-media and multiplexity (promotion through multiple platforms), these five, five second teasers are key documents for her arguments. See above.]

“In [Michael] Benson’s [EVP, Marketing, ABC] intentions, the campaign had rather to generate a “visceral” response, sparking spontaneous conversation among interested viewers on the web and social networks, while not “giving away too much” of the narrative.”

[This approach–selling mystery and exploiting curiosity is both a throwback to another era, when distributors feared to “give away the goods.” For contemporary audiences, it’s designed to elicit interest in the mystery and investment in satisfying curiosity.]

“In this context, ABC’s approach reflects entrenched strategies of advertising that view promotional materials as extensions of an expansive audience experience with a series. Such vision promotes an effort to push viewers to incorporate fictional works in their everyday lives (Abbott, 2010), inviting them to produce their own cultural material on it.”

[Posting on social networks and blogs and commenting on youtube, where these five teasers immediately migrated, represented an appropriation of the series– before it ever even aired!!– into the conversations and concerns of its likely audience.]

[At Comic-Con, attendants shot clips of themselves reporting their own “flash forwards.”]
“While the initiative exploited Comic-Con’s acclaim among pop-culture audiences to gain visibility, it also capitalised on the desire of individuals to participate to the fleshing out of a fictional world. By recording their own visions, attendants appropriated the narative universe, adapting a scant premise to accommodate their fantasies, at the same time implementing FlashForward’s ‘storyworld’ and providing free content for both the viewers’ community and ABC’s writers to exploit.

[As with blogging, posting and commenting, the recording of their own versions of the flash-forward teasers, implicates potential audiences in the promotional excitement and activities of the series. The would-be fans become co-marketers and, at least, ideally, co-creators of the show which hasn’t even aired yet. 500 clips were aggregated into a “mosaic,” on Youtube, which permitted viewers to become “socializers of content.”]

“…commentators [among would be audiences] favourably speculated on the show’s plot, genre and cast. These discourses established layers of relevancy and hierarchies of meaning about the show, in their turn, influencing audience’s expectations. Certainly, they enhanced the sense of excited expectation that ABC was building into its campaign, contributing to inflame the industry-induced hype by infusing approval into the meanings they were pre-creating.”

[With their campaign, ABC enabled would-be audiences to imagine the show that ultimately disappointed them. It’s a dangerous roll of the dice, and perhaps impossible to manage even if the show is first rate. Expectations were raised and inflated without adequate content from the actual series to ground them.]

“Referring to such discursive apparatuses [reviews] as “paratexts,” Jonathan Gray (2010) argues for the role of critics as pre-decoders who ‘hold the power to set the parameters for viewing, suggesting how we might view the show (if at all), what to watch for, and how to make sense of it.'”

[This is precisely what critics, reviewers and blurbmeisters do. They inform us of the product to be consumed and advise us how to enjoy it. This is why many movie goers refuse to read reviews.]

“In his presentation of the show’s campaign at Adversting Week 2009, Scott Howe (2009), advertising executive at Microsoft, argued that ABC’s integrated “rich media execution” approach was motivated by the growth of online media consumption and by the changes that technological evolution imposes on television viewing. Alongside traditional practices of broadcasting connected to fixed industrial schedules, ABC demanded that more personalised solutions would be devised to cater to the idiosyncratic consumption styles and contexts of reception of consumers. FlashForward’s promotion was conceived to operate in what Elizabeth Jane Evans calls the heterochronic, “beyond broadcast space” of 21st century television: a realm where contents distributed on the Internet, mobile phones or game platforms supplement and enhance “the ephemerality of television’s ‘broadcast moment’ until that moment is only part of the television experience. (Evans and Jaye, 2010, p.105).”

[ABC sought Microsoft’s assistance with advertising and marketing for platforms beyond broadcast. The only problem is that the campaign was better than the series, and raised expectations it couldn’t possibly satisfy.]

“…prior to its premiere, FlashForward became part of a large process of industrial redefinition and intertextual referencing that strove to influence the audience, as well as the series’ development. Its paratextual coding as an engaging cult narrative, coupled with its viral spread and experiential feel, accounted for a promotional strategy that contributed to redefine ABC’s image as a purveyor of ‘event’ television. Furthermore, by feeding industry-produced hype to interested viewers, both ABC marketing staff and an almost unanimous collective of critics, pre-emptively channelled and modulated the public response to the series.”

[Here, Picarelli, anatomizes ABC’s overreach. It’s understandable, given the conclusion of LOST and the need for re-invention in a time of changing marketing paradigms in broadcast TV and media consumption generally.]

“Keith Johnston (2009) maintains that advertisements for Hollywood films, for example, have been conceived as arenas of differentiation, where technological improvements are deployed as commercial weapons and sources of consumer aggregation. With the explosion of available television channels and programmes, and the concomitant fragmentation of the media landscape, the marketing function of technological upgrading has acquired even greater significance. The advent of alternative platforms of viewing has also determined that promotional distribution be freed from the constraints of the television schedule, while, at the same time, the audience has evolved “from mass spectator to individual participant, from unwilling recipient to willing consumer, and from passive viewer to active controller.”

[Picarelli makes the point that I think I’ve made before in writing about the work of my colleague, Dr. Keith Johnston, that technology is a differentiation marker and an excellent tool of positioning.]

“…the campaign shifted its focus from generating knowledge about FlashForward to pre-emptively inviting socialisation…”

[Perhaps the key error was a failure to offer the “free-sample,” those nugget of narrative (scenes, actors, setting, attitude) that would have restrained the hype within manageable levels.]

“Accordingly, the marketing style became itself a typology of affective delivery based on the modulation of a certain mood where mystery and infrastructural innovation (multiplexity) branded the production as a generator of sensations. The choice to advertise FlashForward by digital means was seen as a way to confer value to the show and a particular kind of credibility to audience members. In fact, the goal of Benson’s and Howe’s marketing philosophy seemed to be that of creating a one-to-one relationship between the audience and the platforms that would also exploit each medium’s specific potential, addressing viewers as technology ‘fans.’ It was hoped that, by being identified as technology-savvy individuals, viewers would promote alternative ways of watching and actively contribute to ease ABC’s move into its post-broadcast moment by integrating the series into the immaterial realm of social networking. At the same time, by circulating contents and generating engagement through social media, ABC also hoped to motivate viewers to “change their behaviour” (Benson, 2009a) toward technologies other than television.”

[The goals were laudable. The execution was superb. The marketing science was bleeding edge. But the series wasn’t up to snuff.]

“Yet, ambient promotion, viral marketing and multiplexity ultimately proved unsatisfactory and FlashForward was not renewed for a second season. Although these strategies combined to spark interest and build awareness in advance of broadcasting, they were ultimately unable to motivate the audience’s sustained commitment. Hundreds of users posting on Television Without Pity’s forum “FlashForward General Gabbery,” for example, derogatorily commented on the series’ inconsistencies and exaggerated convoluted plot, often lamenting that it did not attempt to “solve the inherent dilemma of time-travel stories” (‘FlashForward General Gabbery’). Although the opinions expressed in the forum only partially denote the audience’s ultimate disaffection with the series, they indicate an important aspect of ABC’s failed attempt to transform its promotional success into a broadcasting hit. In fact, whereas ABC’s spokespersons implied that FlashForward’s campaign set the ground for an engaging spectacle, the network failed to deliver just that.”

[What can I add to improve on Dr. Picarelli’s conclusion?–oh yeah, you can’t succeed with smart marketing alone.]

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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