Like it or not, the digital revolution is changing the way we interact with what we listen to and watch. It changed the way we get and listen to music and it is changing the way we get and watch television shows and movies. But these changes brought about an interesting side effect: we now have the power to ignore advertising. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in television. Tivo has brought about a mainstream way to ignore commercials that interrupted our viewing pleasure. Good news for us, bad news for networks and advertisers. Ignoring the financial ramifications of this (advertisers could potentially begin to pull out of advertising on television, causing the funding for television shows to take a major hit), this digital move on the part of the viewer has forced the hand of marketers: if we’re skipping over commercials and all but ignoring Internet ads, they need to find a new way to reach us. And what’s the best way to reach a jaded audience? By having that audience do your advertising.
Clearly the biggest way this has evolved the advertising of upcoming films is the growth of viral marketing. ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Cloverfield’ are two recent examples of how marketing has decided to spread the word about an upcoming film: instead of telling us the movie is coming out with just a trailer, they’re having us get involved in the advertising. We’ve become the billboards for the film as we run around in Joker make-up, having our picture taken at landmarks of big cities. Then we go online and talk about it, directing attention to the various websites the film has set up. Voila! ‘The Dark Knight’ has advertising. Another example of viral marketing came with ‘Snakes on a Plane’ and last summer’s blockbuster hit, ‘Transformers.’ By merely entering a few pieces of information, including phone numbers, you could have Samuel L. Jackson or Optimus Prime call your friends, informing them of the upcoming movie. Thousands and thousands of phone calls later, you have serious buzz about your picture. We send these phone calls out or we wear our “I Believe in Harvey Dent” t-shirts and suddenly we’ve become part of the marketing plan. It’s new, it’s exciting. We’re not being fed a product; we’re now part of the feeding. We all return to our blogs or our favorite movie sites and suddenly the end product is in heavy discussion. A new chapter in marketing has begun.
It all sounds well and good (if you’re ok with being a walking promotional tool), but are there consequences to having your audience being an active part of the promotion? I’ll argue yes. As stated above, by moving the audience from fed to feeder, the marketing groups have, in essence, established stronger audience participation in the final product. This gives the audience a stronger hand your final product, which is ripe for an inevitable backlash and watering down of the film. Breaking it down to its simplest form: production companies want audiences to see a film and audiences want to see certain things in films to get them to go to the theater. Through opening the door to audiences by having them participate in the selling of the movie, the audience now has a clearer way to communicate what they are looking for in films (blogs, viral marketing participation and the Internet feedback or buzz) and suddenly, the two ends of a film’s process are in agreement as to what they want. And who’s left in the middle? The actual filmmakers, who hear the pressure from the studios saying the film needs certain things to be successful and the audience on the other end saying the film needs certain things in order for them to go see it. This evolution can easily and ultimately result in the watering down of a director’s vision. It suddenly becomes a McDonald’s Happy Meal assembly line. The audience wants a certain movie, we tell you what needs to be in that certain movie, and the production studio assembles a team to put that film together. Don’t believe this could happen? It has already begun. Think back to last year’s ‘Transformers.’ The film received an almost instant backlash to the newly designed Optimus Prime. In fact, the film itself took a back seat to the fury that bubbled to the top about how
Now, is this approach a bad thing? Is it necessarily awful that we, as the audience, get to decide what the movie should look like for us to be interested in seeing it? Maybe having the audience’s input into a film before it comes out will ultimately put more butts back in the theater seats. I don’t think it will. What will happen is that as studios continue to give an audience the power to promote (or not promote) a film, the audience’s control over a film grows, and out of that is born a sense of entitlement towards the final product. And why shouldn’t the audience feel entitled? If we are the ones who will be running around, participating in these viral marketing events, don’t we want to know that our efforts are going to be worth it? How can we be sure that our donning face paint and standing in front of a statue of Paul Revere for a picture to be added to the film’s website will meet our expectations? We can be sure if we have a say in what it is. And thus begins the watering down. The next Batman movie becomes a democratically voted-on story that tries to appeal to as much of the audience as possible. Risks are no longer welcome because what if they don’t pay off? What if we dont’ like a certain change? Then we, as the production studios’ billboards, will refuse to go out and promote the film online or through the various viral events planned. If you thought test audiences were a bad idea, this situation is a test audience to the nth degree, typifying the adage that the camel is a horse designed by committee. This could potentially lead us from seeing films that garner a reaction (good or bad) and inspire to films that just are because they have become diluted with the opinions of everyone but the people who are actually creating the film. In a world where audiences decry