Marketing Man and Superman

July 27, 2010 - leave a comment

For the last week my Twitter feed has been awash with super heroes.

Firstly, those who undertook the superhuman achievement of battling the Pyrenees in the Tour de France. This was made all the more superhuman for the number who were struggling with injury following the treacherous first week stages in the wet of Holland and Belgium and over the cobbles of Northern France (injuries like cracked ribs and elbows that would have been enough to sideline other professional athletes for months), then the debilitating heat of the Tour’s second week in the Alps (as if climbing an Alp was not tough enough without 90 degree temperatures turning road surfaces into tyre-gripping treacle).

Secondly, from the various film industry channels I follow from a professional perspective, it’s been impossible to ignore the incredible density of coverage of super heros of the fictional kind, at this year’s Comic Con in San Diego.

For me, this analogy of real and fake goes deeper in the way Twitter has been used to cover each event. It demonstrates the good and bad of Twitter; the refreshing, open dialogue providing insights not previously possible versus – inevitably perhaps as the corporate voice invades Twitter – a PR steered monologue straight from the dark ages of old media.

First, the Tour. I was first hooked in 1987, the year the race was sensationally won by Irishman Stephen Roche. Back then, coverage was limited. Beyond Channel 4′s excellent though all too brief 30 minute highlight show in the early evening, there was nothing – you could certainly forget any way of getting live information during the actual hours of racing that day. With no web and just four terrestrial channels, there was no way to provide up to the minute coverage of an event that occupied five or six hours a day for three weeks. And yet there was so much going on here; races within races, the politics of team riding, the daily change in backdrop of weather and terrain with the resulting shift in emphasis on riders. This was Shakespearean sport, intriguing stuff and yet a tantalisingly inaccessible world to the public.

The advent of digital television gave a platform for continuous coverage of live events and again this year ITV4 has covered the final two hours of each race live (though given that the rest of the channel’s day time output consists entirely of 1970′s re-runs and police camera shows, perhaps their regular day time viewer would not be too upset if coverage of the whole stage was introduced?). This is topped and tailed by a time-shifted highlights package presented, thankfully, by largely the same team as the early Channel 4 days.

But the real opening up has come about in the last couple of years where Twitter has resulted in every angle of the race being covered, in a way never before possible. ITV can now give daily live coverage to the whole of the race, plus offer a platform for commentators to add their insights, both to the race and behind the scenes. Though more than the media, we hear from the riders and the teams themselves. And this isn’t the bland, cliché-ridden dross of a post-match football interview. These are often frank appraisals1 that give an insight into the camaraderie (not to mention the feuds) inherent in every Tour. There’s an openness and honesty to this stuff. No doubt this drive for transparency is in part fuelled by a sport trying to overturn an image tarnished by numerous drugs scandals over the last decade, but thankfully at the moment, it’s clearly free of an omnipresent, megalomaniacal PR machine.

This directness, frankness and personal voice is what brought me to Twitter and as it burgeoned, was refreshingly evident in any sector you cared to looked at. But at the same time one could imagine the sharp intake of breath from PR companies around the globe… “talent” talking directly to the great unwashed, the public clustering together spontaneously to have an unfettered discussion about something. God, no, this will never do. And so the same old chain of command has imposed itself on Twitter. Press statements are released, re-tweeted by a traditional industry press eager to justify their role in this strange new order and dutifully re-tweeted verbatim by fans, keen to prove they are “in the know”. Balance is restored.

So to Comic Con. I have a few problems with Comic Con, or rather the attention that surrounds it. Not least that it cannot be good news that the Film industry is so singularly obsessed with making films of one genre. I heard an interesting theory via a candid studio guy that those responsible for commissioning films in Hollywood now are of the generation who didn’t read books growing up. They read comics. And watched TV shows like The ‘A’ Team. Maybe a generalisation, but certainly explains a lot. But equally disturbing has been the gearing of Twitter for the bland, uniform and unsurprising roll out of film after film at Comic Con… the formula: studio PR machine unveils “exclusive” footage of “The Avenging Captain Thor”, the press re-tweets, then a seemingly soporific and subservient fan-base keener really to let people know that they are there than, dare say it, pass a slightly critical view of what’s being crapped out in front of them, re-tweet with an appendix “Can’t wait”/”Looks Awesome” (with an arbitrary number of exclamation marks). Completing the virtuous circle, the studio then re-tweets fan praise, to validate to other fans that they are not doing “The Avenging Captain Thor” wrong. Nothing is out of place, and, oh, by the way, there’s certainly no ad-libbing from the actors on Twitter either who are firmly singing from the same studio hymn sheet.

I’ve no doubt that there is a hardcore and passionate fan-base to some of these comic titles, though Im suspicious of its wider appeal. Is Ryan Reynolds reciting the Green Lantern Oath really a historic moment as he says those magical words that we’ve all been waiting to hear? Obviously to some, though it’s the break-out from this niche that I find interesting – I think quite a different break out than has been seen with the Tour de France. The Tour also has a dedicated and committed fan base, though this year Twitter has shown public interest is actually much bigger than certainly the UK media has given it credit. Read the back pages of any UK paper for the past week and you’d probably still be in the dark as to who Andy Schleck is. Yet the Luxembourg rider who eventually came second in the Tour was regularly trending in Twitter in the last week. This demonstrates another enormous positive and unique feature of Twitter – to highlight stories the public are interested in that are outside of the media narrative. I’m not suggesting conspiracy, but just that the mainstream media did not have their finger on the public pulse here and didn’t gauge the swelling interest in the Tour beyond its normal fan base.

Can the reverse be true? Can Twitter over-emphasis the importance of an event? With Comic Con, it’s certainly in the interests of the studios to do so. Comic adaptations provide a seemingly endless line of ready-made franchises, with what are now established production and marketing processes. They come with a core fan base that alone is not enough – the productions must cross over to the mainstream. But what of the snowballing Twitter coverage given to the conference by actors, producers, press, fans and other film industry figures? Ive been genuinely surprised by the number of people I follow who’ve tweeted Comic Con news whose filmography suggests no interest in the genre. Are we seeing the spontaneous coming out of hitherto clandestine comic fans? Unlike the Tour, I don’t think this is an example of serendipitous expression on Twitter, but another more negative Twitter-created phenomenon where life appears elsewhere. Blasted by the synchronised PR guns of the studios, this is a bandwagon you must be on board – whilst those in San Diego bask in the glory of being at the heart of a media circus and let the world know, those who aren’t need to feel a part of it. This tweet for me sums it up “Wish I could’ve made it to SDCC. Everyone in the world was there!”. No matter what the event is, what is clear is that things aren’t good when life is elsewhere, and Twitter can bridge you from your seeming vacuum to the heart of the action.

In conclusion, what if the Green Lantern goes on to perform well at the box office? Then surely I’m wrong? People did want to see Ryan Reynolds reciting the Lantern corps oath. I’d say what’s more likely been demonstrated is that the studios have successfully added the Twitter cog to an already well-oiled PR machine.

1 UPDATE: The tweet I wanted to quote here was obviously a little too frank and has been deleted with an apology posted by the author.

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