The UK edition of Wired launched a new Ideas Bank section with its May issue and invited me to contribute something from The Art of Immersion. Working with editor-in-chief David Rowan, the former Guardian editor who has headed the magazine since it launched in 2009, I decided to do a short take on the blur between entertainment and advertising—one of the major themes of the book. The piece is not yet available on the Wired UK Web site, but you can read it here:
For most of its 72 years, Batman has existed as a series of comics that followed well-deﬁned rules of narrative and graphic art. It stayed within the lines. You could pick it up at will, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t bleed into your life. Eventually it moved to television and then to the movies, but it didn’t jump the screen—until The Dark Knight. Then, for the first time in the annals of cartoon superheroes, the rules of narrative were redrawn to bring fans into the story during the lead-up to the movie’s release.
Months before its premiere, for example, several thousand people who had applied online to become the Joker’s henchman received a cryptic email that led to a Web site that in turn directed them to bakeries across the US. The first person to reach each bakery received a cake with a phone number and the words “Call Me Now” written in icing. When they called, the cake itself started ringing, setting them off on an elaborate caper that ended with them helping steal a school bus to serve as the Joker’s getaway vehicle.
This was part of a far bigger narrative that played out online and in real life for fourteen months and ultimately involved more than ten million people worldwide. Was it marketing, or entertainment? Actually, both. Where once there was a divide, now there’s a blur.
In this case, entertainment doubled as advertising; other times, advertising functions as entertainment. When Carl’s Jr. introduced a mushroom burger, the company paid nine YouTube stars—video uploaders with hundreds of thousands of followers—to demonstrate how they’d eat the thing. One guy sang to it; another ignored cries for help from a buddy he’d sent wobbling off on a skateboard; a third ate his as he jumped over a speeding car. People watched one video and then sought out more. At one point, counting a spoof that popped up, Carl’s Jr. had eight of YouTube’s top twenty videos.
The divide between ads and entertainment was never absolute; we’ve had product placements for years. But what’s happening now is not about set decoration. It’s about giving people what they want: something to entertain them.
Not everyone is happy about this. The 30-second television spot, reviled as it was, served a purpose psychologically. It compartmentalized the ad function, tucked it away in its own separate box, allowed us the illusion that our entertainment was somehow unsullied by it—even as it swallowed up eight minutes out of thirty. Now that audiences can go anywhere they want and tend to be repelled by any whiff of a come-on, that no longer works. The blur of entertainment and advertising doesn’t mean no rules, it means new rules: No shouting, please, and if you want me to pay attention to your pitch, you’d better offer me something to make it worth my while.
This is a topic that keeps coming up. It was the focus of the Brisk/Machete panel I did last month with Robert Rodriguez and Danny Trejo at SXSW, and it was also the subject of the Branded Content Salon I spoke at ten days ago in London. More on those in a future post.
Update: The Ideas Bank essay is now available on the Wired UK Web site as well.