February 2, 2007
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
Weekend of February 02, 2007
*Opening Note: Joshua Green on the Cartoon Network Viral Marketing Campaign and Cultural Capital
*Glancing at the C3 Blog
*Closing Note: Robert V. Kozinets on Gays, Grays and Ego Plays from "Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia"--Part II of III.
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. As usual, this week's update includes links to all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, the site now features tools to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do so if you read on a regular basis.
This week's update features an opening note from C3 Research Director Joshua Green, who writes in response to the Cartoon Network promotional campaign in Boston that made national headlines this past week, while C3 Affiliated Faculty Robert V. Kozinets presents the second of a three-part preview from the forthcoming book Consumer Tribes, for which Kozinets is a co-editor.
If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Viral Marketing and Cultural Capital
By: Joshua Green
The decision of the Massachusetts constabulary to bring in the bomb squad to deal with the discovery of elements of a Turner Broadcasting viral marketing campaign opened ethical discussions about the responsibility of marketers.
For those coming in late, in a promotional campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Turner Broadcasting hired local artists in Boston and eight other cities across the country to install LED-powered signs featuring Mooninite Ignignokt. These signs were installed in a variety of sites around the cities a number of weeks ago, in Boston's case under a number of bridges, the MBTA station under the I-93 interstate, above a comic store, and near Tufts-New England Medical Center. Like many viral campaigns, the signs attracted very little mainstream attention until Wednesday, when a concerned Bostonian called law enforcement, identifying a sign as 'suspicious.' The response from city and state officials was to call in the bomb squad, shut down parts of the city and the Charles River, and detonate one of the signs.
Sam Ford provided comprehensive coverage of the story on the C3 blog on Thursday. He focuses particularly on the persistent labeling of the event a 'hoax' and the pressure for Turner to be held responsible for the large response of Massachusetts authorities. Like Sam, I think the insistence these devices were placed with malicious intent is a justification for a reaction that ultimately wasn't warranted raises a number of interesting questions about the future of such viral events.
There seems to be some suggestion that viral marketing has in some way crossed over 'into the mainstream.' Responding to the events in Boston, tech-culture blog Techdirt suggested the "the marketing department at Turner" might learn something from a college course in viral marketing and image creation being co-sponsored by Channel 4 and website boreme.com. The course, offered at art and design courses in a series of Universities and Colleges in the UK, anticipates that "an underground approach to art," popularized by viral email campaigns particularly, will become part of mainstream design courses.
Well, this may be true, and, indeed, I would be surprised if such an approach to developing marketing materials and strategies weren't already integrated into a range of courses. I suspect it is too soon, however, to proclaim that viral has crossed over into mainstream culture. The Boston response, certainly, suggests there is still a cultural disjuncture between the intended audience for viral materials and the 'general populous,' to discriminate widely.
I think Sam and I differ on the wisdom of the Turner campaign. While we're in agreement it unfortunately bombed, I'm not sure I agree with Sam's proposition notifying local authorities that devices were being placed in a range of public spaces. Admittedly, this would have alleviated the resulting concern, but I can't help but wonder if it might have done so by preventing the campaign from ever getting off the ground. Viral campaigns of this design are expressly designed to draw together an "in-the-know" crowd and pique the interest of those who want to get "in-the-know." As such, they trade on exploiting the cultural capital of viewers. Understand the reference being made and you are part of a group who 'gets it' - 'getting it' here seems to be the central value communicated by these sorts of campaign.
Furthermore, the Mooninite Lite Brites tap into the rising tide of a cultural movement I will call 'nerdcore'* for want of a better term. The term itself is too specific, as it refers to a subset of the culture I want to describe, but it will suffice for the current discussion. Fuelled in part by the rise of the IT industry, tech culture, the DIY and indie movements of the 1990s, and the rise of videogames, nerdcore is simultaneously nostalgic for an imagined 1980s youth and reveling in a next-generation future. DIY ethics are important to nerdcore culture, as are the appropriation of 1980s videogame artwork and Saturday morning cartoon icons. The Mooninite Lite Brite taps into the same cultural understanding that places a pixellated Link on the side of a building (http://www.kotaku.com/gaming/link/link-graffiti-224182.php) or builds 'life-size' Mario question boxes to play with in the real-world (http://www.engadget.com/2006/04/02/ohio-town-spits-fire-over-mario-question-cube-attack/). What is important to this cultural sensibility, and where the credibility of a viral campaign such as the Turner's comes from, is the simulacra of authentic street-art it apes.
To request permission or notify authorities of the placement of objects ahead of time moves the campaign into another cultural sphere altogether. To do so shifts the campaign into the overt "advertising is everywhere" realm authors such as Klein bemoan**. The distinction between these two approaches lies in the sensibility with which they are pulled off. Materials that speak to a street-art ethos that already embraces commercially produced icons, indeed, one that embraces them, elicits a different response from the target market than advertising that announces itself as advertising. Indeed, it would seem Turner's Mooninites don't ape authentic street-art but, rather, are an artifact of such.
In this regard, I think the campaign was effective up until the point its artifacts were misunderstood by those without the necessary cultural capital. Sam points out that the variety of responses of the mainstream press, conservative and liberal blogosphere, picking up particularly on a blogger who suggests "Boston officials could have avoided the emergence response drill if they only read bloggers or trolled Flickr." Perhaps this is true, and there is certainly always a need for more intelligent policing.
While the cutting and at times vitriolic responses of bloggers is an entertaining way to engage with the nuts and bolts of what went on (here's my favorite: http://www.notebookforums.com/post2549057-19.html), Jorge Quiroga, reporter for WCVB-TV5, articulates the cause of the ruckus while interviewing New England Comics store manager Ben Robins. Quiroga identifies the event as a result of "a generation gap in an age of the Internet, cable TV and a post-9/11 world" (http://www.thebostonchannel.com/news/10890113/detail.html#), though I'm not sure of the techno-determinism he attributes the gap to.
What is particularly interesting about this event is that it demonstrates again that understanding that advertising is not an innate skill. Despite the ubiquity of advertising (see for instance Story's piece in the NYT), its interpretation still relies on the mobilization of a sophisticated set of reading skills. Hence, despite the increase in viral marketing campaigns, and their mobilization for an increasing range of products, I'm not sure they're necessary deserving of a 'mainstream' moniker.
Klein, N (2000) No Logo, London, Flamingo
Story, L (2007) "Anywhere the Eye Can See, It's Likely to See an Ad", The New York Times, Jan 15, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/business/media/15everywhere.html?ex=1170824400&en=fa46b94f0524299c&ei=5070.
See a C3 response to it here, entitled "Choking the Golden Goose: In Advertising, Ubiquity Is the New Exclusivity?"
Sam's response to the events in Boston is available here:
Henry's interviews here:
* For those "in-the-know" I realize 'Nerdcore' is actually a form of hip-hop, but I hope you'll accept the liberties I've taken in using it to express a broader sensibility. Please email me to disagree and dispute.
** For a good discussion of the distinctions between the two, see Henry Jenkins' recent two-part interview with Michael Counts.
Joshua Green is the research manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. His current research interests include television branding strategies, the history and future of broadcast television, co-created media production and the knowledge produced by passionate amateurs.
---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Yahoo! Brand Universe and OurCity. Yahoo! is launching two interesting new initiatives aimed at reorganizing its various media platforms around content rather than individual media forms, with Brand Universe launching dedicated Web sites across Yahoo! services for 100 top entertainment properties, while OurCity is a beta site providing media products from across Yahoo! for the cities of Bangalore and Delhi.
Project Apollo Moving Forward for Nielsen, Arbitron. The two companies are moving forward by forming a join limited liability company to explore tracking the product purchase and media exposure behavior of consumers.
Telephia/Third Screen Media Deal to Expand Mobile Marketing Research. Mobile advertising firm Third Screen Media and mobile research group Telephia are coming together to provide more detailed information for potential marketers on mobile platforms by working with Third Screen's clients.
WSX on MTV a New Pro Wrestling Transmedia Property with a Non-Traditional Product. Wrestling Society X has launched a new type of pro wrestling product, with 30 minutes airing weekly on the network and 30 minutes in an "Xtra" program on the Web site, drawing in fans wanting something new but turning off some traditional wrestling fans with its club atmosphere and fast pace.
UFC Launches Its Mixed Martial Arts into High-Definition Tonight. The Ultimate Fighting Championships are now available in HD, but the difference between real fighting and "sports entertainment" is one that may have important implications on how "real" and "fake" fighting launch into HD.
Cartoon Network/Boston Fiasco and the Connotations of Labeling It a "Hoax." Our partners at Turner Broadcasting are in danger of facing the lynch mob that is the Boston and Massachusetts governments, in a case of environmental advertising that did not go off as planned (unless you ask some conspiracy theorists who think the company was looking for programming for CNN).
WWE Set to Merge Existing, New Video Streams into Broadband Video Network. The wrestling company is combining its various video offerings into a streamlined broadband site as it strives to make its new media division a more seamless part of the overall WWE product.
News Corporation Investing in ROO, Alongside Plenty of Controversy. News Corp. is investing in the video company that drives the video offerings for Fox News Network, joining Veoh and Brightcove as online video platforms getting significant new content or financial boosts in recent weeks.
Reverse Product Placement and C3 Members' Ideas in the Popular Press. David Edery and Ilya Vedrashko, two figures prominent in the formation of the consortium, are focused on in this BrandWeek article about reverse product placement, which is the process of launching brands from fictional worlds into the "real world."
Nielsen Now Measuring College Viewers from Nielsen Households--Will It Change the Industry? Nielsen may have only gotten 30 percent of the Nielsen families who have members living at college put a meter in their students' dorm rooms, but will it have a significant impact on ratings for shows popular on college campuses?
YouTube Links with Google Video Search, Plans to Pay Content Owners. As Google works toward solidifying the business model for YouTube, the company mentioned plans to pay content providers for advertising revenue and to make YouTube videos searchable by Google Video.
Fox Issues Symbolic Subpoena to YouTube. Twentieth Century Fox has asked Google to give up the name of the people who distributing pirated material, leaving people questioning what the relationship is with YouTube and its users as everyone waits for YouTube to make its decision whether to acquiesce or challenge the subpoena.
Low-Cost Tools in Media Production - Hype or Hope? Stefan Werning looks at using low-cost tools to produce professional media products and the rhetoric surrounding the lowering of the barriers of entry for media creation.
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia, Part II: Gays, Grays and Ego Plays
By: Robert V. Kozinets
The following is the second of a three-part series that is an adapted portion of Kozinets' essay "Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia," from Consumer Tribes, forthcoming this year from Elsevier Press and edited by Bernard Cova, Kozinets, and Avi Shankar. The final piece in the series will appear next week here in the Weekly Update.
More than 40 original Star Trek: Hidden Frontier episodes have been produced and distributed by a group of fans in Los Angeles. Set in the time period of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, what this show lacks in production values it makes up for in imagination and ambitious theming. The show is filmed against a green screen (which shows through as a greenish halo suffusing the actors' heads and bodies), and uses computer generated backdrops and sets. But in terms of theme, Hidden Frontiers goes where Star Trek has steadfastly refused to go: into the worlds of occult space mysticism and the portrayal of future gay culture. The following newsgroup excerpts presents some fan responses to the series and its inclusions of these two themes.
"Charlie": Just in the last couple of days I had the chance to download the fan-produced series Star Trek: Hidden Frontiers . . . . The real problem is the science. For example they seem to have gotten Richard Hoagland for an adviser as they talk a great deal about Hyperdimensional Physics and show monuments in the Cydonia region of Mars, (for more on this see http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/ misc/hoagland/face.html). I don't mind sloppy science but I do mind pseudoscience being pass off as real science. A quick Google search on Hyperdimensional Physics will reveal a rich source of links for it. Unfortunately most appear to be UFO, Crop Circles, and mysticism sites. . . . The series does deserve a few brownie points for featuring an openly gay couple."
"Leonard": "Frankly, I could have done without the 'openly gay' couple's spit-swapping scene however. It was totally overboard and gratuitous, and just ruins the suspension of disbelief for me completely to be reminded of the real world gay agenda of 'in your face', and 'we're here, we're queer, get over it' crap. Who really gives a fuck?" (Exchange posted on
Charlie's gripe with the series is its use of paranormal space references of "pseudoscience" in the place of legitimate "real science." Although it did feature telepathy, repeatedly visitations from godlike aliens, and a mystical Vulcan race, Star Trek also adhered to a conventional materialist viewpoint where astrophysics were concerned. In distinct contrast to The X-Files series, it did not feature or seek to intertextually relate with folk UFO and fringe space visitation and alien abduction lore (see Curran 1985; Kozinets 1997). The fan creators of Hidden Frontier have taken considerable liberties with Star Trek's orientation by doing so. Their alien "Grays" partake of the same legends of interplanetary visitations as have driven folk UFOlogy, Roswell crashes, Area 51, alien autopsy, and Project Blue Book/ Majestic-12 Project government cover-ups, as depicted in popular works such as Whitley Strieber's Communion book series. UFO, crop circle, and mystically oriented web sites are disdained by Charlie as unworthy of inclusion in the legitimate, real, true, authentic science universe of Star Trek--a statement that many fans would affirm. These are areas that Star Trek's official productions have avoided, contaminated territory that would taint Star Trek's aura of scientific legitimacy with weird paranormal overtones.
Leonard's post is more concerned about another deviation from Star Trek's forty-year old norms. Star Trek staked its utopian reputation on egalitarianism and tolerance of diversity (see Kozinets 2001). The original show featured Russian and Japanese officers working together with Americans in a peaceful future where Earthlings are united (in paramilitary extra-planetary pursuits). Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on prime-time television, and many of the show's themes were allegories on the immorality of racial intolerance and class differences. Sex was also ubiquitous in the original show, with Captain Kirk's interstellar conquests serving as the backdrop for many storylines. However, fans have long-noted the omission of gay characters from the show; in Star Trek's utopian, egalitarian future, gay or lesbian unions seemed markedly absent. This absence was made all the more stark when compared with the homoerotic "slash" fiction created by fans almost since Star Trek inception. Slash fiction romantically paired Captain Kirk with Mr. Spock ("Kirk/Spock" fiction was abbreviated to a simple slash; see Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1988; Penley 1997).
Jenkins (1995) wrote about the "Gaylaxians," a community of gay, lesbian and bisexual science fiction fans who read Star Trek by looking for places to insert "queer meanings" into the show's future vision, to identify gay themes and characters in the text, and to work actively (through protests such as letter-writing campaigns) towards their more overt inclusion. There have been intermittent letter-writing campaigns by gay and lesbian Star Trek fans for at least 17 years, and Gene Roddenberry at one point publicly promised an openly gay or lesbian character on the show. Yet the show never delivered, prompting Star Trek's particular fans to speculate on all sorts of reasons why gays and lesbians have been excluded from humanity's paradisical future.
In an article for the Columbia News Service, Linda Rodriguez quotes Wayne Wilkening, the chairman of the Boston chapter of the Gaylaxian Science Fiction Society as saying: "All it would have taken [by Star Trek's official producers to make gay fans happy] is an acknowledgment that same-sex relationships occur normally in the Star Trek universe. It [Hidden Frontiers' homosexual depiction] fits very well in the Star Trek
universe; it treats homosexuality and gay characters as normal parts of the crew. It's positioned as it's OK socially, but that individuals still have to come to terms with how they feel about it."
In contrast, aforementioned message poster Leonard patrols the borders of heterosexual propriety, classifying the unambiguous inclusion of affectionate gay characters as a "spit-swapping scene"; the exchange of same-sex spit is viewed as far more offensive than the passionate but closed-mouth kisses for which Captain Kirk was famous. The same-sex kissing was "totally overboard and gratuitous," according to Leonard. It defies the reality of Star Trek, which requires "suspension of disbelief" by drawing Leonard into the political same-sex rights assertions that drive Stonewall remembrances and Gay Pride days, and other expressions of GLBT rights, rights that he denigrates with the insulting designation "crap."
The final portion of this essay will appear in the Weekly Update next week, and for the full version of the essay and a variety of related work, Consumer Tribes will be available later this year.
Robert V. Kozinets is a Faculty Advisor for the Convergence Culture Consortium and Associate Professor of Marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. His research areas include branding, virtual communities, technology consumption, communal markets, themed retail, entertainment marketing, new product development, and postmodern consumer behavior.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (email@example.com)
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