Transmedia Is Not Marketing

Late last week, I was involved in a Twitter conversation in which a gentleman dismissed the "transmedia bandwagon" as having been invented by marketers.

I have a lot of problems with this. So many, many problems. Let me count the ways.

Our Antecedents

In his gorgeous memoir about the Cloudmakers, Jay Bushman likened the ARG as akin to the use of sound in the Jazz Singer. It wasn't the first film to use sound, it was merely the first film to easily show audiences the powerful way sound could affect a film.

Likewise, the Beast was by no means the first project to use fictional websites or blogging as a made-up character. And it definitely wasn't the project that invented the technique of creating evidence of a story and playing it out as though it were really happening. The roots of this narrative style are older than the internet, older even than electricity, sunk deep in the tradition of espitolary novels -- arguably invented in Spain in 1485.

And then there's the Blair Witch Project, which predates the Beast, but used many of the same tools and techniques. Filmmaker Mike Monello is a marketer today, and he's proud of what he does (as well he should be). He has no reason to shy away from calling the Blair Witch extended experience anything besides a clever marketing campaign; quite the reverse, in fact, since it turned out to be a brilliant factor in the film's success. And still, he is adamant that the extended world they created was more about art than anything else.

But the urge to call a transmedia narrative "marketing" if there is at any point an intended monetary transaction is overwhelming. I've heard people say that, for example, "Perplex City was marketing, it was just marketing itself."

This is ludicrous. It's like saying all cinema is created as a marketing tool for selling theater tickets. Yeah, there are films where that's sadly not too far off the mark; but it nonetheless misses the entire medium of film as an artform. Same-same with transmedia, folks.


So why do we have this idea that transmedia=marketing floating around, anyway? Why is it that, no matter how many Perplex Cities and Routeses and Must Love Robots and Cathy's Bookses and Lonelygirl15s and Head Traumas and Worlds Without Oil you bring up, they get dismissed as "rare exceptions?" Especially when it's so patently untrue.

That comes down to economics. It's not that there are more marketing campaigns using transmedia than anyone else; it's that the marketing campaigns are much, much more visible. Why? Because they have more money to throw around.

For one thing, they're a lot more likely to be able to pay the team a living wage, which means the creators can afford to spend more time and care instead of working on it in off hours and weekends. And more money means a higher production value; dollars spent translates pretty well into better-looking video, better-sounding audio, and sleeker, glossier websites. Audiences like that.

And even more important than improved production values, money lets you promote the story. This is crucial -- you need to pull people into your project. The most effective are any traditional media you can afford: TV spots, billboards, bus shelters, whatever. Even better if you can hire a PR agency to pitch your project to Wired, the Guardian, the New York Times.

This is why the most successful transmedia campaigns to date have, by and large, been part of an overarching marketing campaign. Those folks can afford to promote the project. And transmedia projects need promoting, just like every other form of entertainment does.

In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that building a transmedia narrative on its own is really bad marketing, because it still requires this overhead of promotion. If that doesn't put the nails in the coffin of this "transmedia=marketing" business, I don't know what else could.

Some Marketing Is Art

And yet, and yet -- even if transmedia were invented by marketing, even if it were solely used as marketing campaigns... is that such a very bad thing, really? I vote no.

We have a strange dichotomy in our culture that says art and money are mutually exclusive. If you're doing something for the love of it, you are legit. If you're doing work for sale or as work for hire, you are a sellout.

This is a steaming load of bull hockey.

I've worked on original IP projects for love, and I've worked on marketing projects. I apply the same degree of craft and thought to everything I do. Does this mean sometimes I'm an artist and sometimes I'm just a hack? Or does it mean that maybe -- just maybe -- some of those marketing projects shouldn't be dismissed out of hand as art and entertainment?

At the end of the day, marketing and advertising are one of the very few plausible ways for visual designers and writers (just for example) to earn a living with their art. Yeah, some of it is going to be phoned-in, soulless work. But you know what? These industries do as much to shape our consensus culture as the film and TV industries do. If you need evidence of that, look at Old Spice, or the Budweiser frogs. They have a commercial point, sure, but nothing captures the public's imagination if there's nothing there at the heart of it.

Transmedia is bigger than purely marketing. It's true that marketing dollars have done a lot to shape us; but as Bushman says, vaudeville marketing dollars did a lot to shape early cinema, too. Cinema is a lot bigger than that now. Give us that same hundred years and we will be, too.

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