The wrestling world has been abuzz this week over an incident that happened at the end of the latest edition of World Wrestling Entertainment's flagship show, WWE Monday Night RAW. C.M. Punk, a top WWE performer for the past few years, came out on the ramp to cut what people might have initially expected to be a "standard" heel wrestling "promo"--the colorful diatribe pro wrestlers are known for. Instead, though, he started ripping on the politics of the company, owner Vince McMahon's conception of what wrestling should be, the (lack of) leadership his daughter and son-in-law would provide if something happened to Vince, and the head of talent relations backstage at WWE, who he called "a douchebag." And so on, until the audio to his microphone was cut and the show just went off the air.
Discussion afterward questioned whether Punk's rant was a shoot, the term wrestling fans call for when a performer goes off script and real life plays out. The storyline had set the stage well, after all: it's become common knowledge to wrestling fans that Punk is frustrated with the company and had decided to leave. Those rumors were so widespread that WWE had already turned it into the storyline, with Punk announcing he was leaving and saying that, if he won the championship belt in the main event of the next pay-per-view event, he would take the title with him when he left. Many fans were left asking, "Was this for real?"
Longtime wrestling fans saw the signs that it wasn't exactly "real." Punk's mic could have been cut a little quicker, after all. And Punk still wove in references to the upcoming PPV and his claim that he'd win the title and take it with him when he left. But the strong dose of reality in the script, and the little touches with the way his diatribe was handled, has brought new life to what is often a summer doldrums in the wrestling business. Now, whether that will translate to big $$$, I don't know, but it's certainly generated deeper engagement from wrestling fans, drawn the interest of many former fans, and gotten WWE plenty of buzz over the week...as Punk's Twitter trending can attest.
Ultimately, what WWE has accomplished is a brave move. No, these kinds of edgy "playing with real life" storylines is nothing new, as I have written about in the past. After all, Vince is a character in his own show, hated by fans. And wrestling has, at times in the past, gotten way too faddish with trying to weave every backstage rumor into on-screen happenings, to the point that casual wrestling fans have occasionally found themselves dumbfounded to even figure out what anyone's talking about on-screen if they don't read the "dirt sheets," as wrestlers like to call newsletters that publish industry news and rumors.
Instead, it's brave because WWE is allowing a performer to give voice to the complaints some dedicated wrestling fans have about World Wrestling Entertainment. That it's too much entertainment and not enough wrestling. That it's warped by the personal tastes of the sometimes brilliant, sometimes way-off-base McMahon. That it's too political and run by people who act as yes men to McMahon. Vince is no stranger to building storylines that paint him in a negative light, but rarely has he given voice to these kinds of complaint: that he doesn't do "real" wrestling.
The rant had some nice touches in it: from Punk referencing the controversial figure Paul Heyman who helped get him a true start in the WWE (but who is often politically on the outs with the-powers-that-be in the company) to making reference to Brock Lesnar's departure from the WWE to take up a career in MMA and even including name-checking New Japan Pro Wrestling and the much smaller Ring of Honor wrestling organization, which many have pitched as the anti-"sports entertainment" wrestling league, with much less glitz and talk and deeper focus on in-ring wrestling.
What can marketers and corporate communicators learn from this incident? One lesson is that there can often be more power in meeting detracting arguments to your brand head on, rather than pretending they don't exist. In this case, these are even arguments from semi-friendly audiences, dedicated fans of the company who nonetheless disagree with many decisions the company makes...in the WWE's case, decisions like not calling their shows "wrestling" or their championships "titles" or the inevitable tension for any entertainment company trying to balance between a dedicated fan base and an appeal to more casual fans. As I wrote about in "10 Things Corporate America Can Learn from Pro Wrestling", though, this requires listening to those audiences closely.
The WWE has an ability that many companies don't: they can weave fan complaints into the show and create tension through it, allowing the interests of various fan factions to literally play out above our eyes. Other companies may not have that same luxury, but they--like the WWE--could benefit greatly from listening to the complaints of the most dedicated audiences in their sector and taking the, seriously. Vince McMahon has become a figure wrestling fans simultaneously love and disdain. McMahon has likewise demonstrated some contempt for "Internet fans." just giving voice to their complaints about his product and validating that some fans might prefer a vision of what wrestling should be that differs from McMahon's already gains the WWE some goodwill with a fan base that sometimes feels marginalized.
This can only capture interest if WWE stays true to the views of those dedicated wrestling fans who agree with Punk. The moment they start caricaturing fans or moving the script away from real tensions that have persisted for years in the wrestling world, the less captivating this story will feel. But, as long as they get the views of Punk right and represent the vision of these ardent fans accurately, it will make for compelling television. And, as long as WWE can continue blurring the lines between reality and fiction in. A way that resonates with engaged fans while still making sense for more casual viewers, I think we can expect to see Punk and company continuing to "trend."
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Ford was previously the MIT Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.