In my line of work, I sometimes hear people say, “Well, it’s only marketing” or “It’s just PR.”
Usually, it’s a call for people to take a step back and relax when they are getting frustrated, which I think can be a really healthy thing. But, sometimes, the phrase seems to be used to dismiss the value of what it is we do…to perpetuate, within our industry, the idea that what we do doesn’t end up meaning all that much for the company. Or worse, that what we are doing is intended to have no real meaning or use for the audiences with whom we are communicating. (See my recent piece for more on this.)
This line of argument feels awfully familiar to me. I grew up an ardent fan of entertainment properties that I’ve previously called immersive story worlds, fictional universes with vast backstories, casts of characters that number in the hundreds or thousands, and a sense of permanence. So I’ve decided a little exploration of the “it’s just” attitude might be helpful therapy for me…and, I hope, enlightening for my readers.”
As a comic book reader, a soap opera watcher, a pro wrestling aficionado, a G.I. Joe collector, and a student of University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball history, I’m familiar with people dismissing something that matters to me. I grew up a busy little boy, studying the pasts of these vast narratives and following stories and franchises that existed long before I came along and that seemed they would likely last long after I was gone. What drew me to these worlds was the sense that I could get lost in them, that I would never be able to master them, and my camaraderie with other fans who I could work together with to help piece together these narratives which were bigger than we could ever be.
It’s a much different thrill than, for instance, my cousin Sarah got from being able to recite every line of Top Gun, or which Star Wars fans got from mapping out the story world of the franchise from what was then the three films that made up the majority of the text. I could never go back and watch every episode of As the World Turns that ever aired or see every major pro wrestling match in history. Even if everything had been recorded and archived (which it wasn’t), it would literally take years to watch and would be impossible for one person to memorize.
But my fascination with these kinds of worlds I could immerse myself in was troubling for some people I knew. (Well, with the exception of my Wildcat fandom; it was perfectly okay to want to learn about the “Fabulous Five” of the late 1940s Wildcats or to study the history of Dan Issel). I remember well sitting on the bench at Houchens grocery in Beaver Dam as a little boy when a man from my church sat down. The man, who wore what seemed to be a permanent frown, looked over and said, “You know who drew that book you’re readin’, don’t ya, boy?” I looked up, momentarily surprised by Mr. Burton’s knowledge of the Marvel Universe. “The Devil. The Devil drew that comic book.
One of our preachers was also known to fixate behind the pulpit on those soap operas women in the congregation loved to watch, ungodly shows that they were. Part of the concern with soaps, and comic books, seemed to be the nature of the text and the nature of fandom itself, encouraging a sort of immersion that can be read from the outside as obsession. I only wished I could have explained to them at the time the deep similarities that existed between a desire to memorize the lineage of the NWA Tag Team Titles and a desire to memorize the genealogies of the lineages from biblical times. (With a dad always knee-deep in “family tree research,” I think genealogy provides some of the same types of pleasure as these immersive story worlds.)
But the biggest complaint people seemed to have, upon hearing deep conversations or debates I had with fellow fans, went something like this: “Why are you so worried about XXXX? Lighten up. Don’t you know it’s just entertainment?”
I sometimes saw value in what people were saying. For those of us who, in our very nature, want to immerse ourselves in a story world, an occasional reminder to take a step back is probably not such a bad idea. When I started railing on the lack of continuity in how Kim Hughes was being written on As the World Turns or got riled up by the WWE dropping the ball on concluding a feud once an injured wrestler returned to the scene, I probably needed someone to provide a little context. In fact, soap opera fans in particular have been known to have to provide some context to one another when fan frustration runs high. For instance, in her book Tune In, Log On, Nancy Baym writes about one online soap opera fan community’s frequent use of the acronym IOAS: “It’s only a soap.”
But the message was often intended to be dismissive of the entertainment forms of which I was a fan and intended to belittle or even cast as abnormal my interest in these story worlds.
What troubles me most, though, is that I have occasionally seen this type of dismissive attitude from the very people responsible for creating these shows. From television executives telling soap opera fans to “lighten up” to a soap opera executive producer recommending fans not bother sending in fan mail to voice their opinion about the show, soap fans have become used to hearing (directly or indirectly) the people creating the shows they want to immerse themselves in say that they shouldn’t take their shows so seriously.
Pro wrestling fans sometimes know the feeling, as wrestling promoters have a history of obliterating continuity, insulting the intelligence of fans, or inserting too much unbelievable comedy in their shows that it distracts from fans’ ability to engage in their “willing suspension of disbelief,” (to borrow, as many have, from Coleridge’s term to describe the theater patron).
When someone from the outside tells me to lighten up, it’s either a caring friend trying to curb some borderline obsessive behavior or someone who looks with disdain on the types of entertainment I care about and who want to insult it and the time I put into it. Either way, I can handle that. But when the very people put in charge of these shows say explicitly to the press or implicitly through their creative decisions that I should lighten up and not worry so much about the details, I can’t help but get frustrated.
I think it’s good for me, as a viewer, to get a little perspective. But, if someone is the steward of a soap opera fictional world that existed for decades before she or he came along as writer and which was supposed to be a “world without end,” I don’t accept the call to “lighten up.” If I pay almost $50 for a wrestling pay-per-view and it ends up being poorly written or performed, I have a hard time accepting the line of “it’s just entertainment” from the people who created the show. Sometimes, it’s good for me to take a step back as a fan. But I don’t think the creative forces behind an immersive story world can use the same logic to defend a blatant disregard for quality.
Lynn Liccardo has spoken often about a self-loathing or internalized marginalization of the soap opera from within those who write the shows. Wrestling fans have sometimes felt the same way–that those writing the shows seem to believe less in the art form of what they are writing than the fans do.
As I’ve written about before, DC Comics’ Paul Levitz has written about the difference between “sincere” and “insincere” mistakes. For Levitz, there is a clear distinction between little errors in continuity that are perhaps inevitable in a story that has evolved over decades and a blatant disregard for history and continuity that comes from someone not perceived to have respect for all the time and energy fans have invested in following and learning about a story world.
And this is where I think the dismissiveness of “it’s just marketing” can become especially dangerous for people within our industry. At Peppercom, we like to say that “we don’t take ourselves so seriously, but we take our work seriously.” I think this is key. If we are asking audiences for their time, expecting to engage with them, etc., we need to respect that time and take our communication with them seriously. After all, it’s okay for our audiences to remind themselves “it’s just marketing” or even for us to take a step back after a hard day of work and get a little perspective. But the moment that dismissive attitude starts to creep into our work, we might make the switch from making sincere mistakes to insincere ones, to use Levitz’s terminology. And that attitude is corrosive to the value and to the meaning of what we do and to serving what our audiences want and need from us.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies program. He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam 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.
[Image: Flickr user Micah Camera]