How does a fictional character eclipse his real-life creator and become embedded in the fabric of popular culture? I have been pondering the question while watching the widespread outpouring of grief and nostalgia in the wake of the death of Leonard Nimoy, the man who gave us Mr. Spock.
When my older brother Dan called me on a cold Friday afternoon to share his favorite memories of Mr. Spock, I felt sad that we had lost Nimoy yet grateful for the enduring gift of Spock. As a child growing up with Star Trek via reruns in the 1970s, I admired Spock’s Vulcan logic, unbending loyalty to his friends, and the dignified way he carried the burden of being half-Vulcan, half-human. Nimoy essayed a character who found a way to reveal keen emotion bubbling beneath the surface of his steely calm demeanor. To borrow one of Spock’s catchphrases, I found Spock fascinating. And I still do when I watch Star Trek, both the TV series and the film adaptations, at home with my daughter.
Obviously, I am not alone. Spock has legions of fans even though the original Star Trek series lasted just three seasons and was canceled in 1969. Nimoy’s death February 27 was covered widely in the mainstream news media, ranging from Mashable to The New York Times. In reporting Nimoy’s death, The New York Times captured the essence of Spock:
[I]t was as Mr. Spock that Mr. Nimoy became a folk hero, bringing to life one of the most indelible characters of the last half century: a cerebral, unflappable, pointy-eared Vulcan with a signature salute and blessing: “Live long and prosper” . . .
The White House reacted, too: President Barack Obama issued a statement professing his own admiration of Nimoy and love for Spock. Social media exploded with tributes, such as the fan-made photographs of the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” symbol on Facebook and Instagram. The tributes came from both Baby Boomers and digital natives who were not alive when Spock first explored strange new worlds with Captain Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, and the crew of the USS Enterprise. The reaction was similar to the one we will experience when Sean Connery leaves us with the legacy of James Bond. Clearly, Spock, like 007, is a cultural touchstone. But why?
I believe we admire Spock because he represents an all-too-rare cultural archetype: the beloved hero. Yes, Spock does heroic things: his actions on Star Trek, both on the television series and in the popular film adaptations, save countless lives and thwart evil. But there is also a purity and moral goodness about Spock, which was largely missing from our recent fictional heroes until Harry Potter came along. Continue reading →
Oscar-nominated movies should place more importance on historical accuracy than storytelling — at least that’s the conclusion you might draw from the criticisms lodged at American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma. An angry cabal of tut-tutting, self-appointed guardians of public taste have attacked the directors of these movies for having the temerity to (gasp) take liberties with the real-life events that inspired the films (with Zaid Jilani of Salon characterizing American Sniper as a hideous pack of lies corrupting the minds of an unsuspecting moviegoing public). But American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma are not the only Oscar-caliber films that have interpreted history to tell compelling stories. Here are three more from the annals of Hollywood history — all of them critically acclaimed, and all of them Oscar winners:
Amadeus. This movie proved to be the high-water mark of the careers of Tom Hulce, who famously portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a spoiled prodigy with a fondness for scatological humor, and F. Murray Abraham, who depicted Antonio Salieri, the erstwhile bitter rival of Mozart. Amadeus earned the scorn of historians who took major issue with the movie for grossly overstating the rivalry between the two men, especially the suggestion that Salieri had a hand in Mozart’s death. As Alex von Tunzelmann of The Guardian wrote (indulging in some bitter reflection years later), “Some fine research into Mozart’s annoying personality doesn’t really make up for the fact that the entire premise of this film – that Salieri loathed Mozart and plotted his demise – is probably not true.” But the critics were nothing more than voices screaming into the void, well after the movie had secured its place in film history by winning a slew of awards, including an Academy Award for Best Picture and designation on AFI’s “100 Years . . . 100 Movies” list.
Braveheart. Mel Gibson’s 1995 lionization of 13th Century Scottish warrior William Wallace won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Braveheart also launched a cottage industry of naysayers who scoffed at the movie’s many inaccuracies, such as taking liberties with the way the famous battles were fought, and depicting Scottish badasses running roughshod in kilts and cool face paint. In fact, kilts were not popular in Scotland until the 17th Century, and that whole face paint thing had gone out of style by Wallace’s time. But Gibson wasn’t going to allow facts to interfere with a good story, and audiences responded. The film grossed $210 million globally.
JFK. In 1966, New Orleans District Attorney Garrison began an investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. As a result, he prosecuted a guy named Clay Shaw, alleging that Shaw and some right-wing cronies colluded with the CIA to kill Kennedy. Garrison’s case was so flimsy that it took a jury less than an hour to acquit Shaw. The curious case remained on history’s dust heap until Oliver Stone decided to make an epic three-hour movie out of Garrison’s questionable work. The resulting movie, JFK, drew a firestorm of criticism for distorting one of the most tragic events in American history. (Jon Margolis wrote in the Chicago Tribune that JFK was “an insult to the intelligence.”) JFK grossed more than $200 million worldwide, won two Oscars (for editing and cinematography) and landed Oliver Stone a Golden Globes Best Director win.
Dig a little deeper, and you will discover many more examples, such as Gladiator and The Passion of the Christ. (Apparently, the further back you go in history, the easier it is to play by your own rules. And Mel Gibson is a repeat offender.) What do these distortions tell us?
Moviemakers make stories, not history lessons.
Moviegoers listen to each other and sometimes to critics. But they could care less what historians think.
If you hate a movie, the louder you scream about it, the more publicity you’re giving the film.
Finally, if you go to movies to learn about history, you get the history you deserve. What are some notable inaccurate movies on your list?
The Academy Awards, Grammys, and Super Bowl constitute the peak of real-time marketing season. Throughout February, brands ramp up their efforts to generate instant buzz by capitalizing on the unexpected and exciting drama that unfolds throughout the course of these high-profile events. But as my recently published Gigaom report indicates, real-time marketing is more than a brand tweeting from a social media war room during the Oscars. Real-time marketing has become more influential across the entire marketing funnel, from awareness building to customer retention. To maximize the value of real-time marketing, brands should stop treating it as a one-off tactic and instead connect real-time marketing to their strategies across the customer lifecycle.
Real-Time Highs and Lows at the Oscars
The widespread perception of real-time marketing consists of companies building brand awareness by creating content that capitalizes on a time-sensitive event, such as a news development. Oftentimes, brands rely on social platforms, especially Twitter, to engage their audiences in real time. The popular definition might be limited, but it’s one that marketers can understand intuitively, and it has taken hold.
In 2011, David Meerman Scott’sReal-Time Marketing & PR helped trigger the adoption of real-time marketing as we know it today, although many thought leaders such as Regis McKenna and Monique Reese paved the way for Meerman Scott. By 2013, brands were experimenting widely with the insertion of real-time content into current events, with spectacular successes and failures resulting.
But the Academy Awards constitute just one night for creating real-time content — albeit an important one, as are the Grammys and Super Bowl. What are some ways brands create real-time marketing beyond a single event?
Real-Time Marketing Across the Customer Lifecycle
Brands continue to swarm around major events such as the FIFA World Cup to generate impressions and social followers by sharing real-time content. But brands, agencies, and merchants are using some of these same techniques for multiple marketing objectives across the customer journey, influencing marketing tactics ranging from website development to media buying.
Before you answer “Sure!” make sure you watch the famous “Sam the Lion” monologue from the Oscar-winning movie The Last Picture Show. In just four minutes, Director Peter Bogdanovich offers a lesson on earning the trust of your audience, one that applies to any content marketer.
The scene focuses on Sam the Lion, an older denizen of a small Texas town, who fishes with two boys, Sonny and Billy, on a modest pond known as the tank. After the three idly shoot the breeze, Sam reminisces about a passionate affair from his past, a fleeting relationship that has remained strong in his heart as he ages.
And that’s all there is to the scene: Sam (played by Ben Johnson) sharing a fond memory with Sonny (played by Timothy Bottoms) and the mentally challenged Billy (played by Sam Bottoms) on a lake. No gunplay. No massive fist fights. Not much of anything — on the surface at least. And yet, the scene is beloved by movie critics (it was a favorite of Roger Ebert’s), and Johnson’s performance won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1972. Why? Because the moment reveals poignant truths about longing, regret, and growing older.
The monologue unfolds naturally. Sam makes small talk about fishing and turtles. He takes in the scenery of the pond and the mesquite trees, which triggers a memory of an affair between Sam and a woman.
“I brought a young lady swimming out here once,” he muses. “It was after my wife had lost her mind. And my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess.”
Sam discloses that he and the woman shared moments of crazy passion on the pond, skinny dipping and racing each other on horses in the water.
“Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway,” he says, before telling Sonny that the affair ended. And then, the payoff: “Being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do,” Sam muses. “Being a decrepit old bag of bones, that’s what’s ridiculous. Getting old.”
The scene succeeds because Bogdanovich trusts the audience to appreciate quality of the writing (by Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich) and the strength of Johnson’s acting. For instance:
Notice the absence of music. There are no syrupy strings to overplay the movie’s hand, no audio cues to tell us, “You’re watching an emotional moment. Time to let the tears flow.”
Similarly, the camera work does not overplay the scene with excessive close-ups to hammer home the emotional content of Sam’s monologue. The camera caresses Sam’s face through a slow build that permits the audience to drink up the scene instead of being hit over the head.
The characters are natural and authentic. Throughout the movie, Johnson portrays Sam as an aging man who carries himself with quiet integrity, and during the monologue, Johnson stays true to the character he has built. He does not lapse into showy emotion. And the boys act as boys do. Sonny is at turns bored and somewhat curious, while Billy watches at the water. The boys do not cock their heads in awe, as a director in a lesser movie might choreograph a scene. You know the “cocked head” moment in a movie, right? It’s that scene we often see in noble, well-meaning movies when a director tries to lead the audience by the nose.
You don’t need to be a Hollywood director to learn from Bogdanovich. Content marketers can apply his lessons in many ways. For instance:
When you select topics for thought leadership (whether for white papers or blog posts), choose ideas that will teach your audience instead of hyping your own services and products. Trust your audience to understand the difference between self-promotion and thought leadership, and to reward your thought leadership with positive word of mouth and even potential business.
Don’t clutter your writing with excessive adjectives and hyperbole. When you share an insight, trust your audience to draw its own conclusions and appreciate the value of your idea. Flowery, overwritten language is the equivalent of a movie scene that hits the audience over the head with music that grasps at the heartstrings.
Finally, earn the trust of your audience by being authentic and believable. Sam the Lion’s monologue worked because all the collaborators involved in the scene created a moment that was believable and true to the essence of the movie. When you trust your audience, you earn its trust, too.
Unveiling a new logo is like telling a joke: if you have to explain it, you’ve lost your audience already. That’s why I like the approach that innovation consultancy BeyondCurious took recently in sharing its new logotype.
Instead of publishing a self-important press release explaining the technical specifications of its logo and waxing poetically about the logo’s deep meaning, BeyondCurious lets the new visual expression of its brand speak for itself. On its social space and website, BeyondCurious (a client of mine) has carefully coordinated a rollout of the new look without great fanfare. Appropriately, on its social spaces, BeyondCurious demonstrates excitement in sharing the logo — after all, a logo is one of the most powerful elements of a brand. But on Facebook, the agency has simply invited fans to check out the logo and let the company know their reactions.
The company made one concession to explaining the logo, in a blog post by CEO Nikki Barua on the company’s website. In the post, “What’s in a (New) Logo?”she provided some insight into the meaning of the logo, such as how “[t]he clean and minimalistic appearance of the mark is a representation of how we make the complex simple.” But for most of the post, Barua discusses other brands’ logos that inspired BeyondCurious, ranging from Red Bull to the MIT Media Lab. By casting the spotlight on sources of inspiration, she provides insight about BeyondCurious’s own culture of learning.
A massive business-to-consumer brand, especially in the field of media/entertainment, will take a completely different approach to unveiling a new logo. For instance, a sports team needs to make a huge splash with a new logo. In the sports world, new logos drive massive merchandise sales, and fans are going to discuss the new logo with or without the brand’s participation. And there are times when a business-to-business services brand such as BeyondCurious might want to adopt a higher-profile approach — for example, when the creation of a new logo occurs as part of a more comprehensive re-brand that includes a change in the corporate name and value proposition (which can from any number of circumstances, such as a merger with another business). And a huge business-to-business brand such as Accenture might choose a high-profile campaign because it is impossible for a brand of its size and name recognition to do anything quietly.
But in the services world, the ultimate measure of a brand is its performance. Fittingly, on its website, BeyondCurious spends far more time talking about work for clients such as GoPro and Toyota than it does extolling the virtues of its new logo. When it comes to delivering great results, it does pay to tell.
Bob Dylan has always defied expectations. He famously went electric when folk was acoustic and released the austere John Wesley Harding when electric psychedelia was in vogue (among many other career twists). With the release of his 36th album, Shadows in the Night, the 73-year-old music legend once again shows that he refuses to pander to anyone. The release of Shadows in the Night also raises an intriguing question: how important is cultural relevancy to artists such as Bob Dylan who challenge the cultural zeitgeist instead of reflecting it?
Dylan’s history of shaping popular tastes, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s, is well documented by writers far better than I am. The most recent phase of his career, in which he has entered the digital age, is also absorbing but for different reasons. Starting with the 1997 release of Time out of Mind, Dylan has enjoyed an artistic renaissance lasting longer than the entire careers of most fly-by-night pop acts. His songwriting during this period has explored themes ranging from vengeance to mortality, and he has melded musical idioms ranging from rockabilly to swing. Albums such as Love and Theft have earned him his strongest reviews since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks.
But 14 years into his final act, the world around him has changed. Albums, especially those released in compact-disc format, are archaic. Oh, hip musicians release them, but really only as a collection of random songs to support tours and merchandising — not as conceptual statements that succeed on their own merits. Instead, singles rule the day as they did, ironically, when Dylan arrived on the music scene decades ago. Being a successful artist means finding the “Gangnam Style” moment that will turn you into a fleeting Internet meme until a “Harlem Shake” comes along. Or becoming a celebrity by delivering over-the-top, fist-pumping moments on American Idol without really recording anything at all. Meantime, Dylan’s core audience, and the critics who anointed him into the halls of music royalty, are growing older. His fans and the music journalism elite, seeking a way to define him in a way that makes sense to their tastes, have cast him in the persona of the wise but frayed old minstrel, grinning while he spins truths and contemplates his own demise.
So how does Dylan respond? He digs back into his past (and I mean, way back) and releases a set of 10 songs that were written decades ago by writers whose names, for the most part, are (unfortunately) lost in the white noise of the digital age, unless you’re a Baby Boomer, a music historian, or a seasoned critic. He rejects modern recording techniques and relies on a live band that features instruments such as a pedal steel guitar and an upright bass, adding to the feel of an album recorded many years in the past. The most famous American songwriter in the history of rock doesn’t even pen a single tune on Shadows in the Night, and a man famous for his gravelly voice selects songs suited to the more polished crooners of yesteryear. (In fact, Shadows of the Night is an homage to Frank Sinatra.)
To promote the album, Dylan gave his first interview in three years — not to Pitchfork, Stereogum, or any other hip music publication with its finger on the pulse of modern rock culture for the digital generation. He didn’t even interview a music publication at all. Instead he chose AARP The Magazine, the official publication of the American Association of Retired Persons. In addition, 50,000 AARP The Magazine subscribers received a free copy of the album via compact disc. Talking with AARP was his idea, which elicited more than one head-scratching response. As NPR asked, “To Promote A New Album, Bob Dylan Gave His Only Interview To … The AARP?” Ann Brenoff of The Huffington Post wondered, “But AARP The Magazine? Really?”
Really. The AARP interview and promotion seemed to signal that Dylan is not so much ignoring the digital generation as honoring the fans who are growing older with him and are old enough to recognize the Great American Songbook he sings about on his new album. (AARP delivered more than 35 million potential listeners to Dylan, too.) He certainly is not pandering to digital culture. He does none of the things that aging rockers are supposed to do in order to ensure cultural relevance in the digital age. There are no collaborations with a hot contemporary producer to translate his sound to younger listeners, no duets with Jimmy Fallon, no Reddit Ask Many Anythings, and no Twitter hashtags.
“These songs have been written by people who went out of fashion years ago,” he told AARP The Magazine. “Certainly, the people who first heard these songs, like my parents and people like that, they’re not with us anymore.” He made a similar point February 6 during his acceptance speech for the MusicCares Man of the Year award.
On his website, he also gave some insight into the recording of Shadows in the Night. He observed that he rejected contemporary recording styles and tools. In fact, the album was recorded live:
It was all done live. Maybe one or two takes. No overdubbing. No vocal booths. No headphones. No separate tracking, and, for the most part, mixed as it was recorded. I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.
Days after its February 3 release, Shadows in the Night has garnered several positive reviews, adding up to a score of 82 (“universal acclaim”) on critic aggregator site Metacritic. The strongest reviews have come from the established rock press: publications as Rolling Stone, which caters to a more seasoned, older audience. Meanwhile, Pitchfork, one of the Bibles of the hip and young music scene, delivered an amusingly confused review full of passive aggression. After asking “Is Bob Dylan trolling us?” writer Stephen M. Deusner notes, “And what do you know, Dylan can actually sing. Without sounding overly reverent, he croons persuasively, especially on ‘Why Try to Change Me Now'” . . . only to conclude that “for the more casual, less obsessive listener, [the album] can be a bit of a snooze.”
But Bob Dylan is not writing for Pitchfork. He is doing something far more risky and yet rewarding: writing his own legacy. When you write your own legacy, sometimes you find yourself out of step with popular culture, as Dylan has found himself at times in his career. It might sound odd to say this about someone whose art has been dissected as Dylan’s has, but I don’t believe anyone will fully appreciate Dylan’s power to shape cultural tastes for many decades yet. As Dylan says, his music is like a mystery, and the impact of a great artist cannot be properly assessed in a real-time Twitter stream. Bob Dylan does not create to be culturally relevant. He creates for himself.
For decades, the Grammy Awards have been knocked for being out of step with the times. (After all, the Grammys once awarded “Winchester Cathedral” Best Contemporary [R&R] Recording instead of “Eleanor Rigby.”) But in its 57th year, the Grammy Awards are more culturally relevant than ever.
Consider this: a new report from Taykeyanalyzed the top cultural trends affecting the performance of advertising campaigns in the fourth quarter of 2014. Taykey wanted to assess the performance of advertising that capitalizes on real-time news events and trends such as the release of the new Star Wars trailer. Well, the top-performing trend for the fourth quarter was the Grammys — months before the actual event was to take place. According to Taykey, the December 5 announcement about the 2015 Grammy nominations was the top trend from an advertising perspective — creating better-performing real-time buzz for advertisers than the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies or Ed Sheeran performing on The Voice Season 7 finale.
In fact, brands that created real-time advertising capitalizing on the Grammy nominations generated click-through rates that were 1,145 percent higher than industry benchmarks — easily higher than any other trend by a wide margin.
The obvious question: why? According to the TaykeyReal-Time Trend Report, “The music industry may be fragmented and suffering from a revenue perspective, but it’s clear that audiences still care very much about these nominations and their favorite artists.”
Moreover, the Grammys remain the leading destination where music fans can immerse themselves in the fragmented music industry, all in one place, at one time. For instance, at the 2015 Grammys, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Rihanna will perform the live debut of their new single, “FourFiveSeconds” — which perfectly demonstrates the way the Grammys, with one masterstroke, can appeal to multiple generations and musical interests. In 2014, the Grammys tapped into the cultural zeitgeist by featuring performers ranging from Lorde to Daft Punk. The 2014 telecast secured 28 million viewers. By contrast, the MTV Video Music Awards, considered the younger, hipper alternative to the Grammys, has never attracted more than 12.4 million viewers.
In effect, the Grammy nominations turn the faucet to a trickle by presenting us with a curated short list of performers to program into our music streams, ranging from Sam Smith to Hozier. Even the controversies generated by inevitable Grammy omissions make the Grammys useful by shining light on the also rans.
Taykey updates the Real-Time Trend Report on a quarterly basis (the next one should be published in April). The fourth-quarter 2014 edition contains far more insight into cultural trends across industries and demographics than I’ve discussed in this post. Read it and form your own conclusions. After reading the report, my single-biggest takeaway is this: for advertisers, the Grammys have already won.