Transmedia For the One Percent That Matters?
On Friday, conspiracy drama Hunted premiered on Cinemax. The plot of Hunted unfolds in the world of Byzantium, a private security firm which promotes itself by declaring that “we are not for everyone, just for the 1% that matters.” This phrase also plays a key role in Campfire NYC’s elaborate transmedia campaign for Hunted. The phrase evokes associations with the media strategy put forth by Occupy Wall Street—an association that seems anything but accidental. While the Occupy movement uses the 1% metaphor to critique social inequality, the Hunted transmedia campaign finds multiple ways to integrate the metaphor into the system of commercial television.
Veteran transmedia storytellers Campfire previously designed campaigns for programs such as Game of Thrones and Bag of Bones. In those campaigns, as in the current one for Hunted, Campfire relies on a multi-pronged strategy to spread word of mouth about the program and increase brand awareness of the channel on which the program airs. As such, the campaigns combine an interactive web-based component, a physical object sent to opinion leaders, and, in the case of Game of Thrones and Hunted, targeted, local events. All elements of the campaign synch to provide potential viewers with an immersive experience of the program’s characters and storyworld.
The specific elements that comprise the Hunted campaign have been analyzed by multiple media outlets such as ARG Net, Huffington Post, and by Myles McNutt, so I will highlight only a few relevant features. The online component at ByzantiumTests.com consists of personality tests that supposedly decide if the participant is fit to work for Byzantium Security. As one might expect, it doesn’t matter how one responds to these tests—in the end, all participants are deemed to be part of the 1% that qualifies for employment at Byzantium (nevertheless, it is worth playing through all tests to get to the very last, the baffling outcome of which leads one to ask “but how did they do that?”). I found it interesting that the online component asks viewers to join Byzantium when the company is marked as an antagonist in the series itself, but as I previously explained regarding The Hunger Games, this strategy invites viewers into the diegesis while simultaneously not revealing too much in advance to the program’s premiere.
The physical component of the Hunted campaign takes the form of a wooden puzzle that has a secret compartment for a password-protected flash drive. After solving the fragmented anagram burned into the wood, one has access to exclusive materials. Campfire’s goal of sending out the puzzles to the lucky few—or shall we say, the lucky 1% of television viewers privileged enough to receive mail from Campfire—is also to spread the word about Hunted (full disclosure: I received one of those puzzles, too, and am presumably doing my part by writing this post). After all, as Campfire’s Creative Director Steve Coulson told me, an important goal of this transmedia campaign is to generate word-of-mouth buzz that connects a quality drama like Hunted with Cinemax. The dual goal of the Hunted transmedia campaign is thus not only to recruit new viewers for Cinemax, but also the elevate viewers’ opinion of Cinemax’s brand (Campfire created a campaign with similar goals for A&E and its Stephen King mini-series Bag of Bones).
So far, all of this is fairly standard in the world of transmedia storytelling. However, the last component of the Hunted campaign stands out. As part of a localized event, posters promoting Byzantium Security appeared in the area around Wall Street in time for the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. In contrast to the online component, which is easily identified as promotional material for Hunted because of its copyright disclaimer, the ads did not have any overt link to the program. Indeed, many people mistook the posters for real ads advertising security for the 1%.
The above photo circulated widely on Twitter and blogs following the OWS anniversary. The revelation that the Byzantium ads were “just” for a TV program didn’t necessarily improve opinions about the ad (see, for example, the reactions on OWS’s Facebook page). One could say that this reaction was a win for Campfire nevertheless since Hunted and Cinemax became part of a passionate conversation. However, seeing the ads either as marketing triumph or terrible co-option of activist language is too simple, especially because the program itself raises the question of what it means to work for a company that protects the 1%. For me, ambivalence might be a better term for describing this mash-up of activist language and television promotion. While the ads might not promote a security firm for the 1%, they promote a program that targets those who can and will spend the additional monthly fee for Cinemax; a group we might imagine as the “1%” of television viewers. While the actual number of subscribers is larger than one percent, the discourse of quality television depicts viewers of premium cable drama as the elite among TV viewers (as suggested by Michael Z. Newman and Elena Levine in Legitimating Television).
There is also the question of commercial television’s role in contributing to a conversation about the issues addressed by OWS, like global finance. Is television depoliticized, as Alternet’s Sarah Jaffe observes, or is TV another venue in which this conversation happens? The first episode suggests that Hunted will follow the usual approach of commercial television and present the conflicts surrounding Byzantium in a personalized way, namely as a conflict between main character Sam Hunter and Byzantium, her employers, rather than offering a systemic critique of Byzantium as cog in the machine of global finance. Despite this personalization, it seems too easy to divorce a program like Hunted from the larger discourse surrounding OWS. Perhaps the ultimate achievement of the Byzantium ads is that it forces us to look more closely at how both the commercialized rhetoric of transmedia and the activist rhetoric of OWS engage in a conversation about the 1%.