branding – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Branding Hannibal: When Quality TV Viewers and Social Media Fans Converge Mon, 24 Aug 2015 13:00:51 +0000 Hannibal, Allison McCracken and Brian Faucette discuss the show's and network's branding efforts in relation to their appeals to "feminized" audiences. ]]> Post by Allison McCracken (DePaul University) and Brian Faucette (Caldwell Community College)

[Note: This is the first of a three-part series highlighting some of Hannibal‘s unique contributions to the television world, to commemorate its final week on NBC. The images and video in this post contain spoilers. Also macabre humor.]

Hannibal completes its third (and last) season this week, despite its critical acclaim and the devotion of its passionate fanbase (known as “Fannibals”). Critics have praised the program’s reconceptualization of the horror series and its compelling version of the familiar Hannibal character, but Hannibal has left its mark in other ways as well. This short series of posts examines how Hannibal has engaged with questions of gender: in remixing the markers of quality TV, in embracing the potential of its position within the fannish archive, and in privileging a complex teen girl character within its narrative.


A common exclamation for new viewers of Hannibal is “I can’t believe this is on network!” This astonishment reflects the dominant cultural hierarchies of value in which television critics have elevated non-network shows as “quality TV” for discerning viewers over network shows largely assumed to be mindless fodder for the undiscerning masses. As Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman have argued (and critic Noah Berlatsky recently affirmed), such critical divides of taste and value perpetuate inequalities of class and gender in which quality is associated with middle class, male audiences/”masculine” tastes, and non-quality tv with mass, largely female audiences with “feminine” tastes.

This divide has become even more obvious as white middle-class audiences have largely fled the networks, preferring the suburban pastures of original programming on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc. In the face of this divide, networks have been even more willing to serve the audiences that remain by developing programming for undervalued viewers such as teens, women, queer people, and people of color, many of whom still watch live TV. In addition, networks have developed more programming from less critically regarded pulp genres (as opposed to “adult dramas”) such as musicals, science fiction, and horror.

NBC’s Hannibal is unusual in its ability to bridge this cultural divide by successfully developing a “class and mass” brand that has provided an innovative, unique model of program and promotion. Hannibal‘s brand appeals to and actively serves both quality TV audiences and an intensely invested fan base, led primarily by young women utilizing social media. The easy co-existence of these seemingly odd bedfellows is particularly remarkable given that the presence of young women is often seen to degrade (“feminize”) the quality bona fides of any media product. Yet just as Hannibal queered its source material, the program’s producers were able to develop a mode of promotional address that combined quality markers with overt acknowledgements of its fandom. Far from “degrading” the text, this integration has resulted in a richer, more experimental, more politically progressive program and a more inclusive viewer experience.

IMAGE2 Hannibal+series+premiere+billboard

In 2011, amidst the backdrop of reboots, rebranding, origin stories, and sequels, Hannibal seemed to be a perfect fit for NBC. The recent popularity of horror on American television—in series like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story—suggested to the network that a reboot of the familiar character of Hannibal Lecter would allow them to tap into this growing viewer demand. At the same time, NBC sought to establish a “quality” brand for the show. For example, the network committed to thirteen episodes rather than a full season, a break with network traditions that replicated the practices of cable’s prestige programs. The network also chose to skip the pilot stage because of the involvement of the French Gaumont studio group, who purchased the rights to the novel—and thus the characters from—Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which would serve as the foundation for the series. The inclusion of Gaumont as a producing partner gave the show an international feel; European high-art aesthetics were evoked throughout the series, which included location filming in Paris and Florence.

Gaumont’s CEO Katie O’Connell then hired Bryan Fuller to write the first script and serve as showrunner. As the creator of several critically acclaimed series including Pushing Daisies (2007-09), Fuller brought with him his own auteur brand. He promised to reimagine the source material by altering key aspects of the original books, including diversifying the cast; focusing on character development and motivation; and establishing a signature lush, beautiful, and sophisticated style for the program that would look and feel expensive. Likewise, NBC promoted these “quality” production aesthetics throughout its publicity for the series.


Still, Hannibal struggled to find an audience on NBC, which, unlike premium outlets, needed the buy-in of at least a portion of its mass audience for the program to succeed. In this regard, the network and the program’s producers encouraged the activities of the Fannibals. Demographic research suggested that a significant portion of the audience was “young, smart, well-read women,” which delighted Fuller, who adored their creative production, their appreciation of the show’s dark humor, and their emotional investment in his development of a romance between Hannibal and Will Graham. The network embraced the community, setting up an official Tumblr account for the series and sponsoring a fan art contest (winners below). The NBC Hannibal Tumblr mods have been widely praised for their understanding of the platform and their supportive, respectful interaction with fans.

Image4 FanArtContestWinners

In addition, Hannibal‘s producers and cast members, led by Fuller (in flower crowns, below), have frequently used Twitter to encourage fan activity, including regularly live-tweeting episodes; re-tweeting fan art and GIFs; and giving fans access to script pages, production details, and set photos. This sense of community between the series producers and its fans generated tangible results in the form of a third season renewal, as network officials and producers have openly acknowledged. This final season has both rewarded Fannibals’ ardor and affirmed quality TV tastes by further shifting the series from its procedural beginnings. Set partially in Europe, this season utilizes an art-house style of filming and focuses on character relationships in even more depth and detail, particularly that between the two leads. By developing program content that appealed to viewers across gender and class lines and by involving and supporting their “feminized,” network audiences, Hannibal constructed both an innovative program text and a series brand that will hopefully inspire television producers working across platforms to explore more ways of blurring cultural hierarchies.



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Report from GeekyCon, Orlando, July 30-August 2: The Challenges of Rebranding a Feminist Con Wed, 05 Aug 2015 13:26:38 +0000 geekycon2015

Post by Allison McCracken and Jennifer Kelly, DePaul University

This summer, we have been presenting our research regarding the ways that many small, niche fan conventions have constructed feminine/feminist and queer safe spaces for young women and queer youth, providing alternatives to larger, more corporate cons that are dominated by white men and often lacking in the intense sense of community fostered by the smaller cons. The cons we analyzed were DashCon, GeekGirlCon, and LeakyCon. Of these cons, LeakyCon was the biggest (at 5,000). At the end of last year’s con, its organizers announced a brand change from “LeakyCon” (which began as a Harry Potter-themed con, but had become multi-fandom) to “GeekyCon.” It was clear from last year’s LeakyCon that more obvious corporate sponsorship and alliances were developing (particularly with Tumblr, whose signage dominated the main hall last year), and in our recent conference presentations, we wondered how this change in branding might affect the kind of feminist community feeling of previous LeakyCons.

Tumblr at LeakyCon2c 2014

The answer is, quite a lot. This GeekyCon was notably conflicted in a number of ways, the result, we think, of its organizers’ attempts to address feminist concerns within the larger fandom world and maintain a sense of safe and “positive” community space while, at the same time, also expanding its brand to include more commercial content by showcasing white, male panelists and performers (presumably cis and straight) and attracting audience members who reflected these same identity characteristics. The tensions between commerce and community, avowed feminism and queer inclusion in a con environment more inviting to men and boys, and a focus on “positivity” while lacking diverse representation among guests and attendees resulted in con that, despite some laudable progressive actions, generally felt lacking in the critical edge, community feeling, and affective resonance of past LeakyCons.

LeakyCon’s organizers, mostly women who are all self-identified feminists, have long taken a leading role in con inclusivity and participant safety. This year, GeekyCon took steps to validate its many transgender, genderqueer, and/or non-binary identified attendees, including providing gender-neutral bathrooms for the first time. In addition, transgender participants were actively involved in many con panels, not only those related to LGBTQ issues. The body positivity panel notably included a fat body positive activist for the first time. In addition, the con’s well-known policy against sexual harassment was affirmed and expanded this year through the con’s inclusion and support of the newly-formed “Uplift” organization. Uplift was founded last year by three female college students to combat sexual abuse in online communities and in direct response to a series of recent testimonials by many young women of such abuse by male performers in the Doctor Who and Harry Potter fandoms. Finally, GeekyCon has also become one of the sponsors of the “Positive Fandom” movement that focuses on creating safe and constructive fan spaces.

GeekyCon SponsorsSuch welcome developments at GeekyCon, however, were often overshadowed and at times undermined by the con’s more commercial turn and its reduced female voices and participants, particularly in the big mainstage events. Panels were sponsored by corporations such as Wattpad, PenguinTeen, and Tumblr; although these commercial groups are reflective of and popular with GeekyCon’s participants (indeed, their representatives identify as fangirls and feminists), their increased presence in “safe” venues at times undercut the sense of intimacy and community GeekyCon has long fostered. For example, one popular group meet up during the con’s first session began with a message from a Wattpad representative.

More troubling was the commercial branding of GeekyCon with an adaptation of Missy Elliott’s song “Get Ur Freak On” called instead “Get Your Geek On,” which was performed both in promotional materials and during the con’s opening ceremonies and other events by majority white, largely male participants (the one black male could not help but seem like a token). This kind of cultural appropriation at a con already lacking in racial diversity was disconcerting, and the song’s dance club feel was also out of step with GeekyCon’s audience, who affiliate themselves more with pop and Broadway musical genres and aesthetics. GeekyCon is not lacking for songwriters among its performers; a more organic theme song would better encourage community building and affective response, which was notably lacking.

We can simply take away your stress and offer you a very interesting option – think of ‘do my essay for me online’ and get it done by professional writers. What do you think of it?

This sense of the con being literally out of tune with its audience was most obvious in its first-time use of an outside DJ at the annual Esther Earl Rocking Charity Ball. Instead of focusing on current pop songs and fan favorites, the DJ offered often undanceable club music that this audience didn’t know. The ball’s finale also skipped the annual tribute to the staff that has been an important affective moment of community in past years. There were many complaining fan tweets during the ball about the music and, as a result, less participation and emotional involvement overall.

In addition, although organization leaders used the term “positive fandom” in relation to safe space, there was a distinct disconnect between their use of the term and panel presenters generally, who defined “positivity” primarily as a lack of negativity. This shift resulted in silencing rather than enabling the kind of social critique that has characterized past cons and was particularly detrimental in relation to the marked increase in white, presumably cis and straight men at this con. Therefore, the invocation of “positive fandom” often rang hollow because it primarily came from people who inhabit a position of privilege (it is easier to be positive when you are not under attack) and was often accompanied by their professed unwillingness to speak about issues such as rape/racism in fan texts because they “don’t have the authority” to do so. Thus, the con’s focus on “positivity” and lack of diversity often worked in tandem to enable the marginalization of representational and community concerns vitally important to these fans.

Although GeekyCon’s organizers never planned to be primarily a female space, they have embraced and benefited from the “girl power” ethos. Certainly, we have always found the con’s radical potential linked to its privileging of women and queer people. Although GeekyCon is currently experiencing the understandable growing pains of rebranding, we very much hope it won’t lose those elements that have made it such a valuable feminist space.


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Black Widow and Whedon Exceptionalism: Accounting for Sexism in Age of Ultron and the MCU Fri, 15 May 2015 19:46:56 +0000

Post by Piers Britton, University of Redlands

As I started planning this post, a few days before the general release of the second Avengers movie, issues of authorship and creative control—and attendant problems of narrative cogency in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—already seemed to offer a fruitful basis for comment and reflection. Not for the first time in his career, Ultron’s writer-director Joss Whedon was telling stories of conflict between himself and studio executives. At first remarks were notionally at his own expense: he jokily characterized the development of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as his misunderstanding of the studio’s brief for his three-year contract. Apparently his abrupt withdrawal from day-to-day creative involvement in the ABC series was the result of Marvel’s primarily wanting him to focus on the Avengers sequel. In the wake of Ultron’s release, in a podcast for Empire, Whedon painted a starker picture of creative differences that apparently opened up during production of the movie. He claimed that Marvel executives held to ransom the more surreal and intimately personal passages in Ultron, namely the vignettes of the heroes’ troubled visions brought on by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and the sequence at a secluded farmhouse, owned by Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), which allowed for various ruminative two-handers between the principal characters. These are arguably the most “Whedonesque” segments of the blockbuster. According to Whedon, the Marvel team was preoccupied with scenes that tied into, and teased, future MCU movies, viz., those showing the mantic Thor bathing in the Waters of Sight. In short, Whedon offered a narrative of conflict between authorial sensibility and industry logic – Age of Ultron as an internally coherent, emotionally resonant text versus Age of Ultron as an iteration in a cycle – and thus a de facto preview of forthcoming attractions underscoring the fact that the MCU is “all connected.”

Almost at once this narrative of authorial conflict was overshadowed by a more immediately newsworthy one, which again spoke to tensions between individual entries in the MCU super-franchise and the avowed interests of Whedon as a writer and director. On May 4th Whedon terminated his Twitter account, immediately exciting speculation that this was a response to an online “backlash” against Ultron’s portrayal of Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). During the subsequent week a wide array of commentary centered on Whedon’s avowed feminism, and whether or not his treatment of Romanoff in Ultron upholds or (as was more widely opined) undercuts his claims to be a feminist. Objections to Whedon’s treatment of Black Widow focused on a series of plot elements, and one specific line of dialogue. Among other things critics objected to Romanoff’s being romantically paired with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), to her being cast as the stereotypical caregiver—taming the Hulk with a lullaby, “cleaning up” after the “boys” in the team, etc.—and to her “domestication” in the scenes at Barton’s farm. While at the farm she discusses with Banner the possibility of their settling down, and we learn that she was rendered sterile in a particularly nasty graduation ceremony at her assassins’ academy. According to Todd VanDer Werff’s transcription at Vox, the line runs as follows:

They sterilize you. It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about, the one thing that might matter more than a mission. It makes everything easier — even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?

The line is ambiguous in its import: at best, as VanDer Werff speculates, it is a clumsily constructed attempt to suggest that Romanoff is a monster by virtue of her whole career as a spy and assassin; at worst, as many claim, it atavistically reinscribes notions of a woman’s humanity being defined solely by her capacity to bear children.

Ultron1I don’t want to dwell on the various positions in the Black Widow debate per se, but I do want to reflect on the fact that I did not myself experience the film as sexist in its portrayal of Romanoff. Structurally, scenes that showed her domestic side or stressed her emotional vulnerability did not strike me as out of balance with the scenes that showed her as single-minded, rational, intensely courageous and supremely competent in her professional life. Nor did the manifestations of her self-doubt and uncertainty about life choices seem to me egregious in comparison with the corresponding treatment of her fellow (male) Avengers. However, there’s no doubt that my neutral-to-positive reading of her portrayal at large, and the “monster” line in particular, was determined by my willingness to give Whedon the benefit of the doubt – which in turn is based largely on my prior knowledge of his television work. In other words, in spite of my scholarly interest in the MCU as brand, by default I read Age of Ultron primarily as a Whedon text, not a Marvel text. The same seems to be true of his detractors: in spite of the odd attempt to read the furore in the context of Marvel’s endemic gender asymmetries, excoriation of Ultron’s sexism has for the most part been couched in terms that presuppose Whedon’s primary authorship.

So has Whedon’s self-identification as a feminist, and his reputation as at least a would-be feminist writer, served perversely to obfuscate larger patterns of authorial bias, drawing attention away from Marvel Studios’ problematic representations and exclusions of women? In the short term this may be the case, but probably not over the long haul. While the billion-dollar success of Ultron will likely do little in production terms to encourage reevaluation of storytelling strategy and values in the MCU, from a reception standpoint this latest cause célèbre seems almost certain to be historicized as part of a pattern. If we compare the sluggish, scattered responses to the undermining and cheapening of female characters in the last Bond movie, Skyfall (Mendes, 2012), the groundswell of frustration at Marvel’s institutionalized sexism—articulated most recently by one of Ultron’s male stars—suggests that Marvel’s new breed of tent-pole movie is likely to be a prime locus of critique on issues of balanced and diverse representation for some time to come.


The Gendered Politics of Digital Brand Labor Wed, 18 Mar 2015 14:00:35 +0000 Love Keyboard

This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies, where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna. 

Amid the flood of actors, directors, and reporters congregating in Park Springs, Utah, for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was a cadre of social media influencers that New York Times writer Sheila Marikar designated the “new celebrity crowd.” With thousands—even millions—of social media followers each, these fashion bloggers, YouTube vloggers, and Instagrammers were being wooed by advertisers and publicists at the Sundance gifting suites, where they were furnished with designer clothes, shoes, tech accessories, and more. In exchange, the social media personalities were expected to share photos and reviews of the Sundance swag with their followers, part of a mutual incentive system that increasingly structures digital communication in the so-called “attention economy.”

Although gender was scarcely mentioned in the NYT article, the feminized nature of the system was patently clear: the majority of the social media personalities mentioned were female, a disparity which was highlighted by a comment from a PR rep, “When it comes to the sales, the digital girls are making those. We see higher conversions off those girls than we do with celebrity placement that we might have paid money for” (italics added for emphasis). And save for the male chief executive of a talent agency, three of the four publicists quoted were women. This brings to mind Ann Friedman’s provocation last year about the gendered dimension of the public relations profession, which she said is treated like “a pink ghetto.”

The article also drew attention to the highly gendered discourses of affective or emotional labor, particularly in the context of the promotional “love fest.” Justine Ezarik, more commonly known as iJustine, gushed to Marikar, “I love products, and I love sharing if I love something. Like, you can probably guarantee that it’s going to be posted, especially if I love it.” For retailers and advertisers, an endorsement by a social media influencer like Ezarik enables them to rise above the flood of ubiquitous marketing messages through a seemingly authentic brand promotion.

Social Media NailsWhile the NYT article profiled those faring quite well from their social media promotions, legions of other young women engage in similar brand work—without monetary compensation. Often, these creative aspirants are seduced by the infectious rhetoric of “dream jobs” and “passion projects”; indeed, the notion of doing what you love has become so central to contemporary career narratives that scholar and Jacobin contributor Miya Tokumitsu declared it the “unofficial work mantra of our time.”

My recent International Journal of Cultural Studies article, “The Romance of Work: Gender and Aspirational Labour in Digital Culture Industries,” brings gender politics to the fore of discussions about using social media to pursue one’s labor of love. Based on a study of female social media producers, I contend that digital labor scholars must take seriously the meaning-making activities of participants, especially female content creators.

Drawing upon in-depth interviews with eighteen fashion bloggers, beauty vloggers, and DIY stylists—as well as an analysis of social media professionalization resources—I argue that these young women are engaged in “aspirational labor”: a highly gendered form of (mostly) uncompensated work that 1) amateur participants believe has the potential to “pay off” in terms of future economic and social capital; and 2) that keeps female content creators immersed in the public circulation of commodities. Like individuals performing social roles through aspirational consumerism—for instance, purchasing luxury goods to mark oneself as a member of elite social strata—aspirational laborers seek to mark themselves as creative producers who will one day be compensated for their craft—either directly or through employment in the culture industries.

My analysis explores three salient features of aspirational labor: narratives of authenticity and realness; the instrumentality of affective relationships; and entrepreneurial brand devotion. The latter, which describes the “new celebrity” Sundance promotions, reaffirms a cultural history of gendered social sharing surrounding consumer goods. Scholars Crystal Abidin and Eric C. Thompson aptly refer to the presentation of intimacy that takes place at the intersection of femininity and commercialism as “persona intimacy.”

As I show in the article, many individuals try to curry favor with brands by freely publicizing their products and messages; however, the reward system for these aspirants is highly uneven. Only a few of these young women rise above the din to achieve the level of digital stardom associated with internet personalities like Ezarik. The rest, meanwhile, remain suspended in the highly gendered consumption and promotion of branded goods. Despite such unevenness, I argue that aspirational labor does “pay off” in one important way: it has successfully romanticized work at a moment when its conditions and affordances are evermore precarious, time-intensive, underpaid—and decidedly unromantic.

[For the full article, see Brooke Erin Duffy, “The Romance of Work: Gender and Aspirational Labour in the Digital Culture Industries,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication:]


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Kollecting Kim K. Skills: Kardashianized Celebrity in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood Fri, 25 Jul 2014 13:30:38 +0000 Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the celebrity legitimizes her image while also propagating her brand by redefining fame as an accumulation of skills.]]> “In order to win at life, you need some Kim K skills, period.” – Kanye West

In a recent GQ interview, Kanye West attributes new wife Kim Kardashian with teaching him to better manage his celebrity. However, analogous with popular discourses defining the couple as shallow and fame-obsessed, West’s verbiage ultimately doesn’t say anything. West never defines “Kim K. skills” as more than some kind of intangible communication skills, but expects that the interviewer, and subsequently the general public, will know exactly what he means. Though only mentioned peripherally by West, Kim K. skills are, however, delineated in the new mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Through the game, Kardashian legitimizes her celebrity while also propagating her brand by redefining fame in her image – as the accumulation of “Kim K. skills.”

Kim’s avatar demonstrates the first Kim K. skill in the game’s initial sequence: charm is the key to everything. She charms you into reopening a boutique so she may outfit herself for an upcoming event. Your only option is to help Kim, which is rewarded when she invites you to the event. As you progress through the game, charm becomes a form of currency. You cannot connect with new people outside your current celebrity rank unless you use your hard-to-come-by K Stars to charm them. Whenever you choose “charm” as an action, your relationship grows stronger, which increases your celebrity.

Charming people to like you underscores another Kim K. skill: perceived relationships are paramount in achieving fame. Charm gets you into Kim’s event, but it’s your association with Kim that makes the paparazzi care. As a result, Kim sets you up with a manager and a publicist to help you work towards A-List stardom. Your relationships with these intermediaries are static, but they give you opportunities to improve your public personae. Other in-game relationships, however, are necessary to level up. Bars and clubs are populated with people of varying celebrity rank who can increase your celebrity. Whether you choose to network with or date new contacts, relationships are only cultivated in professional capacities.

Kim K. - Dating Level Up

Your network can join you at personal appearances, and dates happen in public to be seen and subsequently tweeted about. The game allows players to integrate their real-life networks, as you can interact with your friends’ avatars.  Even negative relationships gain fame. When a celebutant expresses jealousy over your relationship with Kim, she sparks a feud that establishes your Twitter following.

In addition to social currencies, the way to celebrity is through accumulating stuff. Kardashian herself comes from wealth, and the association between money and fame is integral to game play. Though the game itself is free to download and play, it becomes quickly apparent that advancing is easier by investing real money. Various reviews have reported how easy it is to spend real money on the game. The types of currency are in-game dollars, energy points, and K Stars. You earn money from constant modeling gigs and paid appearances. Energy is needed to do anything, and is easily expended causing you to wait until it’s replenished or trade precious K Stars for more. K Stars only come from leveling up or from in-app purchases.

Kim K - K Star Store

The dollars one earns are inadequate to keep up with Kim. Players increase their celebrity status with new outfits, homes, cars, and buying gifts to improve relationships, but most lifestyle enhancers can only be purchased with K Stars.

Kim K - Kim K. Clothes Store

Although many items have high price tags, acquiring them creates momentary relief before anxiety sets in again about what else you need to augment your celebrity lifestyle. And, as mentioned, K Stars also act as social currency.

The most ubiquitous Kim K. skill throughout the game is the power of personal branding. Kardashian’s brand is everywhere: the revamped Hollywood sign; each Kardash boutique interior mimics its DASH counterpart; the K Stars.


Kim herself is the most important brand and celebrity signifier. She is your entry point into the celebrity game/game-play and her approval makes you worthy of attention. The game reinforces the celebrity system and Kim’s position in it, both of which depend on hierarchies to establish their value. Likewise, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood addresses the specific dichotomy informing reality TV celebrity personae: that stars need to be approachable and authentic to attract viewers, but ultimately need to remain separate to be special. Celebrity reinforces capitalism because celebrities constantly remind regular people of what they don’t have and should want. In the game, you need virtual and real money for the Tribeca loft and new Louboutins to project a celebrity lifestyle despite whether or not you can afford it.

Even when you get to the A-list, you still need to accumulate fans to increase your ranking. Curiously enough, Kim Kardashian is not a rankable celebrity. Players don’t compete with her, as she is above the celebrity system because her celebrity is established. Kardashian is the definitive arbiter of Kim K. skills, and ultimately unreachable in her version of celebrity.


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Young Faces, Fast Cars, and the Other NBCs Mon, 15 Apr 2013 14:00:46 +0000 NBCU CableNBC has had a bad year. Several of them, in fact. Perhaps this current crisis will open the network up to innovation and experimentation, and perhaps not. While we look to NBC for signs of life, let’s adjust our gaze a bit and consider two of NBC Universal’s holdings that receive far too little attention: MSNBC and NBC Sports.

First, MSNBC. Its tagline, “Lean Forward,” may have invited ridicule, but the cable news network’s branding efforts have succeeded as CNN’s have outright imploded. Keith Olbermann’s contempt for the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008 solidified MSNBC as the alternative to FOX News. And even though MSNBC starts its programming day with conservative host Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, it ends its primetime lineup with a self-proclaimed socialist, Lawrence O’Donnell of The Last Word. Although the prison reality program Lockup still has a home on weekends, its dominance is waning. In 2011 MSNBC began to carve out a space for more political discussion on Saturdays and Sundays with a four-hour programming block of roundtable shows, Up with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry, followed by two more hours of a standard talking-head program, Weekends with Alex Witt.

Chris HayesIn mid-March MSNBC announced a shuffling of personnel and, in the process, revealed that their fetish for younger viewers did not end with The Cycle or The Rachel Maddow Show. MSNBC pulled 34-year-old Chris Hayes out of his weekend show and moved him to 8pm on weeknights as the lead-in for its progressive primetime lineup and to counter The O’Reilly Factor on FOX News. Hayes displaced Ed Schultz, a 59 year-old, labor-focused host who was moved to a completely new show on weekends at 5pm following a newly announced hour-long show helmed by former DNC spokesperson Karen Finney. Replacing Hayes on Up is another 34 year-old, Steve Kornacki, who was plucked from the youthful foursome at The Cycle. The gap left by Kornacki has been filled by the 33-year-old Ari Melber, a commentator from MSNBC’s best print-journalism friend, The Nation. Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton, and Lawrence O’Donnell remain firmly in place but surrounded by a crop of faces launched into relevancy by the value of young consumers and young voters actively courted by the two Obama presidential campaigns. Is this a schedule or a mobilization?

Next, NBC Sports. In late 2012 NBC Sports announced it would begin airing Formula One races at the start of the 2013 season, outbidding Fox Sports Media Group (owner of Speed Channel) for the U.S. television rights. Formula One is a primarily European open-wheel motorsport, known for its outlandish spending and international racing locales. Team budgets can reach the hundreds of millions, and high-end brands like Ferrari, Mercedes, and Lotus—as well as high-profile international drivers—inspire loyal fandom across the globe. A new F1 circuit debuted in Austin, Texas last November, so the pairing of a new U.S. track with a new U.S. TV home for F1 makes sense.

NBC Sports F1F1 has always struggled to find a friendly audience in the U.S. market; NASCAR dominates here for obvious reasons. Plus, F1 races happen all over the world, which means that viewers who want to watch live must keep very odd sleep schedules throughout a race weekend. Despite the obstacles to acquiring a sizeable audience, Speed Channel aired the races for 17 years but never did much with them. The upside of F1 migrating to the NBC Universal family is in the parent company’s infrastructure and its motivation to court its audience. The new set for F1 commentators is the first clue that NBC Sports has thrown quite a bit of money at this new venture. The network has also partnered with sponsors to offer “Formula 1 Non-Stop,” a split-screen experience that allows viewers to watch a silent frame of the live race as a larger frame (with sound) offers the break’s advertisements. This isn’t available in every break, but it certainly is a convenient way of getting the DVR crowd to at least listen to the ads while they watch the on-track action.

The increased commercialism is apparent in the shift from Speed to NBC Sports, but it just seems redundant in the face of the rampant sponsorship of any motorsport. F1 drivers only win a seat once they secure adequate sponsorship: lose your sponsor, lose your drive. The television audience should be accustomed to that arrangement.

While we hear about new lows at NBC and await an upswing, let’s remember the changes happening within the family. MSNBC revamps its lineup, giving cable news a facelift and shaving a couple of decades off of the authoritative figure staring back at us. NBC Sports takes a chance on a domestically unpopular but globally thriving sport. Both cable networks are actively stalking a quality audience—a young, urban group of consumers that can be as vital to news and sports as it is to comedy and drama. Grandpa Peacock may be floundering, but the kids are holding their own.


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More than Logos: AMC, FX, and Cable Branding Fri, 12 Apr 2013 14:00:02 +0000 amc-something-more-hed-2013Although it is generally accepted that channel brand identities are more important in the post-network era where increased competition pushes networks to keep looking for that next niche (or micro-niche) audience, today’s brands take on a number of different meanings. Brands are made up of paratextual content (slogans, logos, commercials) and discursive meanings, but they can also reflect program development strategies and audience targeting. When channels change their brand, we get a great glimpse of what executives are thinking—or, what they aren’t thinking. Recent shifts from AMC and FX display how contemporary cable channels use brands differently and what that use tells us about the direction of both channels. While AMC’s new slogan cannot cover up its flaws, FX’s extension is a confident, if somewhat dangerous move that reflects the channel’s inventive thinking.

After four years of “Story Matters Here,” AMC unveiled a new campaign during the season finale of The Walking Dead: “Something More.” The move includes an updated logo, including altered typeface for the AMC portion of the icon, and a new color scheme. Linda Schupack, executive vice president of marketing, told Ad Week that the new tagline “speaks to the idea that we’re going to go a little deeper, and we’re going to take a twist where you don’t necessarily expect it.” Schupack also noted that the “More” will serve as a placeholder so the channel can use specific words to describe various shows (i.e. “Something Engaging”) “because the thing about this brand is, we are eclectic, we are not just one thing.”

You could argue that the shift from “Story Matters Here” to “Something More” works as a preemptive move to guide viewers past the halcyon days of Mad Men (which it just began its penultimate season) and Breaking Bad (ending this summer) and into a world where AMC airs more reality shows than scripted originals and where zombies and talk shows about zombies pay the bills. This perhaps signals AMC knows that in order to compete in today’s cable environment, it needs to appeal to more—and different kinds—of viewers.

However, what the changes really reflect is that AMC still lacks direction. “Something More” feels like the weak first draft of HBO’s nearly two-decade old “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO,” which is fitting because AMC once fashioned itself as the new HBO, but confusing now that the channel has moved away from that goal with an injection of reality and syndicated episodes of CSI: Miami. It is telling that AMC’s modifications are less HBO and more like TNT’s various “Drama Is…” campaigns. AMC wants to hold on to the prestige of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and the Sunday drama series as long as it can, but it also wants to appeal to different audience segments during the week. With different portions of AMC’s schedule and development at war with one another, the channel really has no idea what it is, or where it is going. As a result, its new and generic brand is an attempt to cover up, rather than embrace, its eclectic—read: disconnected—programming.

PrintAlthough AMC’s brand shift signifies its problems and lack of imagination, FX’s brand (and channel) extension suggests a high level of measured confidence. FX and its spinoff channel FXX will be branded generationally: FX’s current and older-skewing dramas staying on the home channel , while the younger-skewing comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League will help jumpstart FXX. At the recent upfront, president John Landgraf announced that FX will target adults 18-49, FXX 18-34, and movie-heavy channel FXM 25-54 with the hope that as viewers age, they will move right along the FX family of channels .

This kind of audience segmenting is not new in the post-network era. Big media companies regularly use individual networks and channels to hit different viewer segments. Disney expertly guides female viewers from childhood (Disney Channel) through their teen years (ABC Family), and then finally into adulthood (ABC). Still, FX’s decision to attempt something similar while moving some of its more established series around is fascinating, if risky. Despite the fundamental changes ripping through the industry, there is still a sense that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. FX, one of the most successful and respected channels around, certainly isn’t broken. And there is a chance that this blows up in Landgraf’s face—that the exported comedy’s ratings fall and that the increase in the number of programs in production takes a toll on FX’s creative juices and/or bottom line.

But what Landgraf and FX understand—and why I believe this plan is going to succeed—is that brands just aren’t empty slogans and redesigned logos. At their best, brands reflect and guide particular development strategies that shape audience expectations. They take on a life of their own. Over the last decade, FX grew its brand because it developed good programs people like; its slogan or its logo didn’t matter. In fact, the channel simultaneously established mature dramas and sophomoric comedies, reaching a level of eclectic that AMC so desperately aims for. Thus, whereas AMC’s new slogan reflects its consistent lack of direction, FX’s brand extension embodies its continuous push forward.


From Henry VIII to Flash Mobs: Branding Britain at London 2012 Tue, 17 Jul 2012 12:00:43 +0000 In August, 2008, tuned into NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games, I notice a strangely familiar name scrolling across the screen. Joining Matt Lauer in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony is Joshua Cooper Ramo, introduced as NBC’s official China Analyst. As Ramo launches into a superlative description of China’s sense of optimism and opportunity and its commitment to egalitarian, environmentally conscious economic growth, I remember where I’ve heard the name. A year earlier, he’d written a report called Brand China for the Foreign Policy Centre (UK). China has an “image emergency,” Ramo warned in the report, a major strategic threat that the country’s leaders ignored at their peril. China was seen as unstable, unapproachable, and untrustworthy, according to Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset® Valuator. Unless China’s leaders could align foreign perceptions of the country with its current “reality,” it risked slowing reform and limiting international investment. What China needed was a “white brand,” he wrote, an image “onto which we can project our hopes and dreams and desires in the same way you would project an image onto a movie screen” (p. 26).

Watching him hold forth on The Today Show, I realized that Ramo was the one making and marketing China’s white brand. It helps to know that Ramo is managing director and vice chair of Kissinger Associates, a “geostrategic advisory firm” whose CEO is the former U.S. secretary of state (yes, that Kissinger), and that the Brand China report was funded by the multinational PR firm Hill & Knowlton.

I mention all this not only because I write a lot about nation branding and this is an interesting case for critique, but because with the London Games approaching, I wondered if we’d see the same thing. Would NBC feature a Britain Analyst to help viewers make sense of the country’s geostrategic role? Which erudite figure would grab the media spotlight provided by the Olympics to sell Britain’s brand as still-powerful empire and deserving host of the greatest sporting event in the world? NBC announced their choice in April. The network’s Special Correspondent of the Games of the XXX Olympiad would be … Ryan Seacrest. Hm. While this may say a great deal about NBC’s brand (rumor has it that Seacrest is in line to replace Lauer on The Today Show), it helps us little to understand what image Britain is out to portray on the international stage.

As it turns out, that task fell to none other than British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, in September 2011, launched a “Britain is GREAT” promotional campaign. Coordinated by multiple government departments and foreign consulates, with events in 17 cities worldwide, the £37 million image project is designed to use the Games to jumpstart tourism and increase inward investment and job opportunities in the UK. At a speech for business elites in New York during the launch, the PM explained all the ways that Britain was GREAT, inviting the world to “re-discover the unique qualities that make Britain such a compelling destination – for business and tourism, for innovation and entrepreneurship, for world-class creativity and culture.”

I can feel your eyebrows rising into your hairline. Is this the same country whose 2011 yearbook includes phone hacking scandals, banking crises, looting, and riots? The same government that, upon coming to power in 2010, introduced dramatic austerity measures affecting millions of academics, culture workers, and civil servants? The same Prime Minister whose election campaign was built on fixing “broken Britain”? Such was the tone of incredulity seeping from the domestic media as well as international coverage of the campaign from southern India to Vancouver. All of them questioned how portraits of Henry VIII on billboards, flash mobs with dancers dressed as the Spice Girls and Austin Powers, and double-decker buses wrapped in the Union Jack rolling through Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo could possibly paper over the country’s realities. Or perhaps, critics mused, the version of Britain presented abroad was supposed to be entirely different from the domestic version, in hopes that the aspirational image might serve to pull Britain’s “real” self up by its bootstraps? Or is it, as one journalist put it, a sign that Britons face an “identity crisis,” lost as to “what it means to be British in the world”?

One of the problems with nation branding is that it’s easy to make fun of but hard to take seriously. By this I mean that these media critiques miss the ways in which these national image campaigns are even more problematic than they initially appear. There are a thousand things wrong with the “Britain is GREAT” and China’s white brand campaign. It doesn’t take much to poke holes in these overinflated efforts at aligning image with something called reality. My concern, though, is with the ways this and other branding campaigns express not a renewed national image but a renewed national reality.

In “branding” Britain for the world, Cameron and his cohorts are redrawing the boundaries of the nation as an apolitical, anachronistic space for consumers and investors, while reforming its citizens as stateless, entrepreneurial, business-minded, corporate-creative workers. To say that Britain is GREAT at this world-historical juncture is to dismiss out of hand the current crises bred of political and fiscal hypocrisy, mismanagement, and corruption, to deny the abject failure of our economic growth models, and to subtly shift responsibility for getting us out of this mess away from those most deeply responsible for getting us into it. Turning a country into a brand may give the world flash mobs and circuses. But brand value isn’t the same as moral values, and this campaign won’t do anything to reinstate confidence in Britain’s leaders. Buyer beware.


Diet by Disney? Wed, 04 Jul 2012 14:09:11 +0000

Michelle Obama and Robert Iger jointly announce Disney's nutritional initiatives. Photo: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Disney recently announced new, stricter standards for food and beverage products advertised on its youth-centered TV channels, radio stations, and websites. Disney revealed its new initiatives in a Washington D.C. press conference alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, who’s been campaigning for healthier eating habits since her move to the White House.

The announcement builds on other healthy-eating initiatives by the Mouse House, including a 2006 effort to curtail its character licensing on products high in sugar, salt or fat, ending the partnership with McDonalds that pulled Toy Story characters from Happy Meals. Disney’s latest nutrition standards mean that companies wishing to advertise on certain Disney-owned outlets will have to adhere to stricter limits on calories, sugars, and saturated fat in their products. Popular products like Lunchables and CapriSun wouldn’t make the cut for commercial time under the new criteria. Michelle Obama praised Disney’s move as significant change in the children’s media business, calling it a “game-changer” for childhood obesity in the U.S.: “…for years people told us that no matter what we did to get our kids to eat well and exercise, we would never solve our childhood obesity crisis until companies changed the way that they sell food to our children. We all know the conventional wisdom about that… today, Disney has turned that conventional wisdom on its head.”

Indeed, the move by Disney can be read as significant to children’s media culture. The food and beverage industry has long been the leading advertiser in kids’ TV, dating back to the earliest days of the medium–even before “children’s television” became synonymous with Saturday morning cartoons. Although the new criteria doesn’t go into effect until 2015 (because of existing agreements and contracts, per Disney), any pledge to turn away advertiser’s money in our commercial system is notable, especially from a the particular industry that’s historically been the bread-and-butter of kids’ television.

Disney, however, is in a particularly privileged position to launch such a program because of its diversified yet highly integrated business models. Unlike Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, or The Hub, Disney’s flagship kids channel isn’t ad-supported in the traditional sense (a holdover from its early days as a premium cable channel, where pricey subscription fees form most of the channel’s revenue). Ad-research firm Kanter Media estimated that spending for food and beverage products on Disney-owned children’s programming (on cable and ABC) totaled $7.2 million in 2011. But that figure is less than one-tenth of one percent of Disney’s total annual advertising sales ($7.6 billion across its networks in 2011); the figure becomes even less significant when you consider that all those ad sales make up less than half of the total $18.7 billion in revenue generated by Disney-owned Media Networks in 2011. Annual income from affiliate and subscriber fees ($8.8 billion) and sales/distribution of programming around the world ($2.3 billion) form the bulk of Disney Media Networks’ revenue, according to its 2011 annual report (p. 30). Still, though, this move by Disney may have larger, reverberating effects in the kids’ TV biz as a whole – the publicity Disney’s receiving for “banning junk food advertising” may force other channels/networks that are more ad-dependent to adopt similar restrictions on products advertised in kids’ media culture.

The "Mickey Check" logo indicates food that meets Disney's nutrition standards

But what’s getting less attention is perhaps the most interesting part of Disney’s announcement: the launch of the new “Mickey Check” logo. Products that meet Disney’s new health criteria are not only eligible to air their advertising on Disney’s outlets, but are also eligible to bear the “Mickey Check” logo on their consumer packaging. According to the White House press release, by the end of 2012, “the Mickey Check will appear on licensed foods products, on qualified recipes on and, and on menus and select products at Disney’s Parks and Resorts.”

By appearing to limit food ads to kids with it’s new criteria, the Mouse House is on one hand “taking a stand” and “turning the conventional wisdom of selling food to our children on its head,” to use Michelle Obama’s words. On the other hand, putting a Mickey logo on food products sold via Disney outlets upholds some of the oldest conventions of marketing to kids. Using familiar characters or logos from kids’ favorite media to sell consumer goods is the oldest trick in the book; in fact, a form of this tactic (known as host-selling) was at one time banned by the FCC on television aimed at children. The green check mark and/or the phrase “good for you–and fun too!” hardly do anything to diminish the dominance of the familiar Mickey shape and Disney-lettered logo in the top left; one hardly has to stretch the imagination to see a child in a grocery cart excitedly ask their parents for “Mickey snacks,” regardless of the product. After all, by the age of two most children become quite skilled at brand recognition and logo identification, and struggle to understand the selling intent of commercials and branded merchandise well into their middle-school years (see Kunkel, 1987; Valkenburg & Cantor, 2001).

The potential loss of advertising sales by the “banned” products seems far less risky (and admirable) when you consider the revenue possibilities of licensing the “Mickey Check” to products that do meet their criteria (especially if the Mickey Check becomes an add-on used to up-sell marketers on advertising time with Disney). At best, the new Mickey Check licensing is an obvious attempt to monetize the pseudo-goodwill of this announcement and extend the Disney brand; at worst, it’s a conscious continuation of marketing practices that exploit children’s cognitive development process of becoming educated consumers. Perhaps Robert Iger’s comments to The New York Times sum it up best: “companies in a position to help with solutions to childhood obesity should do just that,” but, he added, “this is not altruistic. This is about smart business.”


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Mascot Media: Framing the London Olympics Mon, 25 Jun 2012 13:00:42 +0000 2012 Olympics MascotsAfter the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the Antenna editors called for reflections on the memorable events and news frames from the Winter Games (March 5, 2010). Starting the ball rolling, a “pet peeve” for Jonathan Gray was the savaging that the organization of the Games received from the British press, what seemed at the time “a desperate attempt to set the bar as low as possible for the upcoming London Games.” In the spirit of equity, it should be noted that the British press has been just as happy to savage the organization of the London Games, a journalistic sport that pre-dates Vancouver and has been particularly acute in discussions of LOCOG’s branding efforts.

As we approach the London 2012 Games, it is worth reflecting on the promotional paratexts that surround the Games, as these are often, too easily, mocked or dismissed in ways that do not sufficiently account for the complexities of promotional design work, or the way that texts such as logos and mascot films amplify clusters of meaning and expectation around media events. The London mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, have been a particular subject of press criticism since their unveiling in 2010 – two sleek CGI characters distinguished by a huge cyclopean camera-eye.  Generating revenue through toy licensing deals, the mascots have also been designed to embody the digital address of the Olympics, inviting children to interact with their “Olympic journey” through virtual encounters on Twitter, Facebook, and an interactive website. While their alien look has led to some very un-childlike descriptions within international media coverage – Vanity Fair calling Wenlock a “ghoulish cycloptic phallus,” the Toronto Sun describing the mascots as “walking penis monsters,” and Twitter postings labelling them “terror sperm” – Wenlock and Mandeville are a deliberate departure from the history of cuddly Olympic mascots first embodied by the cartoon bear Misha at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and carried through to Beijing’s Fuwa mascots. Phallic fears notwithstanding, they assume the appearance of high-tech toys born from – and for – a digital world.

Like the graffiti design of the London 2012 logo, which also received a press drubbing when unveiled in 2007, Wenlock and Mandeville have been given a deliberate multimedia inscription. This is captured in a series of animated mascot films released periodically in the UK leading up to the Games. Viewable online, on British children’s channels such as CBBC, as well as in film theatres, the film shorts began with Out of a Rainbowin May 2010 and have been followed by Adventures on a Rainbow (March 2011), Rainbow Rescue (December 2011), and Rainbow to the Games (May 2012). Animated by the Chinese digital media firm Crystal CG, these films reveal interesting networks of production. In industry terms, the mascot films are the result of multi-level collaboration taking place between British and Chinese creative personnel. While the shorts were written, produced, directed, narrated, and scored by British artists, much of the animation production was completed in Crystal’s offices in London and Beijing, highlighting the rise of Chinese digital expertise in the media  industry sub-sector of promotional design. 

Textually, the animated shorts serve a particular brand function in the UK, selling the Games as a participatory national event and identifying a diverse and youth-friendly selection of British Olympians as its sporting face.  The shorts also, importantly, develop a narrative of media engagement, anticipating the Olympics through mobile screens and social networking sites aimed specifically at children. The liquid design of Wenlock and Mandeville and the use of mobile phones and SMS messaging within the narrative arc of the mascot films both reinforce the digital identity of the London Olympics. While UK factories are figured in the mascot films as central to building the physical infrastructure of the Games, the meaning of the Olympics is vested in the mobile, data-driven world of the mascots. While the new media aesthetic of the logo and mascots has come under fire – one media critic labelling Wenlock and Mandeville “appalling computerised smurfs for the iPhone generation” – the entryway paratexts of London 2012 are more interesting than these sniffy descriptions suggest. Not least, they reveal the changing way that media brands, including the Olympics, are seeking to reconstruct themselves for the converged digital media environment. To what extent the London Games lives up to aspirations of being the first digital Olympics, and whether the mascot films become mere fig-leaves for impending organizational pratfalls, remains to be seen.  


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