FSN Conversations: Social Media Campaigns

One of the other conversations that happened during the Fan Studies Network Conference 2014 – on Twitter, in fact – was spurred by Nistasha Perez’s paper, “The Creation of Official Tumblr Accounts in Online Fannish Spaces: Examining Integration of Fannish Practices By Media Corporations.” As I was live tweeting the presentation, it was observed that successful campaigns – Hannibal being notable in this regard – seemed like nothing so much as a triumph of soft power. And I do think it’s related to soft power, a term that’s undergone revision since Joseph Nye introduced it in 1990, and which he currently defines as

“the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes” (Nye 2011, p.20-21)

However, to my mind, what a show/marketing campaign like Hannibal demonstrates is the extent to which successful ‘co-opting’, ‘framing’, and ‘persuading’ are all contingent on a significant degree of producer acquiescence to fan values; which is to say, at least in the case of Hannibal, what we’re talking about isn’t straightforward message –> receiver transmission, even of the appropriated variety, but rather a much more delicate balance of message and mode of address that, of necessity, plays out across multiple fields.

NBCHannibal on Tumblr is famous amongst Tumblrites as one of the few social media campaigns that ‘gets it right’. It’s playful use of gifs, tags, and (arguable regifting of) fandom memes, such as photoshopped images of the narratively grim characters sporting bright flower crowns, demonstrates that someone is both paying attention to, and speaking the language of fans; and, in turn, the campaign has attracted positive attention to the show amongst a comparatively small but vocal group of online fans. As such, it would appear to be the very embodiment of Nye’s notion of soft power above.

Yet, all of this online activity is successful, in part, because of two things that exceed the Tumblr campaign alone: one, it’s grounded in a demonstrated respect for fan creations, passion, and interests. NBCHannibal, along with other successful social media campaigns, ‘reblogs’ (or circulates) fan art for, critically, the express purpose of appreciating (rather than ridiculing) it, it joins in excited conversation about past or upcoming episodes of the show, and, in particular, joins in the rather macabre jokes that circulate within the fandom. And, two, this respect for the fans is picked up by the Hannibal team itself. There are two instances of this that really stand out, both of which took place at the 2013 Comic Con, when panelists (including showrunner Bryan Fuller and star Hugh Dancy) donned flower crowns

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and then proceeded to declare fan fiction – and, in particular, Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter (‘hannigram’) slash – perfectly fine with them.

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And this is critical: what makes NBCHannibal’s Tumblr so successful isn’t simply the fact that it speaks (or appropriates) fan language so skillfully, but that everyone is on message – a message that is grounded in explicit respect for the show’s fans (critically, too, it only takes one dissonant note – one quote from one interview, such as Bryan Fuller’s interview with The Backlot that drew some fan criticism of queerbaiting – for the entire structure to begin to weaken).

This is the price, if you will, that Hannibal’s marketing team must pay for its soft power to have any real efficacy, one that belies the seeming ease with which soft power is able to “elicit positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes.”

It seems simple enough, and god knows it should be. As I discussed previously, there actually are media markets where (female) fans’ money is as good as anyone’s. Yet, to judge by less successful social media campaigns in which fan passions are mobilized

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for only as long as it takes to air an episode

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and demonstrate that fans are really ‘virgins‘ and losers in disguise, this price is apparently, for many producers, far too costly to be worth the investment.

3 thoughts on “FSN Conversations: Social Media Campaigns”

  1. I agree the Sherlock cast/crew can do better, but there’s some counterpoints missing here.

    -Fuller’s said more than ‘one’ comment. He’s been incredibly rude and dismissive of fans on Twitter as well, getting into spats more than once with people who were polite with legitimate concerns. Worse than Moffat was on it, and that’s saying something.

    -The ‘losers’ is a direct reflection of Gatiss. He was the Dr. Who fiction-writing fanboy who didn’t fit in by his own admission. That’s why the fans in TEH are the only ones who know what’s really up.

    -It’s an inaccurate comparison when you’re contrasting a newer, smaller and relatively less intrusive fandom with a larger, older and often boundary-crossing fandom. The cast and creators aren’t jaded enough yet (and in Hannibal’s case, they can’t afford to lose a single viewer in theory) to have defensive kneejerk reactions. But if you look at fandoms more similar to Sherlock, ie. Supernatural, you’ll find frustrated cast/crew as well.

    You reap what you sow, and the Sherlock fandom has done some pretty bad things. You can pull older quotes–ie. Cumberbatch circa 2012 talking about how ‘cool’ slash fanart is, same with Freeman–and you’ll see them sounding much like the Hannibal crew of now. But the fandom tenor changed, and the crew/cast changed in response.

    For example, I know everyone likes to blame the media for shoving sexual depictions in their faces without their consent, but the fans have been doing it for years now; it’s like the dirty secret no one wants to admit to. They’ve even had graphic art presented to them at events for signing.

    In short, if I had this fandom, I love to think I’d do better but I doubt it if it’s under this level of objectification and dehumanization. You can only handle so much weight before it threatens to collapse you.

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m not going to do a comment-by-comment response, but I’d like to address the main gist of what you write.

    I appreciate your frustration – I’m painting both the Hannibal and Sherlock teams in broad strokes here. This is mainly because these two perceptions – of Hannibal generally being ‘on message’ and Sherlock often hitting off notes – are how the two are broadly perceived; which is to say, of course there are examples that run contrary to both these perceptions – there are in every show/fandom – but this is how they’ve played out in much of fannish perception, and it’s that perception that I’m primarily concerned with in this piece.

    If you’re unfamiliar with my fannish blog on Tumblr, you won’t be aware that my primary (and active) fandom is actually Sherlock, not Hannibal, and I don’t disagree with much of what you say here at a personal level. My individual take on TEH is that it was intended as more love letter than not (but, within my own circle of Sherlock fans, this is something of a minority opinion); that said, while Gatiss – and Moffat, as well – are certainly fanboys of old, their own fannishness – to me – seems particularly gendered. They don’t seem to know quite how to handle the presence of so many female fans (yet), and they tend to fall back on stereotypes of female fans when they’re at a loss as to how to respond. I’m sure this is at least partly influenced by their interactions with some fans, but I also think it’s the result of broader social discourses in which female fans are perceived as the worst kind of fans – too emotional, too invested, too passionate (or, to put it in more popular mass media terms, “rabid,” “rapacious,” “crazy,” etc.) – I think, in other words, that it’s too easy to fall back on stereotypes when they’re at a loss as to how to respond. This – speaking quite personally here – is something I wish they could figure out new responses to – and I say that with particularly love of Mark Gatiss.

    As far as fans themselves are concerned, I’m not sure it’s especially useful to talk about how fans of one fandom are worse or better than those of another, particularly since that’s not really what’s at issue here. In any fandom, you’re going to find fans who step outside the bounds of propriety (and that’s as true of small fandoms as massive ones). I do disagree that it’s all fans; journalists have historically found it expedient to throw female fans under the bus in celebrity interviews (Graham Norton in the above clip is notorious for this, although I’m glad to hear he didn’t in the latest interview with Benedict Cumberbatch – and I will say that, in that clip, Martin Freeman really finesses it beautifully – to my mind, he’s the most skilled at navigating the tricky waters of fan interactions). Personally – speaking as a fan, not an academic here – I can’t help but wish there were a fannish code of conduct of sorts for celebrity interactions.

    All of which is to say, I don’t disagree with much of what you write here, but my main concern is the general perception of the two teams/social media campaigns, since it’s those broad perceptions that, in the end, are what linger in the public imagination, and in that sense, Hannibal often succeeds where other shows – Sherlock included, but not alone – flounder.

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