Independent Researcher in Media Studies

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.