the frequency a kenny chung blog

Survivor was the first hit reality show in the United States (if you don’t count MTV’s The Real World), and with it, came many implications for the way viewers consumed content. Outside of news and game shows, it was the first time a lot of consumers were actively watching “real” people – People they could connect with and relate to. It made for more engaging television.

One could even say that the logical extension of this was the celebrity-obsessed culture in which we currently live. Millions hang onto every letter of Lady Gaga’s Tweets. The President of the United States was elected partially as a result of his campaign staff’s ability to reach young voters through new media. Television shows invite people to live Tweet to feel like they’re part of the show.

But before Twitter was invented, and before Survivor aired on CBS in America, there was a different type of television entertainment that blurred the lines between reality and entertainment, where the viewers “knew” the people they saw on the screen. This medium was professional wrestling.

In professional wrestling, there’s a script and there are actors (both in-ring wrestlers and outside talents, such as managers, interviewers, etc.). Wrestling differs from a lot of other types of performance art because the action doesn’t just take place on stage (i.e. the ring). Instead, viewers are privy to backstage segments, where they can learn how feuds start, see who books the matches, and even witness the preparation that wrestlers have to undergo before and after their matches. And all throughout, they are in character. Imagine if you watched a Shakespearean play on Broadway, and then were able to see the actors backstage preparing to enter the scene. Except they wouldn’t be actors playing the characters; they’d be the characters themselves.

The term “kayfabe” was invented to describe the act of purporting all on-screen wrestling events as real life. This extended beyond the ring and beyond pro wrestling television programming. Hulk Hogan and Mr. T appeared on late night talk shows in character to promote the very first WrestleMania (Hogan also infamously choked out Richard Belzer and was successfully sued). It was a big deal when the public learned that Hacksaw Jim Duggan (a “babyface”, or good guy) and Iron Sheik (a career “heel”, or bad guy) were travel buddies and drove together to events (this was an example of “breaking” kayfabe). And in possibly the most famous example of kayfabe dedication, Jerry “The King” Lawler had a feud with Andy Kaufman, which saw them meeting in the ring across various territories, appearing together on late night talk shows (which resulted in fisticuffs), and Kaufman taking with him to the grave the degree to which all of it was scripted. It wasn’t until 11 years after Kaufman’s death that it was revealed with certainty that the feud was a “work”.

Jerry The King Lawler delivering a piledriver to Andy Kaufman

So how does this relate to marketing? Let’s use Samsung as an example. As of late, they’ve been insistent on blurring the lines between reality and marketing. The Oscar selfie with Ellen DeGeneres was probably the most popular instance. The actual photo, along with many of her shout-outs to the brand during the Oscars, were just part of a well-coordinated promotion for the new Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phone. That selfie also broke all sorts of Twitter records.

Even more recently, “Big Papi” David Ortiz signed a private deal with Samsung prior to the Boston Red Sox’s trip to the White House. When Ortiz met with President Obama, he asked for a selfie; this selfie was taken with his Samsung phone. The White House was not pleased after finding out that the POTUS would be used as part of a marketing campaign without his or their consent.

In these two instances, Ellen and Big Papi took these selfies in kayfabe. We were led to believe that Ellen genuinely wanted to make social media history by taking a photo with other celebrities. We were made to believe that David Ortiz simply wanted to document meeting President Obama (Samsung denies asking Ortiz to take a photo with the POTUS). Both of these tactics worked, and got Samsung the type of buzz (and notoriety) they presumably wanted.

But sometimes, when you break kayfabe, it has severe repercussions on your brand. Another top Samsung spokesperson is NBA star LeBron James. He has starred in commercials for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which portray him using it in everyday situations. But the audience knows that the LeBron featured in those commercials is putting on a show because it’s clearly a product ad. So what happens when LeBron’s Samsung phone malfunctions in real life, deletes all of his data, and he Tweets about it to his 12 million followers? Well, for one, some quick social media backtracking. And then damage control by Samsung.

LeBron James' now deleted Tweet

In professional wrestling, there’s always an assumed suspension of disbelief on some level. Otherwise, how would it make sense that two guys who hate each other will wait every week and travel hundreds of miles to fight each other in a squared circle via non-lethal means in front of a referee?

This new type of reality “viral” marketing is essentially real-life product placement. Maybe it’s time that all consumers start sharing the same level of skepticism.

March 28th, 2013
according to

The following notes are from the presentation titled “For Good Measure: Brand Measurement in a Digital World” at SES NY from Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

Note that these are just my notes, and I am not necessarily endorsing any strategies, tactics or POVs stated therein.

NASA is great at social media! Oh wait, the video above was created by someone who couldn’t stand how bad NASA was at social media.

On the one hand, this does show that NASA has fans and supporters passionate enough about the direction and future of aerospace research to take it upon themselves to improve the brand.

On the other hand, it’s a bit troubling that a governmental agency with such great brand recognition and funding could fail so miserably in the online space.

Link: Awesome Viral Video Bashes NASA’s Social Media Efforts

We all associate celebrities and public figures with brands and products. There’s Jared from Subway, Justin Long and Apple, Paul Reiser and AT&T One Rate Plus. OK, that last one was a joke, but true (though I’m sure this newest generation is neither familiar with the actor or service… or touch-tone phones).

Sometimes, a person transcends a brand or becomes their own- Michael Jordan with Air Jordan, Derek Jeter’s 24 Hour Fitness, and countless fashion designers. But there are also in-between scenarios when people become so synonymous with a brand that they become the face of a company- for better or for worse.

Sometimes, it makes perfect sense- like Dave Thomas and Wendy’s (he was the founder). Other times, it’s a stroke of luck, like Andy Azula (you may never have known his name, but you’ve definitely seen his face. He’s the UPS whiteboard guy, and actually the creative director who had a hand in thinking up the commercial concept).

So is it prudent to put all of your eggs in one basket in terms of branding/presenting the face of your company?

Dave Thomas of Wendy's

Let’s take the Dave Thomas Wendy’s example. He had been a great spokesman for 13 years and was perfect for the brand (since the company was in essence his). But when he died in 2002, due to health complications, the company took a huge hit in the advertising space. Wendy’s no longer had a face and was forced to reinvent itself. They tried to leverage Wendy herself (a caricature of Dave’s daughter), but that was very forgettable. In fact, it’s been 8 years, and I doubt if any significant number of people could name a specific Wendy’s ad campaign from the last two (sorry Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners). We certainly haven’t had another “Where’s the beef?” moment.

On the other hand, let’s take a look at Tiger Woods. He was, at one point, an almost ideal spokesperson for sports-related products. We had the Nike and the Gatorade sponsorships. But then all of his many sexual infidelities reared their ugly heads, and the companies that endorsed him had to make an important choice. Nike famously backed Woods and acknowledged his problems. Gatorade, however, dropped him quickly. The sports drink company could afford to. The Gatorade brand was already well-positioned and built up. The company also had a slew of other available sports stars at their disposal to take Tiger’s place. Now imagine if instead of Gatorade, a smaller up-and-coming company paid for the face of Tiger as its exclusive spokesperson. It probably wouldn’t have the luxury of a star-studded celebrity supporting lineup. But their brand would also suffer a huge blow from which a smaller company might not recover.

So back to the question at hand: should you trust your brand identity to a single person? Well, it depends. Sometimes you take what you can get. Other times, you keep backup options, because scandal and death could always be around the corner. Either way, you should always have a backup plan. No excuses.

One more extreme example- anyone remember those ShamWow commercials with their overly annoying spokesperson Vince? Well, he was charged with beating up a prostitute. Not exactly great PR…

ZYNC is a charge card that American Express launched last year. The target demographic is younger adults and teens (you can read more details about ZYNC in this article). The thing about younger target audiences is that it’s hard for established/traditional (read: older) companies to find a way to connect with them through the right channels and with the right message.

Last month, The National played a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was at least partially sponsored by American Express in promotion for the ZYNC card. Since the concert was to benefit AIDS, YouTube and VEVO live-streamed the entire set of The National. There was a general atmosphere of altruism at the show and AMEX definitely played a part in it.

Fans of The National are generally young, skewing a bit hipster. Therefore, it was a great opportunity to promote a charge card aimed at young people who have enough expendable income to pay for concerts. In addition to having the AMEX and ZYNC logos plastered everywhere, there were also people handing out business-sized cards with a download code to get a free MP3 and Video download from the show. On the back of this card was a picture of the AMEX ZYNC card.

AMEX ZYNC promotional materials for The National at BAM
AMEX ZYNC Promotional materials from The National show at BAM

I went to the website listed and entered my code and e-mail address. I received a confirmation e-mail with AMEX branding and then promptly forgot all about it.

A little less than a month later, I got the following e-mail:

The National AMEX ZYNC promo email

What a great promotional campaign. American Express really did their homework and I give them an A for hitting all the marks.

The National performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
A picture I took of The National performing at BAM in Brooklyn

And here’s a video I recorded of The National performing “Fake Empire” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from May 15, 2010.

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