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.

Now, this isn’t an entertainment blog, but I must comment on Dia Frampton on the reality television singing competition The Voice on NBC.

I’ve been a fan of Dia for about five years, ever since I randomly caught her band Meg & Dia on a random local TV show one night. I’ve seen them in concert four times, and met and spoken to Dia twice (yes, she is as marvelously awkward in person as she appears on the show).

But that’s neither here nor there. The tagline of this blog entry posits that Dia is a social media success. To fully understand why, let’s consider an abbreviated history of Dia Frampton’s music career.

Dia Frampton’s Musical Career
Raised in Draper, Utah, Dia and her sister Meg Frampton formed the eponymous band Meg & Dia. The arguable tipping point of their rise to fame came after they performed at Warped Tour 2006. The band entered a contest on MySpace to be selected to perform at the MySpace sponsored tent. After a stroke of bad luck, their account was disabled due to some user-submitted malware. But then Tom Anderson (yes, that “Tom”) reached out to the band himself to offer them the gig (to be honest, I gleaned a lot of this information from the Meg & Dia Wikipedia page, but then again to be fair, I wrote and edited a lot of that article).

From then and beyond, Meg & Dia grew their cult following, primarily through Internet promotion. Their on-site forum had thousands of members, who affectionately referred to themselves as “Boardies” and all this fandom eventually led to a record deal with Sire Records and Meg & Dia’s first major label release. The band was eventually dropped from the label, which is the reason why Dia was eligible for The Voice.

Dia Frampton performing with Meg & Dia at Webster HallDia Frampton performing with Meg & Dia at Webster Hall

Social Media and Reality Television
A little over a year ago, American Idol decided that its contestants would no longer be able to Tweet from their personal Twitter accounts. Many speculated it was because there was a very strong correlation between a contestant’s number of followers/mentions and the likelihood of him or her being voted through to the next round by fans. This was obviously a big deal for a television show that prided itself on nail-biting suspense.

Fast forward to The Voice (which is more often than not referred to on-screen as #TheVoice, another response to the social media age). Much like the current trend with cable news networks, The Voice relied on the social media timeline for user-generated content, going so far as to have a dedicated backstage “social media room.”

I personally have never seen any other television show embrace social media as much as The Voice has. Anyone who’s watched even a single episode can tell you that it seemed as if every commercial break was preceded by a Twitter update; Trending Topics were the holy grail, with no instance of a contestant/performance trending going unnoticed.

At the time of the finale aired, these were the contestant’s Twitter follower counts:
-Beverly McClellan: 31,400
-Vicci Martinez: 43,566
-Javier Colon: 68,344

And lastly was Dia Frampton, who blew all the other contestants out of the water with her 85,905 followers (a significant percentage were from before it was even announced that she would be on the show, another example of Meg & Dia’s loyal following).

So what happened on tonight’s episode? Unfortunately, Dia was the first runner-up. She may not have won, but the trend that American Idol feared a year ago returned to The Voice. The two members with the highest number of Twitter followers were the top 2 vote-getters. I can’t say it was unexpected, but it was still surprising how much a single show could embrace Twitter.

Does it take the surprise out of reality television shows? Probably. But does it even matter? Not necessarily. Social media is all about community building, and you can’t ignore or censor someone’s popularity in this digital age.

Did The Voice do it right? The answer to that one is probably “no” as well, but it’s a good start and perhaps other programs will follow suit. Engaging your audience and making them invested in your programming is almost never a bad thing.

Meeting Dia Frampton at Webster Hall (Nov 2010)
Meeting Dia Frampton at Webster Hall (Nov 2010)

Update: Oops! I didn’t realize that The Voice only aired “Live” on the East Coast and inadvertently ruined it for a friend by Tweeting about it (and this article). But that definitely brings to mind another great point about the power of Trending Topics and communities. The show was able to generate so many Trending Topics from just a fraction of the US population! But again, sorry if I spoiled anything!

Creative Commons License
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.