Why Adland Could Learn a Thing or Two from Game of Thrones Superfans
OK advertising. I have a confession. We see hundreds of interesting, innovative social media campaigns and while my official response is something along the lines of ‘wow, that’s insightful and creative’, there’s a part of me that thinks ‘who the flip [not flip] chooses to ‘be a fan’ of a washing up liquid?’ In fact, the whole concept of fandom is something that I’ve always felt conflicted about. Perhaps my ego is just a bit too unwieldy and overdeveloped, but debasing myself at the altar of a pop star, football team or brand is not something that’s ever really appealed. But then on Monday morning I went to the touring Game of Thrones exhibition in London’s O2… and I went total fan girl.
In modern advertising, fandom is something agencies both crave and take for granted. Of course the general public will fall over themselves for our latest, beautifully crafted buy-one-get-one-free offer. Of course all of these thousands of Facebook likes represent an emotional connection and a deep admiration on the part of the punter. But more often than not (insincerely fluffing influential adland stars aside), unencumbered enthusiasm isn’t something that happens inside the industry. We’re all just too sophisticated and savvy, dontcha know.
Conversely, of course, it’s the work that shows an empathy and understanding of what it’s like to be a real fan that is often the most enjoyable and exciting. The aforementioned Game of Thrones exhibit was just such a project. Publicis London, PBJS and POKE London have collaborated with HBO and Sky to add a new, interactive element to the exhibition, allowing visitors to turn into wights, be torched alive by dragons and take selfies with White Walkers. And, dear reader, I social media’d the absolute shit out of it.
Why? It got to me, not as a journalist, not as someone who writes about creativity and advertising and innovation every day, but as full-on nerdy fan (pity my poor companion who had never watched the show or read the books). It’s kind of liberating to let go of your professional scepticism and just openly, happily and unashamedly geek out.
But even I couldn’t match the levels of obsession of the cosplaying superfans who also turned up to the press preview. One woman had turned up in a lovingly handcrafted replica of Margaery Tyrell’s wedding dress. We thought she was an actress – until someone from Publicis told us that she and her husband have turned up to every exhibition on the Game of Thrones tour (it’s been to Belfast, Toronto, Iceland and Amsterdam already).
And this is where the concept of fandom really makes me feel awkward. On the one hand the very public declarations and disproportionate self-sacrifice required to be a superfan make me cringe. It also, I’ll admit, makes me horribly judgy. Aware of my nerdy viewing and reading habits, our glorious leader/founding father/office distraction machine Matt Cooper once asked me, “So, Laura, do you speak Klingon?”.
My response was something along the lines of “Definitely-not-fudge off. Is that what you think I am?” For one thing, I don’t even particularly care for Star Trek. Yeah, I know I’m an awkward geek, I thought, but I’m not that bad.
Because on the dark side of my superfandom super-cringe is a lurking awareness that it all looks quite fun. I’m probably, deep down, just a bit bitter that I’m too sensible and self-aware to dress up like I’m in Game of Thrones, stipulate that I want to be buried in a coffin shaped like a can of Diet Coke or get myself a tattoo of the Irn Bru man.
As for me, fandom didn’t sit well with me when my primary school friends were lusting over Boyzone and it still feels weird. I kind of like the idea that identity is fluid and context dependent, I don’t like the feeling of being boxed into one category or another. I don’t really like the idea that I’m defined by the things I like. Still, losing yourself in a bigger wave of enthusiasm is not unappealing.
To be or not to be a fan? Freud suggested that humans were torn between Eros and Thanatus – our sex drive and a death wish – and I suspect that in the modern, connected world our inner conflict might be a tad shallower than that. Coolness versus Fan-atus.
There are more opportunities than ever to connect with the bands and brands we love – and it’s infinitely easier to follow our favourites on Instagram than to wait patiently for our fortnightly copy of Smash Hits. At the same time we’re able – even encouraged – to craft our outward image on social media, carefully curating our likes and dislikes to persuade friends, future employers and random Internet strangers (hey guys!) that we’re far less lame than we actually are. Online communities allow the truly devoted to find each other, to form friendships and venture out in public together dressed as their favourite video game characters. On the other hand, platforms like Buzzfeed and reddit allow millions to anonymously snigger at the poor sods who didn’t quite nail the cosplay or whose friends didn’t quite have the heart to suggest that maybe they should rethink their costume.
The whole business of being a 21st century fan does present brands and ad agencies with new communities and opportunities as well as new ways to segment the world (should this new car launch target Breaking Bad enthusiasts or World of Warcraft lovers? And even then, Horde or Alliance?). But it also presents new challenges as image-crafting, social pressure and unprecedented attention to detail means that brands can’t always be sure that they’re talking to ‘real’ fans. They also risk incurring the wrath of highly mobilised Trekkies or Bronies if they take a pot shot at the wrong community or, even worse, insincerely or inauthentically insert themselves into fanspaces (hence brands tend to give reddit a really wide berth).
Still, this week I got to see fan engagement done well. I even lost myself in it for a little while myself.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to harass George RR Martin about not having finished off The Winds of Winter…