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Laura’s Word 12 September 2013

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Miley Cyrus, DC Comics and brand hara-kiri

Laura’s Word 12 September 2013

Most brands have the odd misstep or major catastrophe they’d like to consign to Room 101.  It might be a disgruntled employee yucking up all over your pizzas on YouTube. Maybe the common sense department came down with a major tummy bug just before you sent your new print campaign to press. Or, hey, maybe the ‘don’t kill the dog’ rule just happened to slip your mind (as it did with a recent Pearl Izumi campaign that resulted in the brand having to shell out $10,000 to a dog adoption charity). But while most mistakes can be put down to an unfortunate series of events or human error, somewhere down the line there are some brands that seem to have a death wish. A full-on staring into the abyss, nihilistic, death wish. 



I’m not just talking about brands that churn out bad ads or bland ads (the sort that College Humor sent up brilliantly in their recent parody ‘Every Tech Ad’), like the best way to increase your market share is to patronise people to death. Rather, it’s the brands whose every decision is one more step towards wilful self-destruction.


Prime culprits this week are the Miley Cyrus brand (like totes obvs) and DC Comics. Just a week and a half after the erstwhile tween darling Hannah Montana took to the stage at the MTV VMAs to do unspeakable things with foam fingers, teddy bears and Robin Thicke she’s released a music video that sees her making out with a sledgehammer. Not wishing to launch a personal attack on Cyrus, who is after all a sheltered 20-year-old on the receiving end of some terrible advice (“showing the world your insanely long tongue at every opportunity is a good look”, for example), I’d rather focus my ire on a marketing and PR team that have mistaken an Oscar Wilde quote for cutting edge strategy. “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. Really? I love The Picture of Dorian Grey as much as the next effete pseudo-emo, but even I have got to acknowledge that things have moved on. Plus Oscar Wilde also wrote about art and beauty and aspiration and truth and a whole bunch of other things that Team Cyrus have opted to leave out of this phase of the publicity attack.


Yes, the Wrecking Ball video has broken all sorts of YouTube records, reaching 19 million viewers in the first 24 hours, but how many of these views were the result of genuine, positive fan engagement? And how many were people doing the online equivalent of rubber-necking a car crash? The insight that the quantity of likes and clicks is nowhere near as important as quality of engagement isn’t exactly news. Billy Ray’s gal has made a splash and people can’t stop talking about her for now (see… this column) and there will be some quick big bucks to be madebut it ain’t sustainable. The poor girl reckons she’ll make the history books, presumably nestled between Michaelangelo and Mussolini.


DC Comics meanwhile have been attracting the wrath of a largely female group of nerds, geeks and graphic novel aficionados. The publisher has been in trouble with their female fanbase for a while. Two years ago they re-launched a slew of their most popular titles and in doing so trimmed down the proportion of female creatives and pumped up the boobs of many of their high profile female characters. When confronted in interviews and panels by fans and bloggers, writers and publishers responded with derision. In December, Batgirl writer and the lady who coined the phrase ‘women in refrigerators’, Gail Simone, was let go from DC. Creative differences were cited, but comic industry commentators have suggested that it may have been related to her unwillingness to comply with the sexist policies. 



In August DC Comics launched a competition for aspiring artists looking to break into the industry. Only the competition in question invites artists to submit a picture of a a sexy, naked female committing suicide. Sex and comics have a long a deliciously seedy history together, but for fans and commentators writing in blogs and social media, the sexualisation of suicide and the exploitative nature of the competition was a step too far. Plus for a company that is suffering from a lack of female creative talent (1 per cent of the talent pool), the competition looks like it has been designed to be as off-putting as possible. 


Girls and women make up a growing proportion of comic book readers (and gamers), and yet they continue to be marginalised and objectified on the page and in real life at comics events. So unsurprisingly, when readers find a female character they love and can relate to, they do tend to become protective. Harley Quinn, the, errr, ‘star’ of the competition is one such fan favourite.
Rather than engaging with the negative response, contest collaborator and comic inker Jimmy Palmiotti helpfully explained that those complaining didn’t understand the ‘Chuck Jones Looney Tunes humour style’. Ah. Gee thanks, mate.


The DC thing might seem like a niche issue, but they’re a major entertainment concern touching every area of the lucrative pop culture landscape, from movies to video games. What’s more, DC are trailing behind their competitors at Marvel in terms of mainstream penetration and market share. One could see their Superman Vs. Batman movie as an all-too-obvious attempt to catch up with the cleverly developed Marvel movie universe. Maybe they reckon a few shock stunts will be enough to bring the brand back to the forefront, but in reality ignoring and insulting a sizaeable and growing section of readership is probably not the smartest route to success. 


I’ve been mulling over the DC debacle and the Miley Cyrus thing quite a bit this week. They have a lot in common, making the same mistakes. While DC are determined to exclude and ignore the growing legions of potential female readers, the team behind Miley Cyrus approach are determined to ditch the army of young fans who are still growing up. I guess you can only be welcomed as a brand evangelist as long as you are the right kind of fan? (Because that approach has totally worked for Abercrombie & Fitch, right?). Both brands are pretending to be something they’re not, falling over themselves to prove how cool and edgy they are… and in the end it’s just all a bit lame. 

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 11 Sep 2013 17:00:21 GMT