Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Anarchy

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The 27 club knew a thing or two about sucking all the marrow out of life, and the recent Cloverfield Paradox shock-drop revealed the marketing industry is dealing in when it comes to the unexpected. From film to fashion, music to gaming, Gareth May explores the rise and rise of surprise.

Super Bowl LII. New England Patriots trailed the Philadelphia Eagles 22-12, Justin Timberlake was blowing the lid off Twitter with that Prince ‘hologram’, and in LA everything was tickety-boo in the power-halls of Hollywood. And then a Netflix-shaped wrecking ball smashed the movie marketing machine to smithereens.

In American Football terms, the streaming site threw a Hail Mary and came down clutching the entire fucking game.

The surprise-dropping trailer for The Cloverfield Paradox, the (sort of) highly anticipated third film in J. J. Abrams’s alright-ish sci-fi franchise, made the film available to stream right after the game. Social media lit up as people realised a blockbuster they thought they weren’t going to see until the summer became an instant post-match possibility.

Viewing data gatherer Nielsen, which began measuring streaming platforms back in 2014, put the initial viewership at around 785k viewers, then 2.8 million over three days, jumping to 5 million by the close of the week (by comparison, Will Smith’s Bright had 11 million viewers after three days). Throw in the fact that the film bombed critically, presently holding 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s easy to see why CNN scathingly wrote on Twitter: “The Cloverfield Paradox splashes, then crashes on Netflix.”

But this isn’t entirely true; the splash was made in the marketing pool and it was on a par with the apocryphal Keith Moon Rolls-Royce incident.

“In any marketing there is always a need to innovate constantly. The number of times you see a brief with the words ‘media first’ or ‘think up the fresh’ or ‘cut through the noise’ – there’s always that need by a client to do something different. They never want to do the same as before,” says Andrew Timms, senior marketer and executive producer at film and entertainment marketing agency Think Jam.

Netflix certainly ticked that box. They reached over 100 million viewers in one go, blindsided consumers and movie gurus alike, and got the world tweeting (something we’re still doing some two months after the event).

“To suddenly just drop a film like they did with Cloverfield, it’s disruptive, it pricks people's ears up but at the end of day, that’s what marketing is all about,” Timms says. In contrast, he points to the traditional marketing timeline for a medium sized film which is not part of a franchise as a first image in the established film press; a teaser poster; a teaser trailer; a trailer; and maybe some other piece of AV, maybe like this ace remix of the Baby Driver trailer. That’s four or five bits of content over six months.

In 31 seconds, Netflix flicked two Vs at all that – and the industry at large. Tight-lipped execs had channelled the rabble-rousers of the 1970s and Sex Pistols-ed the shit out of the prestigious Super Bowl spots. This was punk marketing. Anarchy was here.

Want it now, have it now

The movie landscape is in huge flux, with the last decade seeing unprecedented change in the number of ways people can watch films –whether it’s on-demand services, such as Curzon Home Cinema (often the home of limited release ‘art-house’ films with a near-simultaneous theatrical and streaming release), or the US-only cloud-based Movies Anywhere, the subscription-free service set up by Disney, Universal, and Warner.

This latter example shows how traditional studios with traditional platforms are having to do battle with much smaller, more nimble operators. As Timms says, “They’ve having to be smarter, and think about the consumer and how they want to view their content.”

But haven’t we seen this before? The established headliner competing with the upstart support act for top billing? As the cigar smoke clears on Cloverfield it’s easy to ignore the smouldering butts in the ashtray. The music industry has been doing the instant-release gimmick for years, mostly as a response to, or in tune with, the rise of their own streaming spectres (Napster, Last.fm, Spotify et al).

They’ve refined the process to such an extent that the term ‘pulling a Beyoncé’ is even defined in the Urban Dictionary as: “To suddenly release a work to the public without any leaks, warnings, or promotion, as Beyoncé did on December 13, 2013 #unexpected.”

Not that it always works. In 2014, U2’s Songs of Innocence was automatically uploaded to 500 million iTunes accounts with withering reviews of both the music and Bono’s ‘get it even if you don’t want it’ arrogance.

But it’s not just impromptu albums. This peek-a-boo pandemonium is also rife in the fashion industry, with the days of post-catwalk blues replaced with the runway-to-retail approach where collections are put up for sale the minute the last model steps out of the spotlight.

When Burberry launched its ‘see-now, buy-now model’ in 2016, breaking with a 50-year tradition, then-CEO Christopher Bailey MBE told Vogue he wanted to “create a moment” instead of having buyers wait six months after the initial thrill. 

The culture that we’ve got at the moment, this ‘everything now’, this desire for constant gratification, the Cloverfeld model is perfect. It’s like, ‘Boom, I can gorge myself on this straight away, I don’t have to wait.

And Timms says this instant gratification for consumers is the key to these sudden campaigns. “For this ‘everything now’ culture that we’ve got at the moment, the Cloverfeld model is perfect,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Boom, I can gorge myself on this straight away, I don’t have to wait, it’s right there, and if I don’t like it, I can just turn it off.’”

There’s an obvious reason for embracing the art of the sudden drop: consumers lap it up. But why?

Unboxing the surprise

Pete Townshend breaking a guitar. Jimi Hendrix humping one. Rock has its fair share of surprise moments and they’re not always memorable for the right reason. They are memorable though, and that’s really the point.

Barbara Mellers, professor of psychology, is an expert in the concepts of choice and surprise. She says that “surprise acts like an intense-o-meter”; whether it’s a proposal of marriage from a soulmate or an encounter with a dead cat in the freezer, surprise intensifies our emotional response. So if it’s a good surprise, “the pleasure associated with it increases relatively to the same thing if it was expected”.

This is why, according to Mellers’ research, if you bet on the horses, a shock £20 win on a long shot is more pleasurable than a £40 expected win on a 2-1. In fact, neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz puts this increase in emotion due to surprising conditions up by a fortifying 400 per cent.

In other words, ‘surprise’ Cloverfield number three gets consumers 400% more pumped than ‘expected’ Cloverfield number two (even if it did star John Goodman). That’s one way to solve Difficult Second Album Syndrome; don’t tell a soul you’re releasing it.

“With surprise you can also have a sense of scarcity; the feeling that you better rush and hurry up and get it soon before everyone else does,” Mellers explains. So surprise marketing is doing two things to the consumer. Firstly, it’s thrilling them. And secondly, it’s telling them to get a move on.

It’s also doing a third thing. That age-old trick (and something that guerilla marketing prides itself on in particular): getting people talking.

Word of mouth is the reason Red Bull launched in the US by rocking up to colleges and construction sites in a Mini Conversion with a red and silver can on the back, and why big corporate brands let social media feeds ‘gone rogue’ (like The Last Blockbuster or WWE Subway Experience) do their thing. Because they’re doing marketer’s job of promotion, getting peepers on the product and asses in stadia.

 

“It makes great sense to weave surprise into marketing,” says Tania Luna, co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected. “It’s the ultimate attention grabber. It propels interest and enthusiasm, and is an excellent way to get people to notice your message.”

Luna says surprise literally pauses our brain for an estimated 1/25 of a second, essentially rebooting our grey matter with all our attention on the thing that’s surprised us. That’s part of the reason we do what Luna describes as the ‘duh’ face, as our body is bought to a car crash halt and our brain questions what it’s witnessing. 

Surprise propels word of mouth, leading us to share positive experiences with an average of six people. And in a world where every social media user is a news anchor looking for stories, it’s easy to see why ‘surprise’ is particularly coveted.

But here’s the kicker: Luna also says surprise creates a “cognitive burden in our brains”. And the way we release that burden? By telling people about the unexpected thing we have experienced.

“We have found in our own research that surprise propels word of mouth, leading us to share positive [and surprising] experiences with an average of six people,” she explains. “And in a world with social media, where every user is a news anchor looking for stories to share with their audience, regardless of size, it’s easy to see why ‘surprise’ is particularly coveted [by marketing creatives].”

Content overkill

The rewards of a successful surprise campaign then are mega – more interest, word of mouth, and sometimes even a story that sticks around long after the initial marketing campaign is over. But, Luna says, companies are still very scared of using surprise as a tactic because, by definition, it’s tough to predict outcomes. And by and large, the more successful a company is, the greater their loss aversion. 

Timms agrees, saying that to pull a stunt like Netflix did you’ve got to be confident and you need someone like JJ Abrams, who is a known risk taker, at the head of it. “Because inherently, if you’ve spent 250 million on a film, guess what, you want to get a return on that investment. That’s why people tend to default to the typical [and safer] marketing timeline.”

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Typically small companies or initiatives with more to gain than they have to lose (e.g. Blair Witch’s unique promotion tactic, because they couldn’t afford a mainstream campaign); companies that pride themselves on taking big creative risks (e.g. Boring Company’s flamethrower sale); and, lastly, companies with structures that reward, or at least do not punish, risk taking (BrewDog, despite their recent Pink IPA failure, fit the mould here).

“Netflix is a perfect example of the latter,” Luna says. “They don’t really care how well one movie or show does, all they care about is how many people subscribe. It’s a culture that encourages agility, risk taking, and very little bureaucracy. This creates the perfect place to experiment.”

But you have to be careful, she warns. “Surprise can have lasting power if the substance of the product is high enough, but it can quickly fade if substance is lacking.”

The video game industry is an example of this gluttonous, ‘fuck it’ approach, with the industry’s early forays into the use of what Timms calls “shock and awe” marketing a study in overkill. For a publicity stunt for Resident Evil 5, for example, Capcom Europe hid bloody fake body parts around London and held a competition where the winner received a trip for two to Africa. Capcom then lost some of the limbs.

“I remember when there was the Call of Duty [Modern Warfare 2] premier in Leicester Square. A lot of my film colleagues were like, ‘Oh shit, they’ve got big money now’,” he says. “They had the swagger, like, ’We’re big players in the entertainment business now, we’re not just something 16-year olds with acne play in their bedrooms.’”

As much as the game was a critical and financial success, being one of the bestselling games on the Xbox 360, it also garnered unprecedented controversy for a level where the player took part in a terrorist attack. Critic Marc Cieslak said at the time that he “thought the games industry had moved beyond shock tactics for shock tactics’ sake” and suggested the industry still had a lot of growing up to do.

As Timms says there’s a fine line between innovating and doing something daft for the sake of it: “Over-exposure can lead to content fatigue, which in turn can lead to diminishing returns.” Nearly a decade after that West End ‘premiere’ the gaming marketing industry has rolled things back, innovated and evolved. Now, culturally accepted as a viable entertainment for all demographics, they’re the Keith Richards of entertainment marketing; cutting out the crazy and enjoying life sagely.

Out are bloody limbs on the city streets and in are short burst campaigns in the form of online presentations. Such as Nintendo Direct, where the Japanese giant unveils world exclusive forthcoming titles, current game extras, and future releases with as little as three days’ warning. It’s that sudden-drop ethos once again, only this time it’s not shouty shock and awe – it’s considered and controlled anarchy.

In the words of poet and The Doors vocalist Jim Morrison: “Where’s your will to be weird?” Just make sure it’s a ‘weird’ with meaning.


Gareth May is a freelance journalist. He specialises in food and drink, sex and relationships, and gaming and tech - read all articles here.

This article featured in our SOUND CHECK issue, check out more articles and back stage insights in our debut publication.