Advertising as Entertainment

Mysterious images appear on the television in my hotel room. Look closely and you may spot Thor’s hammer and an Acura automobile.

Notes from WonderCon 2011

The San Francisco version of Comic-Con, known as WonderCon, is a combination convention, festival, and weekend-long party for fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, and other genres of popular entertainment. It’s an opportunity for fans to see clips from forthcoming sci-fi and fantasy movies and television shows, meet celebrities, and shop for comic books, action figures, and similar fare. It also may provide a glimpse of the future of marketing.

One of the ad campaigns at this year’s WonderCon was a transmedia event jointly promoting Marvel Studios’ upcoming film Thor and the Acura automobile. Acura is apparently the official automobile of S.H.I.E.L.D., the fictional spy agency in the Marvel universe. According to Variety, this is the first film partnership for the luxury car company, for which advertising agency RPA has crafted a multifaceted marketing campaign — one that came knocking on my hotel door the first morning of the conference.

When I answered the door I was handed a card that stated, “You have been selected. Report to channel 72. Your official debriefing begins now.”

“Channel 72? On the TV?” I wondered. I turned on the television and switched to channel 72.

A series of mysterious images rapidly flashed across the screen. “Media Confiscation. Record number: 34857.” The image of a meteor crater. A governmental-looking logo.

On multiple viewings I could spot flashes of Thor’s hammer and quick — one might even say subliminal — shots of a car: an Acura.

The video asks, “Do you accept?” The spot ends with a web address: JoinSHIELD.com.

I went online to JoinSHIELD.com. The single page on the site thanked me for “considering global employment opportunities at Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division” and asked for my email address. I obediently entered it.

After leaving the hotel and heading toward WonderCon at the Moscone Convention Center, I encountered a tent guarded by a figure in a SWAT-like military costume patrolling a line entering the tent.

A sign proclaimed, “S.H.I.E.L.D. ID Badge Line Starts Here” A sleek black Acura was on display.

I asked a young woman who has just received her S.H.I.E.L.D. ID what the card would do for her. She wasn’t too sure, saying “They’ll send you viral stuff or something.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see young fans lined up to participate in marketing campaigns at WonderCon. Many of the presentations at Comic-Cons are, in fact, largely promotional events hosted by major movie and television studios.

While WonderCon hosted a number of sessions on the creative, historical, and sociological aspects of comic books and popular entertainment (“Breaking into Comics the Marvel Way,” “Goal-Setting for Creative Types,” “The Evolution of Comics in the Transmedia Space,” etc.), the largest events were those sponsored by the studios in the Moscone Center’s 5,000-seat Esplanade Ballroom. The marketing bent of these presentations was quite evident. Many sessions opened with the trailer for a forthcoming film or TV show. Near the end of one session the host shouted, “Wouldn’t you like to see that trailer again?” The crowd roared and then sat through the extended commercial for the second time.

For their rapt attention at these infomercials, the fans receive special rewards. They are the first to see nine minutes of footage from The Green Lantern staring Ryan Reynolds. They view the first publicly-shown footage from Tarsem Singh’s The Immortals. They may have the opportunity to ask a question of one of their favorite stars during one of the panel sessions. The fans trade their time and attention for bragging rights and logo-themed T-shirts. As entertainer Chris Hardwick characterized the appeal at one of the panels, “I have a thing you don’t have, other nerds. So you lose!”

I, too, waited on line for my S.H.I.E.L.D. ID. I don’t know why. Nonetheless, I filled out the form, entered my name and address, and checked a box agreeing that, “Yes, I would like to receive more infromation from S.H.I.E.L.D. and Acura.”

I now have my S.H.I.E.L.D. ID. I await the “cool viral stuff or something” that may ensue.

In a world cluttered with commercials trying to reach this key demographic of avid movie, TV, and pop culture fans, at WonderCon they wait in line to surrender their contact information in order to receive additional advertising. Welcome to the future of marketing: advertising as entertainment.

The screenshots and marketing collateral in this article may be copyrighted materials, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the production companies or the advertising agencies which created them. It is believed that the use of a limited number of web-resolution screenshots and scanned images for identification and critical commentary on this material qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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