05 December 2014 1945 Views

That “The Walking Dead” Spoiler and the Death of Viral Marketing

by Caleb Hamilton

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As soon as the east coast airing of the mid-season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead ended this past Sunday, the various social media accounts associated with the program posted a huge spoiler to the dismay of millions of fans around the world who had yet to see the episode. This has happened before, but not for The Walking Dead. NBC spoiled the death of Danny Matheson during Revolution. The stars and producers of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. live tweet every episode – even the Executive Editorial Director of Marvel’s Digital Media Group, Ryan Penagos, gets in on that action. Is this to build hype or is there something much more sinister and scolding behind this behavior? Could this be the end of viral marketing? Find out after the jump.

Since posting the spoiler, the Facebook page of The Walking Dead has issued an apology and vowed to never post a spoiler (early) again. Not just for The Walking Dead social feeds, but for all AMC social media feeds. Why did this happen? How did it happen? We may never know, but we have to give AMC the benefit of the doubt that it was an honest mistake. The east coast had just seen the episode and this picture goes out across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Millions of followers and fans are exposed and all AMC can say is “oops.”

Isn’t it the responsibility of the social media managers for these programs to make sure that the surprise of their content is protected instead of posting a picture to generate hype that’s already there? The Walking Dead is one of, if not THE, most-watched shows on cable. AMC doesn’t need to generate hype this way – they’ve won everyone over and posting the death of a character sure isn’t going to bring anymore viewers in. But was this really a mistake and if not, was it really to generate more hype for the #1 show on TV?

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With the advent of “live blogging” official accounts and those directly have begun to find it appropriate to punish the DVR and OnDemand audiences and reward those who watch live. It’s no longer about creating buzz and viral marketing – it’s about dollars and ratings. Early adopters gave them the buzz and now that nearly everyone is on board with these various shows and brands they feel that it is okay to spoil the biggest parts of the episodes because they think everyone is watching live.By doing this, they kill buzz instantly. The Walking Dead thought they were going to create some sort of positive buzz for the episode with their spoiler, but they just ruined it for millions of fans and killed any buzz they hoped to gain.

Hulu hurts providers such as Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner because you don’t need to subscribe to them to enjoy your shows. Just pay $7 a month (for Hulu Plus), watch the commercials and you’re up to date at the water cooler the next morning at the office. Now all of that has changed. Certain programs on Hulu require proof of subscription to a cable provider, much like HBO GO – even if you pay for Hulu Plus. It tends to be the more popular programs on ABC and NBC, like Scandal or  The Blacklist. The cable providers probably signed a deal with the networks and pressured Hulu into to making the highly-rated content unavailable without paying for a monthly cable subscription. Hulu claims this policy is to give you “faster” access to content, but you still have to wait until the next day just like everyone else. What used to be a voluntary action is now mandatory. It is not fair.

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Personally, I have had these thoughts for a while. You start to notice little things here and there. Announcers urging you to watch live at the end of promos for next week’s episode. Little hashtags show up during the program, #watchlive. You can no longer fast forward through many OnDemand titles. The Marvel people started live blogging Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., posting spoilers on Twitter and new this season, posting spoilery gifs on Tumblr. This kind of backwards, malicious “viral marketing” is going to hurt the networks in the long run. TV networks are not the only culprits in the downfall of viral marketing though.

At MovieViral we thrive on viral campaigns. We’ve watched the rise and fall of viral over these last few years. It all started with Cloverfield and 10.18.08. Studios hired marketing firms like 42 Entertainment to create elaborate online and real world Alternate Reality Games (ARG) to bring audiences into the world of the movie. These were huge projects: from Why So Serious for The Dark Knight to Flynn Lives for TRON: Legacy. Even food processing companies employed the use of viral. Wrigley’s 5 Gum ran an extensive campaign that encouraged humans to tap into their hidden potential in Mission Icefly. Now studios are opting to do their own viral campaigns in house.

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Most recently, Universal launched a campaign for Jurassic World. They shot themselves in the foot by posting that the teaser trailer would debut on Thanksgiving even though the countdown they created still ran. Then they debuted the trailer two days early. The countdown ended on Thanksgiving night and was replaced by the trailer. By then, everyone had seen the footage and didn’t care about the viral campaign or the trailer. The millions of people watching the football game on NBC saw it on TV. There wasn’t any need to visit a viral site and take part in a campaign. This may have been done to avoid being crushed by the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, but that’s a whole separate issue.

Movie studios and TV networks are killing what was once an innovative and exciting new way of engaging audiences and letting them be a part of the entertainment experience instead of being just consumers. They were rewarded with props and posters. Bragging rights. They even got a bit of exercise when they participated in scavenger hunts at Comic-Con or one of the cities chosen to host a dead drop. MovieViral would not exist if it weren’t for viral marketing. I would not have met some of the friends I have now if it weren’t for viral marketing. I probably wouldn’t have a job right now if it were not for viral marketing.

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Please find a way to bring back the ARG. If not the multi-city scavenger hunts, just reserve those for big events like San Diego Comic-Con. Bring back the online puzzles and secret mailings of prizes. Stop the trailer countdowns and the teasers for the teaser trailers. If anyone at Universal Studios is reading this right now, I wrote a blueprint of an ARG for Jurassic Park if viral marketing were a thing back in 1992. It contains some great suggestions for an ARG perfectly tuned to the tone and story of Jurassic World. It looks like you’ve already implemented a couple pieces of it.

All of the goodwill networks and studios have built up over the years is going to run out. How will you bring the fans back when they’ve abandoned you? Just some observations I’ve made and (as I stated before) some thoughts I’ve had for some time now. Stop spoiling your shows and movies. Let fans ruin it for each other. Be responsible and protect the surprise. This is what I don’t get about the hate people spout about J.J. Abrams and his Mystery Box approach to filmmaking. He values the surprise and tries his damnedest to keep it. Even if it means blatantly lying about the identity of a character that everyone knows isn’t who you say they are. Stop punishing people who choose to watch later. People have lives and can’t always catch your show live. Stop killing viral marketing.



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