The current drive for celebrity was never quite clear to me. Achieving fame (or infamy) seemed less like a goal than a result–of taking shortcuts, making a lot of noise, unleashing a massive promotional effort or releasing a sex tape. It didn’t appear to have anything to do with talent or creation or good content.
Once in awhile, very talented people become famous by creating something of note. When this happens, I always think it’s due to timing; the writer, director, musician, artist or actor tapped into the zeitgeist. The new norm, however, is that one should be famous before anything has been created. This is not: Build it (the creation) and they (the audience) will come. This is: Build your audience and the creation will come. Hopefully.
In my mind, talent wins out. Genius is plucked from obscurity. Good effort pays off. Meaningful communications win hearts and minds. But I think this is all happening less and less these days. The loud and present voices are winning the battle for attention. Or are they?
Have a non-fiction book proposal? Here’s what you might hear from a publisher: “How big is your platform?” This means: how many fans do you have? Let’s say you have twenty thousand followers on Twitter. Your publisher just might think that’s a guarantee of twenty thousand sales. How funny. Clicking a follow button does not guarantee a sale. If it did, superstars on Twitter could open a movie. Clearly, they can’t, but the truth of this is getting lost somewhere in translation.
If being famous (or faux famous) is a requirement to get your book sold, your script made, your…you know what I mean…then we will only get the product of self-promoters and the results of previous successes. The broadcast television industry has replicated this for decades through spinoffs, doing shows with recognizable stars, etc, but networks like HBO have demonstrated that sometimes, quality wins out. But in HBO’s case, it’s HBO that’s doing the promotion. This network has branded itself as a purveyor of quality so we all (those of us who subscribe) pay attention when HBO debuts a show. And in HBO’s case, the shows are always worth watching. And speaking of branded networks, AMC has also done an amazing job. With Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, The Killing, AMC has launched and carried these shows under their umbrella. Same with Showtime, TNT, USA Network, Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, A+E, E!…etc. Apparently, cable television knows how to promote and still believes in the power of the brand to stand for something. Even the broadcast networks believe in their brands, though their content focus is narrow. If you showed me a comedy or drama pilot, I bet I could tell you which network bought it.
Personally, I think promotion belongs with the big brands. Movie studios, publishing houses, movie theater chains, and bookstores (and what’s left of the music labels) have an opportunity to become brand umbrellas for content they believe in. Instead of relying solely on a tent-pole strategy, it would be interesting to see them spend energy building up their attitudes, their personalities, and their audience, instead of relying on individual artists, titles or movies to do all the work. Disney does this very well. I wonder what would have happened if Barnes & Noble had created ads for their stores instead of for the Nook. Might those ads have increased traffic in bookstores? We’ll never know. The best example of the big brand advertising is Apple. There are thousands of apps on the iPhone, but the iPhone will outlive them all. In the movie theater industry, Rave Cinemas and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema are both building communities around a branded experience. I hope this becomes a trend.
Without the destination/umbrella brands, what’s left is a fractured, noisy crowd of individuals shouting, “Pay attention to me!” The result of this is the personal brand developed by self-promotion machines, the attractive and media-trained—with some kind of an audience in tow. There may be a backlash to this fame thing, but I don’t see it coming any time soon. I watch the Today Show and see the authors promoting their titles and I think: well packaged, nice media training, pretty dress, good make-up, smart parry…but I forget their names as soon as the segment is over. You know what I would remember? This is a Random House book or it was published by Simon & Schuster or Macmillan–unless, of course, the author was actually famous. I may forget names but I always remember that this singer won American Idol, this is a Disney movie, and you can find the book on Amazon.
Clearly, I am a fan of big brands. A sophisticated brand is a shortcut to an experience or a product that I probably want. Brands edit noise. But if you follow the current wisdom and want to make a splash, get those Twitter followers up, launch your Facebook page and YouTube channel, and get that elevator pitch down. Be advised, though, that you will be competing with a well-equipped army of self-promoters with time on their hands. I recently met a would-be-author with 10K Facebook page likes. He told me his goal is to reach 100K. He hasn’t even written one word of his book. Becoming famous is a full-time job.