Strange Overtures: Vodephone, Tchaikovsky, Ernie Kovacs and the “Wowness” of New Media

One of the great joys of our present moment is waking up to some delightful gift — a compelling bit of media content — sent to you by friends, family, or in this case, a former student (Eric Schmiedl). Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the ways that YouTube has brought back many aspects of the vaudeville aesthetic that I discussed in my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic:

The video below is a great example — an advertisement produced in New Zealand for Vodephone which offers us a spectacular technological performance, one which calls attention to the emerging properties of our media environment in several ways.

First, of course, the video demonstrates some of the expressive potentials of mobile phones, not to mention the prospects of using digital media to coordinate signals within a complex structure. This is a compelling example of technological virtuosity. My first response was to go “Wow” and in our modern age, “wowness” is a hard earned quality. Here’s what I wrote about it in my recent book, The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture::

Consider the singular beauty of the word ‘Wow.’ Think about the pleasure in forming that perfectly symmetrical phrase on your tongue. IOmagine the particular enthusiasm it expresses — the sense of wonderment, astonishment, absolute engagement. A ‘Wow’ in something that has to be earned, and in the modern age we distribute standing ovations far too often when we are just being polite, but we have become too jaded to give a wow. The term takes on a certain irony, as if it can only be uttered in quotation marks.

This immediate, visceral response makes this the kind of content you want to “spread” to others in your social network. Eric forwarded it to me; I’m posting it on my blog and sending it out through my Twitter feed; and perhaps you will like it well enough that you will pass it along further. This is at the heart of what we are calling “spreadable media.” And trust me, the folks at Vodephone are not going to be heartbroken at our circulation of their commercial message. They no doubt think this video has gone “viral” — It didn’t, god forbid. But a bunch of us did decide, for our own reasons, to keep it in constant and varied circulation.

One of the ways that Vodephone has found to extend our engagement with this video has been to create a “Making Of” segment which is in many ways just as fascinating as the original. That’s the great thing about technological virtuosity — we can admire it even when the magician invites us behind the red velvet curtain and shows us how he does his tricks. I am reminded of what the French media theorists Christian Metz wrote about “trucage” or what we Americans call “special effects.” That they are “artifaces” that are not so much hidden as proclaimed. When we all watch Avatar in a few weeks, we are not going to simply be immersed into the world of the film; we are going to stand back and gasp at the spectacular breakthroughs in special effects which have been publicized around the making of the film. And this fascination with how they did it will in no way diminish, may in fact increase the emotional impact of what we are seeing.

This being the age of participatory culture and interactive media, Vodephone takes this a step further on the webpage they’ve constructed around this advertisement, which allows us to take the basic building blocks behind this spot and remix them towards our own ends. This thus completes the process of technological amazement — allowing us to experience first hand the delights of expressing ourselves through ringtones.

When I first saw the Vodephone spot, though, I was reminded of a much earlier moment of technological virtuosity and the vaudeville aesthetic. Take a look and you will see why.

Ernie Kovacs was a spectacular visual comedian who worked in the early days of American television. Kovacs exploited for comic effect our heightened awareness of the visual properties of this new and emerging medium. Television was not yet ambient; we had not yet started to take the visuals (which, after all, are what separated television from radio) for granted. Kovacs counts on us not being able to take our eyes off the screen.

So, why do both of these artists draw upon Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1880 composition, 1812 Overture, as the basis for their spectacular performance. I suspect there are many reasons, starting with the fact that the 1812 Overture embodies the high art status we ascribe to classical music. New media seeking to gain recognition often signal their cultural ambitions by drawing on works which we already respect from older media traditions. They do Shakespeare or Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Second, these works at the same time poke fun at the cultural hierarchies they seek to transcend — there’s something really profoundly silly about the ways they are performing or illustrating the 1812 Overture in these segment. And finally, at least in the case of the Vodephone ad, they respect the complexity of this particular composition as a way of demonstrating their own mastery over the new technologies involved. The Vodephone ad would not be nearly as absorbing or engaging if the phones were playing Chopsticks or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

So, if you want to learn more about our concept of spreadable media, check out the webinar which I will be conducting with Sam Ford and Joshua Green on Friday 6 November (from 12-1 pm EST). Registration is free!

Moving from “Sticky” to “Spreadable”: The Antidote to “Viral Marketing” and the Broadcast Mentality

Based on years of researching how and why people spread news, popular culture, and marketing content online through the Convergence Culture Consortium for the past several years , our speakers are currently working on a book entitled Spreadable Media. This Webinar will look at what “spreadable media” means, why the concept of “stickiness” is inadequate for measuring success for brands and content producers online and ultimately why marketers and producers should spend more time creating “spreadable material” for audiences than trying to perfect “viral marketing.” In this one-hour session, the speakers will share the ideas and strategy behind “spreadable media” and a variety of examples of best–and worst–practices online for both B2B and B2C campaigns.

This panel will address:

— The concept of “stickiness” and why it cannot solely be used as a way to measure success online;

— How and why viral marketing does not accurately describe how content spreads online;

— Why a “broadcast mentality” does not work in a social media space;

— The strategy companies should undertake when creating material for audiences to potentially spread online;

— Companies that have learned difficult lessons and/or gotten the idea of “spreadable media” right;

— Trends in popular culture/entertainment one which brands should keep a close eye;

— How “spreadable media” might apply to B2B audiences.


  1. says:

    I find this site of locally created, expressive ring-tones spreadable media.

  2. I’ve just stumbled across this splendid site and am particularly saddened to have missed this webinar. Is there anyway I can access a recording?

    Many thanks,


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  6. KateSudarkina says:

    Can you imagine your life without Earphones ? I think you can’t because you get used to life with music nowadays.

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