Guerrilla Marketing?: An Interview with Michael Serazio (Part One)

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 1 – Revolutionary Advertising: Creating Cultural Movements from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

From time to time, I have been showcasing, through this blog, the books which Karen Tongson and I have been publishing through our newly launched Postmillenial Pop series for New York University Pop. For example, Karen ran an interview last March with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, author of of the series’s first book, Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stage of Empire. This week, I am featuring an exchange with Michael Serazio, the author of another book in the series, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing, and I have arranged to feature an interview with the other writers in the series across the semester.

We were lucky to be able to feature Serazio as one of the speakers on a panel at last April’s Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change conference, see the video above, where he won people over with his soft-spoken yet decisive critiques of current branding and marketing practices. Your Ad Here achieves an admirable balance: it certainly raises very real concerns about the role which branding and marketing plays in contemporary neo-liberal capitalism, calling attention to the hidden forms of coercion often deployed in approaches which seem to be encouraging a more “empowered” or “participatory” model of spectatorship. Yet he also recognizes that the shifting paradigm amounts to more than a rhetorical smokescreen, and so he attempts to better understand the ways that brands are imagining their consumers at a transformative moment in the media landscape. His approach is deeply grounded in the insider discourses shaping Madison Avenue, yet he also can step outside of these self-representations to ask hard questions about what it means to be a consumer in this age of converged and grassroots media.  I was struck as we were readying this book for publication that it was ideally read alongside two other contemporary publications — Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in Brand Culture (see my interview with Banet-Weiser last spring) and our own Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green). Each of these books comes at a similar set of phenomenon — nonconventional means of spreading and attracting attention to messages — through somewhat different conceptual lens.

You will get a better sense of Serazio’s unique contributions to this debate by reading the two-part interview which follows.

You discuss the range of different terminology the industry sometimes uses to describe these emerging practices, but end up settling on “Guerrilla Marketing.” Why is this the best term to describe the practices you are discussing?

 

Conceptually, I think “guerrilla” marketing best expresses the underlying philosophy of these diverse practices.  To be certain, I’m appropriating and broadening industry lingo here: If you talk to ad folks, they usually only think of guerrilla marketing as the kind of wacky outdoor stunts that I cover in chapter 3 of the book.  But if you look at the logic of branded content, word-of-mouth, and social media strategies, you see consistent patterns of self-effacement: the advertisement trying to blend into its non-commercial surroundings – TV shows and pop songs, interpersonal conversations and online social networks.  Advertising rhetoric has long doted upon militarized metaphors – right down to the fundamental unit of both sales and war: the campaign. 

But when I started reading through Che Guevara’s textbook on guerrilla warfare, I heard parallel echoes of how these emerging marketing tactics were being plotted and justified.  Guerrilla warfare evolved from conventional warfare by having unidentified combatants attack outside clearly demarcated battle zones.  Guerrilla marketing is an evolution from traditional advertising (billboards, 30-spots, Web banners, etc.) by strategizing subtle ad messages outside clearly circumscribed commercial contexts.  Guerrilla warfare forced us rethink the meaning of and rules for war; guerrilla marketing, I would argue, is doing the same for the ad world.

 

Let’s talk a bit more about the concept of “clutter” that surfaces often in discussions of these advertising practices. On the one hand, these new forms of marketing seek to “cut through the clutter” and grab the consumers attention in a highly media-saturated environment, and on the other, these practices may extend the clutter by tapping into previously unused times and spaces as the focal point for their branding effort. What do you see as the long-term consequences of this struggle over “clutter”?

 

Matthew McAllister had a great line from his mid-1990s book that tracked some of these same ad trends to that point: “Advertising is… geographically imperialistic, looking for new territories that it has not yet conquered.  When it finds such a territory, it fills it with ads – at least until this new place, like traditional media, has so many ads that it becomes cluttered and is no longer effective as an ad medium.”  I think this encapsulates what must be a great (albeit bitter) irony for advertisers: You feel like your work is art; it’s all your competitors’ junk that gets in the way as clutter. 

As to the long-term fate of the various new spaces hosting these promotional forms, I don’t have much faith that either media institutions or advertisers will show commercial restraint if there’s money to be made and eyeballs to be wooed.  I think eventually pop culture texts like music tracks and video games will be as saturated as film and TV when it comes to branded content; journalism, regrettably, seems to be leaning the same direction with the proliferation of “native advertising” sponsored content.  Facebook and Twitter have been trying to navigate this delicate balance of clutter – increasing revenues without annoying users – but here, too, it doesn’t look promising. 

Maybe if audiences wanted to pay for so much of that content and access which they’ve grown accustomed to getting for free, then maybe clutter is not the expected outcome here, but I’m not terribly sanguine on that front either.  The one guerrilla marketing tactic I don’t see over-cluttering its confines is word-of-mouth just because as a medium (i.e., conversation) that remains the “purest,” comparatively, and it’s hard to imagine how that (deliberate external) commercial saturation would look or play out.

 

There seems to be another ongoing tension in discussions of contemporary media between a logic of “personalization” and individualization on the one hand and a logic of “social” or “networked” media on the other. Where do you see the practices you document here as falling on that continuum? Do some of these practices seem more individualized, some more collective?

 

Really interesting question and here I’ll borrow Rob Walker’s line from Buying In on the “fundamental tension of modern life” (that consumer culture seeks to resolve): “We all want to feel like individuals.  We all want to feel like a part of something bigger than our selves.” 

The guerrilla marketing strategies that are showing up in social media probably best exemplify this paradox.  On one hand, brands want to give fans and audiences both the tools for original self-expression and simultaneously furnish the spaces for that networked socialization to take root.  On the other hand, all that clearly needs to be channeled through commercial contexts so as to achieve the “affective economics” that you identified in Convergence Culture

I look at something like the branded avatar creation of, say, MadMenYourself.com, SimpsonizeMe.com, or Office Max’s “Elf Yourself” online campaign as emblematic pursuits in this regard.  The “prosumer” can fashion her identity through the aesthetics of the brand-text (i.e., personalization) and then share it through their social networks (i.e., it’s assumed to be communally useful as well).  But, as I note in a forthcoming article in Television & New Media, these tools and avenues for expression and socialization are ultimately limited to revenue-oriented schemes – in other words, corporations are not furnishing these opportunities for self-discovery and sharing from an expansive set of possibilities.  They’re only allowed to exist if they help further the brand’s bottom line.

Michael Serazio is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication whose research, writing, and teaching interests include popular culture, advertising, politics, and new media.  His first book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013), investigates the integration of brands into pop culture content, social patterns, and digital platforms amidst a major transformation of the advertising and media industries.  He has work appearing or forthcoming in Critical Studies in Media CommunicationCommunication Culture & CritiqueTelevision & New Media, and The Journal of Popular Culture, among other scholarly journals.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and also holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of San Francisco and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.  A former staff writer for the Houston Press, his reporting was recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Awards and has written essays on media and culture for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Bloomberg View.  His webpage can be found at: http://sites.google.com/site/linkedatserazio

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  1. […] Do you remember Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Philly? If I may, I would like to call this Occupy MSP3421, by AKA ‘DJ Oldspice’. The first task I want to accomplish in this digital essay is to quote Michael Serazio’s, “The Apolitical Irony of Generation Mash-Up: A Cultural Case Study in Popular Music”, so that I can justify why I’m writing about a popular late night TV show. Serazio writes, “Hybridization, recycling, and irony—the holy trinity of pop culture today—seem entrenched in the entertainment industry and entwined in the material it puts out” (Serazio 79). This digital essay will explore the cultural case study of Conan O’Brien’s Television episode called “OCCUPY Conan”. My working conclusion is that this obvious trend of user-generated Media content creation is going to explode with such applications as Adobe After Effects; and this trend is in it’s infancy regarding the life cycle of “Creating Cultural Movements” (Transmedia, Hollywood 4: http://henryjenkins.org/2013/09/guerrilla-marketing-an-interview-with-michael-serazio-part-one.html#…). […]