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vampires among us
marketing to the pop culture moment
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
8.4.08
television

Hey, did you know vampires are real?

See, this Japanese company invented this synthetic blood, and it's being sold as a beverage, so vampires can drink that instead of attacking humans, and now they've decided to come out and better mesh with human society. They're totally among us.

It hasn't been an easy transition, obviously. All over New York City, you can see competing posters for and against the Vampire Rights Amendment, with the anti-vampire side crying "Vampires Are Immoral" over a broody vampire face and the pro-vamp side declaring "Vampires Were People Too" over class-picture-type photos of respectable, normal looking people. Tensions are high all over. Pro-vampers are defacing the anti-vamp posters (a strategic T makes the key word "immorTal") and anti-vampers are doing the same with their opponents' posters (coloring in fangs and blacking out eyes, scrawling "KILLER" in huge letters all the way across).

But -- you say vampires AREN'T real?

But these posters, they're real. The Vampire Rights Amendment. The ads for the synthetic blood replacement, TruBlood. There was a "Vampires Were People Too" ad in my most recent Entertainment Weekly.

What could the explanation be?

To mash up two ad taglines: "Is it live? No, it's HBO."

Poor HBO. They've lost, wrapped up, or cancelled every show that put them on the map: No more "Sopranos", no more "Sex and the City", not even "Deadwood". Their new stuff used to be blisteringly successful, can't-miss water cooler material. Now it's more like "Well, 'In Treatment' doesn't sound too bad." Or, "I saw an episode, and I don't think 'Tell Me You Love Me' is as boring as everyone says." Even the final season of the beautifully crafted "The Wire" came up empty-handed in the Emmy nomination derby this year. The lush "John Adams" miniseries raked in the noms, but as for scripted series, HBO didn't get a seat at the table.

Sorry, pay cable maestros. You've been pwned.

By AMC.

That has to hurt.

In the young adult market, vampires are hot. Like, crazy hot. Ridiculously hot. Stephenie Meyer (who takes bodyguards to book signings, I kid you not) just released the hardcover of Breaking Dawn, the last book in her insanely-successful "Twilight" series. The movie version of the first book, Twilight, is about to hit theatres. (Although judging by the Entertainment Weekly cover of the two stars, their lead vampire is less "delicately pale" and more "powdered all over like a donut".) Heather Brewer's YA series "The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod" started with Eighth Grade Bites and has moved on to Ninth Grade Slays, with Tenth and Eleventh grade books in the pipeline. The YA shelves of your local bookstore are packed with fangs and stakes and bat-boys.

Those crazy kids, they can't get enough vampires.

But now we're moving on to something new, or should I say, HBO is. "True Blood" (for that is the name of the show) will be an interesting watershed for them. Because this show is actually aimed at adults, who haven't been the primary vampire market since Anne Rice's heyday, before we laughed our asses off at Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (out-acted by a tiny, creepy Kirsten Dunst) in Interview With the Vampire.

(Yes, I remember "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". Aimed at a late-teen demographic, therefore not an adult show, and by the way, not really that much about vampires.)

HBO debuts "True Blood" -- based on a novel, and adapted for the screen by Alan Ball, creator of "Six Feet Under" -- in early September. And between now and then, I'll be fascinated to find out: when is HBO actually going to start advertising the show?

These posters, I have to tell you, they're fascinating. For a couple of weeks I thought the TruBlood beverage ads were real -- incredibly tacky, but real. Then I really looked at one, and saw the fine print: HBO reminds vampires to drink responsibl.... oh. But what really caught my eye with the "Vampires Were People Too" posters, a set of which I walked by on my way to get my morning bagel. I stopped and looked at them. The next morning I took the same path, and -- wait! They'd been vandalized!

Nope. "Vandalized". But it was done so well that I had to walk up to the poster and rub my thumb over the "scrawled" words and symbols to make sure they were printed, not pressed in. The "vandalized" poster had simply been pasted over the original one, in exactly the same spot.

The problem with marketing like this is that it doesn't inspire the right kind of curiosity. It makes me want to know who came up with the ad campaign and what their next step is going to be. It makes me wonder about the logistics and costs of pasting posters over your own posters, and whether that's only in New York or other parts of the country.

It doesn't make me want to watch the show. If I weren't a pop culture addict of the highest order, I wouldn't even know there was a show.

A vampire series for adults. In a month I guess we'll know which way it goes. Maybe it'll either be a dark and sexy riff on a timeless, fascinating theme... or the last nail in HBO's coffin.


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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COMMENTS

juli mccarthy
8.4.08 @ 12:15a

I've long found marketing more entertaining than the entertainment. Geico Cavemen, anyone?

Coincidentally, I lost most of my vampire love during Anne Rice's incredibly clumsy and contrived "marketing" for Interview. But Forever Knight, a cable series about a vampire cop in Canada and the coroner who loved him, was pretty good.

tracey kelley
8.4.08 @ 7:29a

We took a stab at "Moonlight" on ... um... CBS, maybe? Which wasn't bad, but wasn't that good, either. It's gone after one season.

brian anderson
8.4.08 @ 8:31a

"HBO reminds vampires to drink responsibl.... oh."

"I never drink...wine."

I actually just rewatched Dracula this weekend. I love the old Universal monster films, but the Dracula ones always come off as the lamest of them, and I've never been able to figure out why vampires are never as cool as they should be.

On a completely different note, anyone who doubts the power of background music should compare Dracula with the original, early-talkie soundtrack that only has bits of Swan Lake now and then with the full Philip Glass soundtrack. The full music version is an amazing improvement.

[edited]

russ carr
8.4.08 @ 10:50a

I'm waiting for one of the nets to do a monster comedy in the vein of The Munsters or The Addams Family. Make it about a bunch of 20something zombies/vampires/lycans trying to make it in NYC. Call it "Fiends."

michelle von euw
8.4.08 @ 11:21a

I think I'd argue that Buffy was aimed at the adult demographic -- by its creators, if not its host network. And Angel and Moonlight were definitely targetting adults -- whether they succeeded is another story.

While Twilight may be classified as YA, it's only for teenagers the way Harry Potter is only for kids. And it's not 13 year old fan girls Meyer's bodyguards are protecting her against.

My theory is, therefore, it's more of a cyclical thing. Vampires were hot in 1998, then they waned, now they are hot again. Will they be hot by the time HBO gets this show off the ground? I don't know. The viral marketing, like you said, is appealing, but I know nothing about the cast, the storyline, the mythology -- in other words, the type of stuff that would actually draw me to a TV show.

[edited]

sandra thompson
8.4.08 @ 2:07p

My favourite Dracula was Jack Palance in the TV movie way back before the earth 's crust had completely cooled. Ann Rice is a great story teller but a horrible writer. I plowed through all the vampire novels because I HAD to find out how it all ended. (What was I thinking? Vampires never end!) I really want vampires to be real and I'm still looking for one to bite me. If you guys happen to run into any please give 'em my email address. Thanks.

I can't condone any laughing at Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. It's blasphemy and you're going to hell for it.

Dum dee dum dum.....

alex b
8.4.08 @ 4:08p

Heh. Let's not forget Gary Oldman was awesome in Bram Stoker's Dracula before he ever became Sirius Black or Jim Gordon.

I didn't laugh at Tom Cruise, but Brad Pitt made me want to take a Prozac.

Haven't checked out Twilight yet, but a teen vampire series seems head-scratching- but just in time enough to be hot again. Next year, it'll be witches.

jael mchenry
8.4.08 @ 4:36p

Update: Apparently Stephenie Meyer is going to need her bodyguards more than ever, as the reviews I'm reading of Breaking Dawn are flat-out wretched. And I believe it is the fear of being stage-rushed by pre-teen girls that requires security, not anything else. Just to clarify.

As for Buffy... I'm sure Joss meant it to be across-the-board adult, but I also think any show set in a high school can't be primarily aimed at the adult market, mainly cuz the adult market (top half of 18-34 and beyond) just won't turn out for it. Not for Veronica Mars, not for Gossip Girl; and in the theatres, not for Blue Crush, not for Go... though now that I think about it, maybe Juno is the exception that proves the rule movie-wise.

Vampires definitely are cyclically hot -- it's that whole "better than dead, but also worse" thing, I think. Also, sex.

russ carr
8.5.08 @ 10:02a

I'd never even heard of that whole "Twilight" series 'til this past weekend, when my 15 year old cousin referenced it on her Facebook page (she attended a late night booklaunch). I chalk it up as "yet another dismal attempt at Potter milking" -- it certainly hasn't reached zeitgeist levels.

Gary Oldman was the sole redeeming quality of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

And as for sex... what's the allure? The ruffly gothwear? Or being dominated by a sadist who enslaves his lovers physically and psychologically? Need I remind you of the horror that was Spuffy? Seems to me the only audience for that is chubby and/or insecure girls who dream of being "taken" by a vamp...because no one else will come near 'em.

michelle von euw
8.5.08 @ 10:25a

I am about 9/10ths of the way through Twilight, and I adore it. And, granted, I'm a bit of a 13 year old girl myself, but there's no way this book aimed only at that demographic.

"but I also think any show set in a high school can't be primarily aimed at the adult market"

Jael, we agree on 99% of everything, but this statement will have to fall within the 1% where we don't. You know what high school girls watch? Grey's Anatomy. Adults are drawn to high school as a setting for the nostalgia factor, and I think the lack of popular response to the examples you list has very little to do with age. (However, poor marketing had a role in at least two of your examples, which ties into your original point.)

jael mchenry
8.5.08 @ 10:48a

Straight from the "just in time" department, I did just have a conversation with a 40-something woman who referred to Twilight as "incredibly good", so yes, it's definitely not just for the kids. But Russ' example is a good one. The adults who call it a "dismal attempt at Potter milking" are clearly outnumbered by the teen-types camped out in costume for the midnight release. Breaking Dawn's initial print run is 3.2 million copies. A million of them sold in the first 24 hours. ONE MEEEELLION. It's for serious.

I will back off somewhat on the "high school shows can't succeed with adults" point, and just say, maybe it's harder for them to reach the full audience, and marketing certainly does play a big role in that.

Russ, the horror of Spuffy, let us never speak of it again. Please. But Buffy wasn't really a human girl and Spike wasn't really a vampire. Traditional vampire-human relations, I don't think it's that hard to see the appeal. Submission vs. dominance, nighttime secrecy, immortal power, this that & the other thing.

russ carr
8.5.08 @ 11:29a

Hm. I'm no girl, but I'd find it far more empowering being a Slayer than a subservient blood cow.

jael mchenry
8.5.08 @ 12:38p

Did anyone list "empowerment" among the historical upsides of vampirism?

sarah ficke
8.5.08 @ 12:49p

I haven't read Twighlight yet, but a friend of mine did and said that she found the gender roles to be disturbingly traditional.

As far as the teen/adult question goes, it is my impression (based largely on my reading of this very smart blog) that there are tons of books about vampires aimed at adults, but they are published and categorized under either Romance or Fantasy. If there are adults out there who read vampire books, then there are probably adults out there who will watch a vampire tv show.

Also, I agree that that marketing campaign sounds silly.

juli mccarthy
8.6.08 @ 2:39a

"it certainly hasn't reached zeitgeist levels" Getting there, though. As I am in possession of a teenage girl of my very own, I can tell you that she, and ALL her friends, are Twilight nuts. All I ever hear is Edward Cullen this, and Bella Swan that. That I even know these names is a good indication of how pervasive the series has become, because I wouldn't know Stephanie Meyer if... well, if she bit me.

sarah ficke
8.6.08 @ 12:37p

The blog I posted about above has a post about this series now. You can find it here.

jael mchenry
8.6.08 @ 12:42p

Cool, thanks! Seems from the comments that a lot of people really like the ads and think they're building the right kind of buzz... I'm still not so sure. Though I do have to point out that I'm getting a number of hits from Google searches for phrases that appear in the print ads and posters, like "vampires are immoral" and "vampires were people too".

lucy lediaev
8.6.08 @ 6:10p

Until the Twilight series was mentioned here, I had never heard of it. Twice today now, I've been asked by younger women at work to order Twilight books for them from Amazon (they like my Premium "free" 2-day shipping and Amazon's prices).

I guess I'm going to have to read at least the first one.

jael mchenry
8.10.08 @ 12:42p

Even if you consider that Breaking Dawn's release last week has bumped up interest in all things Stephenie Meyer, this is still a crazy impressive figure: of the top 15 fiction bestsellers this week, 5 were Stephenie Meyer books. FIVE. All four books in the Twilight series, plus The Host.

Not coincidentally, I have just made a deal with my husband that if I ever get five books on the NYT bestseller list simultaneously, he will never have to work again. There's success, and then there's mindblowing, record-shattering success.

sarah ficke
9.8.08 @ 12:15p

I'm curious -- did anyone watch True Blood?

jael mchenry
1.22.09 @ 4:35p

I forgot to post about this when it happened, but now there's an NYT article on it, so I can post and link.

Last week I was walking to work and saw someone with a thought bubble over her head. Like, a beautifully, professionally done thought bubble in heavy posterboard printed with "I cheated my way through law school." It was fairly trippy. I walked on past and looked at the back of the thought bubble: "Everyone has a secret. Big Love." So, clearly, HBO is taking a creative advertising approach again.

Here's the article.

lucy lediaev
1.23.09 @ 2:10p

Vampires were hot in 1998,... Vampires were hot in 1967, too, when everyone (but I) was watching Dark Shadows on daytime T.V. I used to be left with a sandbox full of toddlers while all of the other mommies headed inside for their daily vampire fix.

Vampires, like other archetypal themes, will re-emerge from time to time.



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