Customer-Fans and the Happily Exploited

Time for another story (I appear to have a lot to tell!); this time, about the experiences I had at the biggest comic book convention in the world, San Diego Comic Con International.

When I graduated college, I moved to Los Angeles and ended up working at an agency that represents writers, directors and producers. In 2001, we signed a new writer, and he was going to Comic-Con. I had no real experiences with fan conventions, but I knew this was the place to go. So I convinced the agency to pay for my time down there so I could be there to help the client in case he needed me. I also managed that same argument in 2002 when one of our directors was filming down there – I said I could go check in on him. After that, I went to graduate school in Ohio, but I did manage to go back to Comic-Con in 2006 and 2007. I went in 2006 to see about doing an ethnography. In 2007 I presented an academic paper there, and also gathered information for a journal article.

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But something had changed between 2002 and 2006. In my first two trips, I was impressed by how massive it was, and how many Hollywood producers were there to promote their goods. However, my second two trips convinced me the con was too big now to be any real fun. And it was all because of one woman.

Halle Berry.

She was brought down from Hollywood to promote a movie that online fans had been tearing apart. No, I don’t mean X-Men: The Last Stand. I mean 2004’s Catwoman — a movie for which no amount of public appearances by the alluring Halle Berry could salvage. But there was a side effect of her appearance.

It brought the attention of the mainstream media. More coverage by the news, more word-of-mouth spreading about how Hollywood stars and debutantes can be so accessible. With the spreading of this news, the attendance by the casual fans — those who are lesser involved fans or fans of just a particular text or person — steadily increased. And while this attention didn’t save Catwoman, it did highlight the change in the mission that Comic-Con was undergoing. This metamorphosis meant a definitive shift from being a pure comic book convention to being a gathering of fandoms, a “meeting of the tribes” as academic and author Matthew Pustz put it at the convention. A representation of all things pop culture for anyone interested in pop culture (which essentially means everyone who is not an elitist), all serviced by, and servicing, Hollywood. What Jensen et al (2007) describe is what I lived through in 2007.

When I returned to that gigantic convention hall in 2006, I was amazed by the extent to which Hollywood was present. Nearly half of the exhibitor’s hall was festooned with movie, television, and game producers handing out swag and hawking their current products and upcoming releases. At the time, I thought how what was happening represented the producers trying to package the enthusiasm generated by the fans for their own purposes: to, in essence, bottle lightning to power their marketing. I eventually wrote a paper to that effect.

This metaphor is what Baker-Whitelaw (2014) is talking about when she says “the best way get a media franchise up and running is to nurture this kind of obsessive fan support.” When she talks about fans being early adopters, that is reference to diffusion of innovation theory, which predicts how innovations will spread throughout a society. With that theory we have the idea that there are people in a social network who act as opinion leaders for that network; that is, they are people others will turn to because their opinions and experiences are held in high esteem.

Thus, if you are a comic book fan who knows a lot about Marvel Comics, the people in your network are probably going to see you as a good judge of any upcoming Marvel movie. So, if Disney/Marvel can get you excite about, say, the upcoming Spider-Man movie, then there is a good chance you can get those in your social network interested in it – and, voila, Disney/Marvel makes money. Fan enthusiasm turns into a social contagion that can make or break Hollywood.

Baker-Whitelaw also discusses how companies can create their own fan communities, so that they can take advantage of and even control this social contagion. This idea then leads us to see how companies are shifting their views of their customers from being simply customers to being fans. And that shift allows us to understand what the marketing agency Fandom Marketing is doing.

According to their website, “Fandom Marketing is a full service digital agency that has built a reputation on transforming loyal fans into fully engaged customers.” Here we see a different idea about the relationship between a business and its customers. Instead of simply providing services or products to customers for a fee, these companies now want to create loyal, engaged, passionate customers who will keep coming back to their brand. Instead of just being based on the rational exchange of money for goods, this relationship is based on the emotional idea of being loyal, engaged, passionate, enthusiastic – all the while still exchanging money for goods.

However, now, along with exchanging money for goods, the fans of these businesses can also be asked to exchange their time and their social connections for perhaps loyalty points. By this I mean that the fans of these brands are being asked to “like or share” some social media post from the company with their social network. Doing so turns the customer-fan into an opinion leader with their social network. The hope is that the customer-fan will spread the marketing messages of the business without the business having to pay for any marketing campaign to make that happen. Rather than pay to advertise in the traditional sense, customer-fans are providing free labor to do the marketing. Customer-fans may receive some trinket of appreciation as compensation (such as free yet cheap swag, or entry into a contest, or a coupon), but they are definitely not being paid what a marketer would receive for doing the traditional job of marketing. Fans are doing labor without receiving compensation for doing so.

Milner (2009) discusses the issue of fan labor from a convergence perspective when he says: “Moreover, this interactivity allows audiences to participate in the labor processes surrounding their favorite texts, challenging traditional divisions between producer and consumer.” (p. 492) This perspective has been used to describe the type of free labor fans do when they produce things in association with their fandoms – so things like fanfiction, fan art, fanvids, and so forth. Such fan labor also describes incorporating fans into the marketing campaigns of any product, thereby exploiting their love for the product and using it to spread their enthusiasm.

Wasko (2014, p. 260) discusses critical political economic theory, and I want to share her definition here to break it down:

Briefly, the primary concern of critical political economists is with the allocation of resources within capitalist societies. Through studies of ownership and control, political economists document and analyse relations of power, class systems and other structural inequalities. Critical political economists analyse contradictions and suggest strategies for resistance and intervention using methods drawn from history, economics, sociology and political science.

So, what we are focusing on with this theory is the analysis of the political and economic structures and processes that shape, well, everything. The idea is to look at who controls the political and economic power within a community, culture, or society, and to see how this power influences other people living within that same community, culture, or society. Critical political economic theory is then concerned with critiquing these power dynamics and even reshaping them to be more equitable, fair, and just.

Thus, we can look at fans, Hollywood and Comic-Con. Now, the rise of the Web and Web 2.0 started giving fans more power to organize and be heard. Once Hollywood started recognizing this power, they sought to co-opt, exploit, and capitalize on it. One way they did so was by staging elaborate promotional events at places like Comic-Con to get people enthusiastic for their product. The more buzz Hollywood could generate, the more likely they could recoup the cost of producing blockbuster films and even make a profit. Political economic theory helps us to understand what has happened and why it has happened.

This same theoretical read could be applied to any relationship between customer-fans and the brands they support on a daily basis. Think about the brand you love – how often have you liked, shared, retweeted, commented on something they shared online? The more you do that, the more you serve your function in their economic plan of using our fan labor as marketing material.

Now, as Milner (2009) explores, does this mean that fans do this labor without recognition for their lack of compensation for their hard work? Are fans upset that they are being exploited? His study did not find anxiety over being exploited. But is it different if it is something like a pop culture or sports fandom and something more like a brand fandom?

Honestly, I don’t think so, because I think being a fan is being a fan. As long as you love the thing, then you are willing to do what you can for it – especially if what you are asked to do is not too great of a sacrifice for your time or money. We all want to help the people/things we love (that’s what love is, at least in Western civilization), and as long as the demands are not too great (retweeting is so easy to do after all), then we do not stop and think about what it all means. We happily go forth to be exploited.

 

Sources:

Baker-Whitelaw, G. (2014, April 17). “How the corporate world targets fandom.” The Daily Dot, retrieved https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/inside-fandom-media-campaign.

Jensen, J., Goplan, N., Rice, L., Sperling, N. & Vary, A. B. (2007, August 10). “It came from Comic-Con!” Entertainment Weekly, 947, p. 34-37.

Milner, R. M. (2009). “Working for the text: Fan labor and the New Organization.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12, p. 491-508.

Wasko, J. (2014). “The study of the political economy of the media in the twenty-first century.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 10(3), p. 259-271.

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