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With Geek Power Comes Great Responsibility

Column by Rob Salkowitz

Published: 10/06/2013, Last Updated: 10/07/2013 03:02am
On Wednesday, I’ll be participating in a “Rise of Geek Culture” panel at Comics Ahead!  The ICv2 Conference ahead of the New York Comic Con (for info on the panel, and the Conference, see “When Geek Is Prime Time, What’s Next?). Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject of marketing to the new fan demographic.

Every great cause, they say, begins as a movement, becomes a business, then degenerates into a racket.

For the comics community, our great cause has been to get the wider world to take our industry, our artform, our culture and our geeky selves seriously. In that, we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. After decades at the margins, comics and genre entertainment have become leading lights in publishing, licensing, digital distribution and the full spectrum of media. The movement has emphatically become a business, and the big players are treating it as such.

Likewise geek culture is no longer a novelty, where outsiders can come to laugh and point at nerds on parade and freaks in costume. Conventions have become fandom’s signature events. Comic-Con International generates hundreds of millions for the city of San Diego. Cons in other markets, from New York to Nova Scotia, are packing in record crowds. When you quantify the extent and influence of geeks as a distinct demographic group in terms of everything from spending power to social media clout, we are formidable.

But you know what they say about great power. The more popular comics culture becomes, and the more economic weight we throw around in the market, the more we need to beware that rot and decay at the edges does not spread to the very center of our cultural identity.

How to fall off a mountain.
Observers tend to see the biggest threat to the persistence of geek culture as the uncertainty of the Hollywood connection. Sooner or later, studios will tire of rolling the dice on comic-themed movies (or the mass, non-geek audience will tire of sitting through them) and that will trigger the collapse of the other forces keeping the business afloat.

Perhaps, but success can be just as big a problem as failure. Take it from someone who lived through the Seattle music scene of the early 1990s: One thing nearly that nearly guarantees the end of the golden age is the arrival of hucksters looking to make a fast buck.

In the case of comics and pop culture, an inherently commercial enterprise, we’re not just talking about the usual suspects within the industry (who can be damaging enough), but rather hangers-on with no intrinsic connection to the scene. Or, in the mod parlance of the marketing industry, “brands looking to capitalize on the excitement and enthusiasm of geek culture!

Branding can leave a mark.
The logic of late capitalism’s relationship with popular culture is pretty straightforward.  All brands want to be cool, but most aren’t because the products and services they sell are intrinsically boring and ordinary. They try to get cool by standing next to things that are much more sexy, interesting and spectacular than they are. For a while, the cool rubs off on them. But eventually, the mercenary nature of marketing rubs off on whatever they are standing next to, making people uncomfortably aware that they are part of a mediated (packaged, managed, artificial) – rather than authentic – experience.
The passionate, genuine audience eventually grows disgusted and moves on, tipping the demographic balance in favor of the most ridiculous and superficial elements. Soon the whole thing collapses and people look back wondering why it was ever popular in the first place.

The only pop culture phenomena that can resist this dynamic are those with exceptionally deep and authentic historical roots, like Mardi Gras, or those that are so commercial at their core that they are immune to toxic levels of exploitation, like the Super Bowl. Geek culture might well fall into either or both of those categories, but are we really that eager to find out?

Don’t be a tool.
A grim sign of things to come took the shape of the Craftsman booth that occupied a large, central chunk of real estate on the floor of the New York Comic-Con in 2012. Craftsman makes tools: hammers, screwdrivers, things you use to fix your toilet. As far as I can tell, nothing in their catalog is magical, decoratively ornamented, or steampunk-cool. If you’re wondering what such a company would be doing at a comic convention, you’re not the only one.

Their presence was apparently orchestrated by DC, which had produced a custom hero-themed comic book campaign: “Craftsman, handyman to the Justice League!” For real, this was a thing. The brand wanted to be cool, and that meant being seen where the cool kids hang out: naturally, at a comic convention.

This is what the back slope of Peak Geek looks like, folks.

Becoming disenchanted.
The Craftsman fiasco was a full-on fail – for the brand, which looked ridiculous; for NYCC, which looked venal; and for fans, who missed out on whatever could have better occupied that floor space, and who may have left a little bit disgusted at the direction their hobby is going in.

I’ve heard people argue this was just a tactical failure that could have been redeemed through better execution. In other words, traditional brands can reach geeks where they live if they do it right. Maybe this year’s big Chevy event, with cars tricked out in the colors of Dark Horse, Boom! Studios, Image and Valiant, will somehow create synergies between the nerd culture and the most meat-and-potatoes American auto brand.

Maybe, but even if it does, that fundamentally misses the point.

Whether comics culture dominates the entertainment world or exists as a hobby for the nerdy few, people come to conventions to indulge their passions: dress up, hang out, see celebrities, meet creators and buy a wide range of stuff from toys to books to artwork to fashion items that are central to our interests. When you start mixing the quotidian reality of tools and cars and consumer products with the magical dreamspace of fantasy, sci-fi and superheroes at scale, it doesn’t take long before you stop elevating the ordinary and start bringing down the extraordinary.

This isn’t about Superman selling Twinkies in the back pages of Action Comics, the kind of low-bore audience targeting that has happened forever. It’s not about seeing the Audi logo in every other frame of the Iron Man movies: summer blockbusters are for the mass market, and commercialism is entirely appropriate. At this level of saturation and scale, it’s fundamentally about protecting the mystique at the center(s) of geekdom from being overrun by cultural strip miners in spaces that should be primarily about fans, not brands. Maintaining that ecological balance is a collective responsibility.

Beware my power.
Geek consumer power is a rare and wonderful development. It means we can have nice things: respectful treatment of our favorite characters in big budget, high profile media productions; more and better comics, toys, games and costumes; fun conventions somewhere every weekend of the year.

But it is fragile. As great as it is to be catered to by moneyed interests and industries that disdained us in the past, if we want the Peak Geek moment to last, we have to be smarter, both as consumers and as geek-oriented businesses, about jumping into Chevys with strangers, no matter how cool the paintjob or how much candy they offer.

-- Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture and is working on a new project on the future of marketing and retail in the digital age.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
 
 
 
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