Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Artificial Hype Won’t Save Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

What hope is there for a show that tries to manipulate us into liking it?
 by Grant Andrews

Current mainstream culture is run on hype, and every new cultural artifact which wants to be successful needs to build up a Can’t Be Missed enigma in order to succeed. We are a meme culture, always looking for the next big thing, and sharing everything on social media in order to feel like we are in the know or, better yet, ahead of the pack. Everyone talked about the finale of How I Met Your Mother. Everyone latched onto hot new internet memes like the no-makeup selfies and cock in a sock. When Beyonce released a new surprise album, she relied on the power of hype and mystery in order to drive interest, and the strategy perfectly played into the zeitgeist of the retweet culture, creating mammoth sales.

 The hype culture is especially important in a time when people are becoming increasingly reluctant to pay for their entertainment or even to watch it live on television. Album sales and television ratings are at multi-decade lows. People are no longer interested in traditional forms of consuming culture like buying albums, watching television or going to the cinema to watch a film. Instead, they are relying on illegal downloads or file-sharing, sites like Hulu or Netflix, and using handheld devices to consume most of their creative products. Culture is also, as a result, becoming much more individualised. People can now find many others with similar interests from all around the world, and they can self-determine their cultural consumption in a multitude of ways that they were never able to before. People are more likely to discover new bands, shows, films, songs or memes through word of mouth or on social media than any traditional form of advertising. They are also more likely to ignore cultural products which do not seem like something that Can’t Be Missed, since they are constantly inundated with new information. Anything not important enough to be posted by friends on Facebook is probably not worth the time of the modern consumer.

In order to have a highly successful product in the current marketplace, it needs to tap into this cultural setting in a way that allows it to be propelled by consumers. People need to hype it, and the hype will feed future consumption and, in turn, future hype. This explains the success of shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, which relied heavily on word of mouth and hype in order to build stellar viewership. In fact, The Walking Dead, which is on the relatively modest-sized cable channel AMC and which ostensibly does not seem to have mass appeal, has become the highest-rated scripted show on television. The road to success in the hype-culture is to be shocking, provocative, fresh and unorthodox. This is why Miley Cyrus’s career skyrocketed after she performed her infamous display at the MTV video music awards in 2013.

But the flip side of the culture of blazing, overhyped trends is that the massive omnipresence of these cultural moments seem to disappear as quickly as they come. Without the hype machine, artists, shows and trends which rely on hype for their existence will fade into obscurity. The hype-culture is youth-oriented, and the overstimulated youth will give up on a trend as soon as it becomes passé because there are countless new trends to pay attention to. This is why, when Lady Gaga seemed to have used up all of her tricks to shock and provoke, and simply released more of the same with her ARTPOP album, the public gave a tepid response. No longer was she the subject of the righteous indignation of religious and conservative groups. No longer was she the voice of a generation. She was merely another artist with another album to promote. When she recently appeared nude on stage, and even had a performance artist throw up on her, nobody seemed to care.

 Artificial hype, which is not borne of authentically adoring, shocked or mesmerised fans, is ineffective. We are a rebellious culture, and we do not respond to the corporate manipulation of our power as marketers of things we love or love to hate. We recognise when people are trying to build hype by being unnecessarily vague, purposefully provocative or unironically “hip”.

 That is, I think, why Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has not had the massive success which its creators expected. It felt like a forced advertising vehicle for the Marvel movies and a soulless hype-machine. Even though the show has become something somewhat respectable in its own right, its intentions to tap into something else that we already love, namely the Marvel Cinematic Universe, were transparent and off-putting. Most of the time, when you inauthentically try to make us hype something for you, and when you treat us like puppets who will succumb to formulaic attempts to grab our attention, we will look at you with scepticism instead of simply acquiescing to those designs. Initially, producers shrouded Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in mystery and tried to create interest through a number of unanswered questions and high secrecy around production. But this, again, backfired, as viewers became frustrated with the blatant attempts to replicate a LOST-like mythology and the rabid fanbase that went along with it. The modern consumer is, for the most part, smarter than that, and will create trends where they see fit. The ratings for the show have reflected this, slipping steadily from the overhyped pilot.

 There is still hope that the show will become something genuinely deserving of the hype which it tried to foster. There are signs that the show is finding its own identity as something genuinely smart, cool and different. The latest episode, linked to the events of the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, actually turns the show on its head and is genuinely shocking. I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to catch up on the show. But in order to find its feet, the show needed to detach itself from the obvious hype-machine which it was designed to be, and start from scratch. It will be interesting to see how it develops, and whether it truly becomes something you want to tweet about.