If a show airs in its time slot and no one is tuned in to watch it, does it make a sound?
It’s an “if a tree falls in a forest” question that most network executives would be perfectly happy going their whole careers without ever discovering the answer to. Countless dollars are spent every season to generate buzz about new launches and to pump up the hype for new seasons of returners to avoid discovering the answer to that proverbial question.
No matter what your mother, your librarian or the anthropomorphic cricket who serves as your conscience might have told you about judging a book by its cover, similar warnings against snap judgments don’t hold true in TV. The way a show is promoted in print or on air is generally an accurate indicator of what the show itself is like — as well as how you’ll like it.
Pains are usually taken to make sure that a show’s ad campaign is in keeping with the tone of the show itself. The quick cuts and shaky footage comprising the on-air spots for ABC’s The River, for instance, alerted potential viewers to the type of journey they were in for, should they decide to tune in. As for narrative style, the purposefully un-illuminating promos proved to be accurate representations of the show itself, which, like the network’s recent hit Lost, sometimes leaves audiences with more questions at the end of an episode than they had at the beginning.
“Adorkable,” the now-infamous neologism coined in an effort to promote New Girl on Fox, wasn’t just eminently mockable and vexingly unforgettable. The willful cutesiness and self-aware quirkiness suggested by that “simply adorkable” tagline are delivered week-in and week-out on the show. In fact, New Girl’s star is so pointedly free-spirited as to warrant a repeated sketch on Saturday Night Live, “Bein’ Quirky with Zooey Deschanel.”
Even when an ad campaign falls short of giving would-be viewers a feel for the mood and tone of a show, it usually at least gives an idea of what the show is going for. Early promos for Gossip Girl on the CW clearly sought to capitalize on the allure of the forbidden by pairing a provocative still with an inflammatory condemnation of the show — “mind-blowingly inappropriate,” “a nasty piece of work,” “every parent’s nightmare” — by the likes of the Parents Television Council and the Boston Herald. Playing up parental disapproval was completely in character for a show that fancies itself much more scandalous than it’s ever actually been.
Among the more iconic campaigns in recent memory was the starkly minimalist one used to tout the current season of AMC’s Mad Men. The silhouette of a man in a suit falling through a vast expanse of negative space was the only image used in the ads; the only text was the date of the season premiere — the name of the show or the network it aired on appeared nowhere in the original ads.
Many thought the image (which was taken directly from the title sequence Mad Men has used since 2007) bore an uncomfortable resemblance to chilling photos from the World Trade Center attacks of victims falling to their deaths. Disregarding the allegations of insensitivity with which the ads were initially met, however, the decision to stage such a spare campaign speaks volumes about the show.
The self-confidence implied by a wordless ad campaign after a year-and-a-half hiatus is astonishing, but it’s an absolutely on-point characterization of how Mad Men sees itself and how it treats its fans.
There’s a certain measure of trust that fans of the show would return, even if they had no idea what to expect in the coming season — or that’s how the show’s creator Matt Weiner sees it, at least.
Just like Game of Thrones’ “War Is Coming” campaign, which references a line from the HBO fantasy series’ first season, “Winter is coming,” Mad Men’s intentionally enigmatic campaign asks something from its audience. Game of Thrones’ foreknowledge-dependent billboards rely on an insider’s knowledge of the show for the ads to make sense, whereas Mad Men’s controversial “falling man” ads required not only previous awareness, but also previous interest in the show. Fans’ voracious appetites for more information manifested when the show eventually debuted an image of the show’s antihero, Don Draper, window-shopping — a firestorm of speculation as to the image’s symbolic meaning engulfed the Internet for days.
Promotional campaigns serve a range of purposes besides simply drawing viewers in. CBS’ Two and a Half Men heralded the addition of Ashton Kutcher while simultaneously reassuring existing fans that the show would go on post-Charlie Sheen by reprising a photo shoot of the titular men and half-man in suits, singing into a microphone in front of a red curtain, that was used to promote the original cast members years before.
ABC is intentionally consolidating ads for Desperate Housewives and GCB to ease the transition from one show to the next, as the current season will be Housewives’ last. In advertising Community’s return last month, NBC even specifically urged audiences to “Watch It Live” in an effort to boost ratings for the struggling cult favorite.
Ulterior motives notwithstanding, the primary objective of a promotional campaign is to give audiences a taste of a show’s vibe and sensibilities and hope they respond to it. With so many options available in today’s television landscape, sometimes a cover is all you have time to judge. But with promos putting a show’s best face forward, that’s not always so bad.
Louis Lucero II is a senior majoring in environmental studies. His column “Small Screen, Big Picture” runs Tuesdays.