Ballyhoo ain’t dead — the research project

January 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

One of the fun things about studying things historically is to realise how modernity is laced with the past — intersected, habited, haunted. Not in the sense of plus ça change, more in the sense that the “new” carries with it undertones of leads already explored, of thoughts already spoken, of directions already tried — in a quasi-biological sense. The now, in science-fiction terms, is merely one of the possible futures that the past has developed — but it bears the traces of what might have been — tantalising, inviting us to invent tomorrow.

So we now call it “viral marketing”, or even “prankvertisement”, but it is ballyhoo back from the 1920s, promotional stunts that are meant to get people to talk about the film, at all possible cost. And just like ballyhoo, it is, at the very least, about rehearsing audiences’ media competencies — working on that border between the fake and the real, helping them (us) put reality in play. This training of media competencies, then, goes back a long way — the “magic” of new media technologies more a skill we entertain than an innate quality of any medium. Viral marketing, then, takes the Barnum hoax (Barnums’ “operational aesthetics”) to new, more modern, heights: “is it fake, or is it real?” It is the same question, it is the same game — but realising that we’ve been playing this game for at least 200 years (much, much longer than that: since the first time a human decided to make-believe that any piece of unbelievable information relayed in some form, oral, painted, etc., was potentially true) may help us enjoy it more — indeed, help us live with media fictions.

At most viral marketing (just like 1920s promotional stunts, though the technology, then, was different) asks hard questions about the nature of film-going, since it can be about transmedia storytelling expansion, furnishing bits of information to the main movie plot that help make sense of the movie world and expand it — hard questions about where the pleasures of “cinema” precisely lie. You may, for example, have felt (as I did) rather unsatisfied with the restricted world-building that the movie Elysium offered, notably the limited views of both Earth and the space station for the rich,

the  way the movie restricted all economic activity on Earth to Matt Damon’s character’s factory job or his sweetheart’s nursing job (an economy based on just those types of low-skilled jobs would very soon crumble: what of the research, innovation, engineering jobs? How do these professionals feel about inequalities? About Elysium? How do they vote? These are all world-building questions, and what good sci-fi should be about as it attempts to build a model of a possible future). Indeed, it may be because that world-building was going on somewhere else: on the official website for the movie (, where there is[still, as of 24 Jan. 2014, but for how long?] a rich array of websites pretending to be from the construction company of the space station, complete with set-drawings blueprints of the homes one may “buy” on Torus. In lots of ways, the world-building that goes on with the promotional websites is more interesting than the movie itself — conventional, déjà-vu plot-driven fast-paced flick. And this raises the question, at least to me, of whether the film is not suffering from the fact that a decision was made to outsource lots of world-building material to the promotional campaign. Think about all the detailed world-building that went into the film itself of 2001, and made the experience of watching the film truly mesmerising. You’d have to start toying with the Elysium website before you’d start feeling the same level of amused amazement, the desire to stay in that world.

Incidentally, if the marketing is part of the fun of the film, it also raises the question of what happens to the film once that promotional material is gone (the anti-segregation blog “set up” by alien Christopher Johnson, a promotional stunt devised for District 9, for instance, has been archived, but the official link is dead) — and whether a true artist of viral marketing should not expand efforts into maintaining the fictional worlds they have set up for the film. Whether or not this would make any business sense, for the artist, would hopefully be irrelevant, though this points to a potential site of tensions here: the long-lasting relevance of a work, or the short-term, but powerful, vibration of meaning of a work encountering an audience? What if the second burst, though ephemeral by definition, could be made to last? A film like 2001 has no problem recreating its own flash of relevancy for a modern audience–but couldn’t there be another path to artistic longevity that promotional stunts, allied with new media tools, fast-speed networks, virtual reality equipment, and so on, could trace in the future of the industry? Prometheus may have been a disappointing film (haven’t seen it), but the website still looks good, inviting, tantalising — magic of sort, yes.

All of which makes me wonder if there is not more creativity being now expanded into the promotion — and less into the films themselves — and if the true evolution of transmedia storytelling is not just that the film fictions expand into other media, or that the films serve merely as events to launch a new line of merchandising, toys, TV series, and other products, as we are all quite aware — but that, more profoundly, the films serve as launching pads for the true fictional life of the stories that indeed take place somewhere else, in the promotional stunts. That the film becomes, in other words, a fictional virtual space more than a text. That maybe we need to think about a future where the film is reduced to a clickable link (“You Don’t So Much Watch it As Download It”) on a website where lots of other material build a detailed and amazing fictional world — where the film is one possible activation of the fictional world, which remains however open to other narrative possibilities through the world-building the websites offer. Given that promotional budgets may come to dwarf production budgets, this would not be such a surprising evolution after all–an evolution where film, “cinema” as we used to call it, expands its “interface” from a screen (a movie screen at first, a TV screen next, a mobile screen now) to a space (cyberspace, virtual reality).

The research project: to trace the development, history, genealogy, variations, evolutions of ballyhoo, promotional stunts, prankvertisement as the interface of cinema — from 1920s carnival to Torus, as cinema’s privileged world-building tool, en route to our future(s) where living with virtual realities is going to be loads of fun.

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