Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Celebrity, Image & Story: On Lainey, Gossip, and Branding

It is with a touch of reluctant embarrassment that I must confess... that I often find myself reading certain celebrity gossip blogs.

It's not that I find the lives of celebrities that interesting. In my early years in the corporate world, I started reading through the entertainment news in order to expand my awareness of pop-culture topics -- basic research into the things that the people in the office seemed to be interested in. Now I think of it as light reading to build your marketing vocabulary -- without some pop-culture awareness, it can really be a struggle to communicate across generations. Left to my own interests, my cultural vocabulary would be even more alien and disconnected than it was 20 years ago. 

Perhaps now, as you read this, you're thinking that it's just me, my dirty little secret. In reality though, an interest in celebrity is everyone's dirty little secret. But rather than just me providing an explanation, here's Elaine Lui, Lainey from Lainey Gossip, with her TED talk The Sociology of Gossip (here's an amusing profile of Lainey). If her presentation doesn't sell you on why you should consider reading her blog -- or at least not feel guilty about your interest in gossip -- let me connect a few more dots for you.

First, let's start by looking at the entertainment industry as Lainey relates aspects of it in her TED presentation. Behind the celebrities there are a host of publicists and programs, all designed around marketing an image, a brand, a project, or a media product. The entertainment industry is PR, advertising and promotion every day, 24 hours a day. It's a story that is also business, full of messaging strategies that succeed and true tales of tragic messaging failures.

From a business perspective, a perfect current events example might be the story of Paula Deen. From her ascent, to her food and her brand identity, Paula Deen rose through the Food Network promotional engine to become a significant national brand. While the style of food that she promoted wasn't particularly healthy, her brand image was used by a number of businesses to endorse their products. When it came out publicly that she had diabetes, it was a problematic PR moment, a speed bump for the brand, but it didn't cause the entire brand to collapse. Likeable and homey image continued to sell. Until the more recent revelations of her 'racial' past when the brand suffered a catastrophic shot and the endorsement deals began to collapse.

On Lainey Gossip, Lainey sometimes refers to the idea of the school for "celebrity studies". They've also put together several "career prospectus" pieces that take a look at specific actors, their image and their entertainment business activities, then speculate about their career and possibilities. Celebrities and their image are wrapped in story. Take Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson, the stars of the Twilight series. The gossip blogs (and perhaps the promotion arm of the movie franchise) built them out to be a couple. Demographically speaking, it was very popular with their fan base. At the same time, other gossip blogs characterized the relationship as fake, a PR construction to help promote the films. Then there was the "affair" prior to the release of the final installment and the controversy that surround that. On one level, there is the story. On the other level, there are the questions that should be running through your mind as a marketing pro -- how much of this is manufactured? How is it shaped? What are the elements that work effectively and why?

The Illusion of Brand Identity
Brand is a story. It is an illusion. It's the conceptual framework that makes something seem special or more unique than something else. Paula Deen's brand was a friendly, down-home, comfort-food image. But how about the real Paula Deen behind that image? What is she really like? Perhaps the court depositions and the racist phrases are closer to reality -- or maybe they aren't. In reality, it doesn't really matter whether they are true or not; rather, that they had enough energy in them to change the narrative, to shift our perception of the story. At the end of the day, do we really know Paula Deen any better or do we simply have new brand story, a new image wrapper?

Perhaps because it is such an integral part of their business, the entertainment industry understands how important narrative is to celebrity and brand. Whether it's a crafted persona for an action hero actor, fake relationships or controversies and meta-news, a broad range of techniques and practices are used to increase visibility and awareness. Sometimes they are used to mask product aspects, like the straight publicity relationship of the gay actor, while sometimes they are simple promotion devices designed to raise visibilty -- like the 'leaked' nude sex tape.

But what is really interesting, and Lainey addresses aspects of this in her TED presentation, isn't just the details or the execution, it's the story outside of the story. This larger story framework, the narrative that encompasses the details, is the story of culture. It's a cross-section of demographic beliefs and expectations, of social values. This is the story that we want to believe.

Every day we willingly consume a diet of lies, half-truths and illusions, all with the purpose of supporting an existing internal narrative. We romanticize actors and actresses, idolizing their mythical persona with no real connection to the actual person in that role. And whether it's a carefully managed media or simply a case of selective hearing, we only absorb the things that support our narrative.

Take the story of Lance Armstrong and professional cycling. For whatever reason, we imagine that we know and understand the world of bicycle racing. It starts with the narrative that we know -- individuals, teams, and equipment, with the story of the event taking place through a snapshot of one or two hours of video clips. We build a framework of characters, personalities like Lance Armstrong, who we imagine we know. As we watch the race clips, our character, Lance Armstrong, acts and performs in expected ways. When we read interviews, he says the same kind of things. Even his books support the character that we know. And, as we watch him perform in the video race clips, we imagine that there is a competitive event taking place. We gloss over the business, the traveling theater being orchestrated around a cast of hundreds of paid performers and a media infrastructure that helps sell the show.

But we don't really know what it's like behind the surface of the illusion. We don't know what it feels like to get up in the morning with sore knees and a sore butt and a 100+ mile race day to look forward to. We don't know what it's like to work in a job where your performance is on display, when you're told to ride hard at this point or go slow at another point. We imagine the world of performance enhancing substances to be one like Popeye eating spinach magically crushing his competition, and not a standard part of the day-in-day-out body maintenance for performers that play the contenders. We imagine a lot but there is so much more that we really don't know. Was Lance Armstrong a rule breaker or a legendary figure-head an industry? Did he play the role that he did, say the things that he said, solely for personal gain or was that his job supporting the business, the industry? Dots of information from the media machine allow us to imagine much, but we really know very little.

Imagination + Fame = Tremendous Value Multiplier
In the world of infomercials, we're familiar with seeing the product that slices, dices and makes julienne fries, but the real sell comes when we start imagining how we would use the product. In that moment, the product has become real in a very special way inside your mind. In your head, the product moves into an idealized version of reality and plays a role in the narrative that you construct.  In that same way, 'celebrity' connects with the imagination part of your brain.

One of the things that I found rather amusing when I first came across the Lainey Gossip site was Lainey's 'Freebie 5'. Here's the basic description:
A concept inspired by Friends which I’ve called the Freebie Five - a list of 5 'unattainables' you’d have permission to tap without consequence from your significant other should the opportunity arise. The key to the Freebie Five is fantasy, whatever turns your crank. My criteria, however, is also determined by celebrity. Two bit no-names, no matter how hot they are, don’t rank. Because while intelligence is optional, fame never is.
While I'd never heard of it prior to finding her site, I've since found references to the same core idea in other areas that suggest that the basic theme is more common than you might think.

But, over time, one the thing that you'll notice as you read Lainey discussing her list, is how it changes and shifts, often centered around events or movies or public activities. Across a broader cross-section of people, you'll also find celebrities who capture the spotlight, only to see that spotlight fade from the public interest some time later. We all know the idea of 15 minutes of fame. But why is it that excitement from the attention rises and falls? Why is it that someone can appear on the list despite little, if any, direct knowledge of the person -- no idea whether they smoke, whether they smell bad, or whether you can share a conversation with them.

The reality is that we aren't enamored with the actor or actress, we are excited by the story. When Lainey is crushing on Robert Downey Jr., it's not the person, it's the media presence. It's a persona assembled in her mind from bits and pieces like Ironman, red carpet events, interviews and stories. It's a idealized character that doesn't include the ugly bits of reality that we all carry in real life like snoring, garlic-breath, or whether we remembered to put the toilet seat down.

We need to build these stories. We look for the pieces to construct our world. It's part of the reason why Playboy needs to include the Playmate profile, so that you have the framework to connect the photos and the image to a character, to make it human in your imagination. It's a lot like the perceptual processes that take place with change blindness and the invisible gorilla -- taking the perceptual moments and building them into something that seems tangible and coherent.

Celebrity, Modern Mythology and The Hero with A Thousand Faces
In his works on mythology, Joseph Campbell explores the idea of the monomyth, the hero's journey, a basic pattern that is found in many narratives from around the world. Campbell held that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages, which he summarized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces as "The Hero's Journey". While the structure of the monomyth exists in many books and movies today, the same kind of concept can be more broadly applied to celebrity gossip and popular culture. Examples of this can be found in some of the themes explored on Lainey's blog, aspects like celebrity relationships, motherhood, career strategies and public appearances.

As you watch the tides of celebrity day to day, what you can see is that these themes are more than just the minutia of life in the spotlight, they are often components in a media strategy, carefully played in order to paint the dots in a larger narrative. Some, like the announcement of Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy, are masterfully managed, while others can be seen as blundering media missteps. Others, like the efforts to address the media after photos of Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were published, were not so well managed. Sometimes, celebrities shape a story and it resonates. Other times it fails.

Here is a great post on Jessica Biel posting a photo on Twitter before the Met Gala. Essentially, Jessica Biel published an image of herself getting dressed and talks about having a tough time zipping her dress. As Lainey summarizes sarcastically, "Jessica Biel, she’s just like us! She has dress and zipper problems too!" From a messaging standpoint, Biel has attempted to shape audience perception of her, but her message didn't align well with her existing narrative. Minutia, yes, but it's an equally important reminder about message -- imagine if Larry Ellison tweeted images of himself putting gas in an SUV and complaining about $4 per gallon gas.

At the same time, there's another media at work here. The Biel image was posted on her celebrity blog site. While Lainey picked it up and commented on it unfavorably, it's possible that there is another audience in the general population, fans that follow her, that go to her site. An audience where this message resonates. Traditional celebrity gossip was subject to the filter of publications and media outlets. Now, the celebrity is able to reach out to their audience and connect directly.

This actually underscores an important change that has been taking place with the increasing importance of social media. While most of us could probably care less about the relationship between the two leads in the Twilight movies, the series built a particularly rabid fanbase, commonly referred to as Twi-hards. More than just passive fans, this audience channels their energy into aggressively communicating their expectations for the narrative back to the studios, the media outlets and the broader public. They campaign like a media tsunami. Here's an example. But, perhaps more important than this type of audience behavior, is the impact that it has on the narrative. Did Kristen Steward and Robert Pattinson get back together because they romantically reconnected or because their Twi-hard fan base demanded that their relationship hold through the final movie? And if it conflicted with their personal values, how much pressure did the studio put on them?

But This Is Business. Who Cares About Celebrity?
We all want to imagine celebrity as this mythical cast, performing in a pantheon of media and activity that is removed from our real world. In that same way, when people encounter celebrities, they are often interested in taking pictures, getting autographs, and documenting their encounters with their legendary figures. Celebrity is also relative. Your CEO may be a celebrity in your business, but virtually unrecognized outside of your company. Many Silicon Valley people might recognize Marissa Mayer, Mark Benioff, or Eric Schmidt, but how many people outside of the business world would recognize their names or know if that sat next to them on a flight?

At the same time, celebrity is a valuable commodity. Notoriety can help you command a larger salary, be hunted by recruiters, or have your opinion be considered. While lots of friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, or people in your LinkedIn network may not be a real measure of friendship, it does speak to some measure of communication influence. It is a measure of celebrity. How often to people turn to you for answers at work? How highly do the people that work with you in your industry regard you? You, the influencer -- this is an aspect of celebrity.

Celebrity is related to your personal brand. Your celebrity status is about who you are, how you promote yourself, and the narrative that people use to understand you. This is possibly the bigger lesson to understand from celebrity studies -- that the way people understand you, that the way they think of you is, essentially, a story. That story is a synthesis of who you are, and the role that you play in the narrative of the encounters that they have with you. Maybe it's your handshake, or when you talked about restaurants, golf, or wine. Maybe it's your cluttered desk, or the phone conversations with your girlfriend that everyone can't help but overhear.

Are you painting narrative dots that increase your celebrity status or making you seem like a trainwreck? Do you seem genuine in your interaction with others, like the stories of Robert Downey Jr., or do you seem nice when the cameras are on but hiding a mean, unpleasant personality like Reese Witherspoon's recent public drunkenness arrest in Georgia.

The Story and the Narrative Dragon
Here's something even more important to understand -- sometimes the narrative takes on a life of it's own. Sometimes you can't control the story, you are simply subject to the effects of being blown around by it. Take this example from the story of Sean Parker's wedding. Here, the story of his wedding started to catch fire as a story published by another media outlet. In several places, the Internet celebrity has attempted to change the narrative, to explain the events and shift the story away from "Sean Parker, anti-hero, eco-wrecker, redwood crusher and all around bad guy". What's more, while this story grew into a media storm, it started with an attempt to keep it private. According to Parker,
We chose a setting for our wedding that was a literal expression of our search for sanctuary — a place that was safe, private, and intimate. We chose a remote location (Big Sur), invited no press, and did our best to conceal that location from the press. We didn’t court attention — quite the opposite, we asked guests to check their cell phones and cameras at the door and we didn’t sell our photos to tabloids.
And yet, the story blew up. What may have started as the simple story of an ultimate nerd fantasy wedding,
a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to force 364 otherwise self-respecting adults to dress up in elaborate fantasy-inspired costumes, a feat of mischief that we were delighted to attempt. The Academy Award winning costume designer (for “Lord of the Rings”), Ngila Dickson, was our co-conspirator, and her brilliant designs exceeded even our wildest dreams.
transformed into a media dragon, a narrative monster. Here's how he describes what he took away from the experience:
The biggest mistake we made in wedding planning was forgetting about the media: that silent, invisible dragon breathing down our necks all along. Nothing has been more shocking to me than the media’s handling of this “controversy”: there were hundreds of articles written, and yet — incredibly — there was only one reporter who bothered to ask us for comment prior to publishing their story.
It's a story of dots, of tidbits crafted into a narrative. As noted earlier, we don't know the reality, we assemble a story from the pieces that we have available. In his critique of the media near the end of the piece, Parker talks about how, "social media has collapsed the traditional media roles of content producer, editor, publisher, and consumer into one and assigned those roles to literally everyone". This also holds true for what it means to be a celebrity, a public figure. As Parker notes, "the more we depend on social networks and other online services to share content with friends and family, the more we risk that our content inadvertently becomes public."

Ultimately, that's why you need to see yourself in terms of your brand, to understand yourself in terms of a media strategy. Because as much as people may want to imagine a world where our private life is not exposed or struggle to understand why Kim Kardashian is seen as a celebrity, this is our modern media. This is our modern reality. Sometimes you control the story. Sometimes, one little narrative dot can change the story and the story controls you.

Wrapping it up
If you've made it to the end of this long post, I hope that one of the take-aways has been an increased understanding of some of the interesting aspects of the celebrity industry. And, while it may feel a bit embarrassing to admit to reading about celebrity, you don't have to think lesser of yourself for it. If you do follow it and spend some time reflecting on the processes, themes, and aspects outside of the specific individuals, I think that you'll find yourself in a far better position to market in the modern world of social media. And should you become famous, you may want to keep these celebrity behavior tips in mind.

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