Transmedia: branding’s next new thing? (Part Two)

Mr_cleanYesterday, we asked whether Jenkins’ notion of transmedia might serve as a new way to approach marketing. 

In the old world of marketing, there wasn’t much transmediation to speak of.  Corporations made products, and informed the advertising agency, who in turn informed the consumer.  Consumer might communicate with one another, and they would certainly rebuilt the brand for their own purposes, but mostly this marketing exercise was a bob sled run, with producers at the top and consumers at the bottom.  The meanings went straight down a single shute.  They did not run on several tracks.

Transmedia, as Jenkins says, presupposes "a story unfold[ing] across multiple media platforms with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole."

But for Mr. Clean there was no back story, no alternative endings, no competing interpretation.  There was in fact no narrative to speak of.  I think some consumers surmised that Mr. Clean was an uncorked genie, a creature out of Shahrazad released from the lamp/bottle to put his magic at the disposal of the homemaker.  In this case, the brand was actually removing meaning from the icon, not supplementing or multiplying this meaning. 

Perdue is famous for branding what all the world thought was an unbrandable commodity, and an agency  did so by making Frank Perdue a man who just a little too obsessed with chickens.  Really this was a pitch about quality, but because it was dressed up as a story about Mr. Perdue, a little narrative was allowed to "sneak in." 

Sneak in and stay put.  The Frank Perdue story is not told by anyone else on any other media.  Consumers are not encouraged to elaborate, and one can only imagine what would happen if the writers of comic books and satire were to take up the narrative "challenge" (Ozzie Osbourne, etc).  Besides which, the meaning making vehicle is a fanciful version of an actual man, Frank Perdue, and there are limits to what we can do here. 

There is more to think about here and I think Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s and now deceased, made for a meaning making vehicle that had a little more narrative range.  I think consumers liked him because they began to make attributions and imputations of their own.  He was, as we used to say of Archie Bunker, lovable in a quirky way.  And "quirky" is of course a clear signal that we are veering slightly away from the well worn tracks of narrative in our culture…or at the very least we have struck complexity and that’s interesting. 

But, neither Perdue nor Thomas, opened up real narrative possibilities that could be explored by several parties in several media.   In a strange, imperfect way, celebrity endorsers help do this…as when Uma Thurman appears in an ad for a wrist watch.  What Ms. Thurman is mostly lending is her celebrity, but little bits of her filmic narratives break off and "lodge" in the brand image.  It depends upon the viewer whether these bits are Uma Thurman from Kill Bill, Dangerous Liaisons, or, God help us, Be Cool.  But it is probably true that the narrative traces Ms. Thurman brings to an endorsement, she takes with her when she moves on. 

And this raises the question of why it is that advertising, marketing and branding should have been so disinterested in narrative at all, let alone multiple narratives?  Some of this I think we can put down to a certain "good enough for television" laziness.  Some of it was due perhaps do the media hierarchy that encouraged marketing to know its place.  Narrative was for the older, grander discourses.  (And this was perhaps not a bad trade off after all.  It forced the marketer to work with haiku economy.  It also released the brand from the constraints of narrative.)  And some of it may come from marketing’s early and sometimes inadvertant committment to cocreation.  The more specific one was about the narrative for, say, Mr. Clean the more limited was the creative freedom left to the consumer.  Or to put this more positively, it may be that the marketing team saw that Mr. Clean was more compelling when less specific.

But just when we think that there is really no place for transmedia in the world of brands, two words come to mind: "soap opera."  According to Robert Allen, this form first appeared in 1930, "when Chicago radio station WGN approached first a detergent company and then a margarine manufacturer with a proposal for a new type of program: a daily, fifteen-minute serialized drama."  By 1937, the soap opera, Allen says, "dominated the daytime commercial radio schedule and had become a crucial network programming strategy for attracting such large corporate sponsors as Procter and Gamble, Pillsbury, American Home Products, and General Foods. Most network soap operas were produced by advertising agencies, and some were owned by the sponsoring client."  The TV version of the soap opera was created by Procter and Gamble in 1950. 

The thing about soap operas, I believe, is that they were not tightly controlled by the advertising agency or brand.  They were narrative enterprises that were simply allowed to run in that slightly crazy way that soap operas do, jumping wildly between plot lines, doubling back upon themselves unexpectedly, resurrecting the dead and banishing the living with nary an explanation or acknowledgment.   Indeed there was so little narrative disipline here that the soap opera might as well have been unfolding across media platforms.  But on closer scrutiny, we must acknowledge the obvious:  there was precious little multiplicity of authority or mixing of media at work here. 

But there is something of interest here, nonetheless.  For here brands had apparently found a way to draw value from narrative without binding this narrative close to the breast.  And this is remarkable.  It suggests a time in the history of marketing when brands and narratives were  "fellow travellers," when a loose association between the two was not only acceptable but efficacious.  If was enough for P&G to sponsor a soap on an enduring basis for P&G to make itself the beneficiary of the exercise.  (I don’t doubt there was some "forced march" association [e.g., product placement] as well.)

Ok, I’ve done it again: running out of time and no doubt, the reader’s patience.  I promise to wrap this up tomorrow.


Allen, Robert.  n.d., Soap Opera, an essay presented by the Museum of Broadcast Communications. here.

Jenkins, Henry. forthcoming.  Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect.  New York: New York University Press.

post script:

This is entry number "500" here at This blogs sits at the intersection of anthropology and economics.  I’m taking everyone to the bowling alley this afternoon, if you feel like coming.  I believe there will be pony rides in the parking lot.  The clowns, they’re iffy.  See you there. 

4 thoughts on “Transmedia: branding’s next new thing? (Part Two)

  1. steve

    Great post. I think your point about not wanting to crowd the customer’s imagination too much with narrative is well-taken. There are a few drawbacks with over-narrativizing (ugh) an ad image: a) Not everyone in the target audience likes the same stories and meanings. To choose is then to exclude. b) The brand promise or characteristics may need to change over time, and it could be awkward to modify the preexisting narrative. c) There is something appealing, and in some cases glamorous, about a shallow or “flat” presentation. Think about the Camel cigarette girls–you don’t get any backstory and can therefore free-associate about sex and fun without being reminded of the costs of sex and fun (especially the lung cancer aspects). Or, if you are the kind of person who likes to make up elaborate mental fantasies, you can use the clothing and historic period cues to do that.

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