Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It Always Seems Like A Good Idea At The Time

nhl heroes

"If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative." -- David Ogilvy

The ultimate purpose of any marketing campaign is to get consumers to buy your product. Some are more successful than others at re-exciting current customers or attracting new buyers. But every now and then one comes along that really makes you wonder what exactly they're trying to achieve.

Usually, that's a sign of either desperation or confusing what your target audience really wants with what appears current in the popular culture.

TV Execs make this mistake all the time, asking for characters who represent a certain strata of society ("Make him a Sk8tr Boy") or reflect a current trend ("She should wear Yoga pants and listen to Cold Play").

In a recent podcast about his latest film "The Social Network", the interviewer told Aaron Sorkin that the film has inspired a feeding frenzy among Hollywood studios for scripts about "My Space", "Twitter" and almost every other social media or Internet success.

But Sorkin insisted the film wasn't about facebook. "It's about friendship and loyalty and what happens when those elements collide with money and power."

According to the screenwriter, the basics of drama first laid out by Aeschylus and Aristotle have more to do with the film's phenomenal success than how many people have a social media habit.

It was one of those truths about writing and reaching our fellow human beings that we all need to be reminded of from time to time. The real goals we need to keep at the forefront in a business that eternally seeks success by coat-tailing what has been successful elsewhere.

Last fall, the National Hockey League, perennially incapable of "growing the game" in non-hockey markets or even landing a major American TV deal, launched "The Guardian Project".

Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee was hired to create one Superhero for each of the NHL's 30 teams, who would then -- uh -- battle evil or something. But in the process, they would also inspire kids and young adults uninterested in hockey to embrace the game.

Lee's characters have been rolling out at the rate of one a day since the beginning of this month and will "come to life" at the NHL All Star Game on Sunday.

Their official debut is touted as being "a combination of an in-arena ice projection and hologram show as the 30 heroes save Carolina fans after their arch enemy takes over the arena".

Does anybody have any idea who Carolina fans' arch enemy is?

Over-priced merchandise?

The genius who decided a pig would make a great team mascot?

Maybe it's the PR guy who chose bowling with humans as the intermission entertainment.

human bowling

This whole thing is the red-headed brain child of a marketing exec who thought it up 12 years ago as a way of getting kids interested in watching football. After the NFL had security escort him back to the elevator, he re-jigged it for hockey and the NHL said "Cool" -- proof that the head injury problem may be as much an issue at the New York head office as it is on the ice.

Since the symptoms of too many concussions include short term memory loss, it might explain why nobody remembered that the NHL tried this exact same thing in 1996 when Disney created "The Mighty Ducks" animated series to lure in young American fans.

It didn't work and what's more the final product was so embarrassing that no Disney network has ever re-run it.


Similarly, the heroes Marvel has created are already arriving with their own negative baggage. Designed as "kick-ass tough guys that represent the spirit of the team" most are afterthought copies of current or past Marvel heroes more likely to piss off the fan-boy community than inspire them to buy season tickets.

I mean, is this the Phoenix Coyotes' "mysterious Plains drifter" or Wolverine?

coyote wolverine

Just what does either being a superhero or hockey have to do with the Nashville Predators' "Predator", whose major skill is being a consumate musician?

And why has the league's largest fan base, Toronto Maple Leaf fanatics like me, been saddled with a Super hero who's a tree?

Albeit one who can fire "sap balls" from his fingertips.

"The Maple Leaf" (now there's an original name) was introduced yesterday and immediately ignited the wrath of the always quick to anger Leaf Nation. Comments from Leaf fans included:

"Cut him in half. Count the rings. Now you know how long it's been since we last won the cup."

"Can he spooge Maple Syrup to go with the Waffles tossed on the ice?"


"I thought we already traded Nick Andropov."

Hockey bloggers and columnists from around the League have voiced similar sentiments from their own fans.

But the brain trust behind the Guardian Project, like the studio Execs responsible for "Jonah Hex" and "Speed Racer", insist that the current popularity of fictional graphic characters will overcome all obstacles to create an new wave of rabid young hockey fans.

They envision spin-off graphic novels, movies, video games and live arena entertainment capable of generating millions of dollars in profit. They also claim they've already turned down a TV deal because it involved only four "Guardians" when all 30 need to be a part of any adventure.

Have any of these legend designing geniuses stopped picking out a pin number for their future Swiss Bank Account long enough to contemplate how long it would take to set up 30 characters in a TV pilot, let alone 30 characters of equal importance?

Of course they haven't; anymore than they've considered how heroes allied against "evil arch enemies and their military machines" equate with the fierce team rivalries that pitch NHL arena emotions or the athletic courage and exceptional physical talent being exhibited on the ice surface.

While those originating the Guardian Project have apparently mapped complex story lines which "may take decades" to complete, even they can't come up with one reason why it will inspire a kid uninterested in hockey to become a fan.

In interviews they point to nebulous concepts like "Brand Recognition", "Social Media Activities" and "Hockey References".

Following this logic, a nine year old inner city kid in Detroit following "The Red Wing" (another original name) will be inspired either by the Facebook Zynga game or the hero's recollections of Gordie Howe to want to watch the current Red Wings play live.

It's a perfect example of the disconnect that Sorkin was talking about. The confusion of what's popular with why people really feel a product is worthy of them parting with their hard earned money.

It always amazes me that the Multi-Million or Billionaire owners of Sports franchises, most of whom got where they are by selling the Public a useful product or necessary service, suddenly spin off into believing that marketing a fictional muscled mascot will make them more successful than putting together a winning team.

Back in 1993, the Toronto ownership of the city's first NBA franchise chose to call their team, "The Raptors". This wasn't based on any relationship between the city or basketball and dinosaurs. It was because "Jurassic Park" had been a big hit movie in 1993 and the guys in charge of marketing figured it was the best way to get all those with dino-obsessed kids to buy into the dream.

Of course, it didn't work and probably disappointed those who came to the arena expecting to see the visiting team eaten. The Raptors struggled for years -- until they began to win -- and struggle once more because they've stopped winning.

Dinosaurs, meanwhile, never went out of style for subsequent generations of 9 year olds.

What sells hockey to those who live and breath it is the speed, the sacrifice, the courage and the dexterity it demands of all those who would play the game. What keeps people coming back are the real sub-plots of overcoming adversity, striving for perfection and facing real bad guys like Sean Avery.

It's about being a part of real passion instead of one manufactured for you.

If the NHL really wants to appeal to kids, it needs to show them that there is heroism and dedication to a team and a goal in real life rather than diluting and confusing the product with fictional characters with concocted agendas who can be plentifully found elsewhere.


Dana said...

Thought you might get a kick out of this.


Anonymous said...

I am laughing at some of these heroes I haven't heard mentioned yet: "The Senator" with Super-Snooze power. "The Oiler" With Bitumen power, "The Hab" Watch him eat beans and destroy the rue Ste-Catherine. "The Canuck", with rainmaking power, he can make it rain on the city 24/7.
So many possibilities for jokes but "The Maple Leaf" sure had me do a spit take.

And I am a cartoonist.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Stan Lee is a prince and a genius but here he's plainly taking the League's money to make them shut up and go away. Over the years I've seen back-of-an-envelope superheroes used in attempts to sell carpets, insurance, dry cleaning... the worst/best was a Williams furniture ad that featured a guy in cape and rights running in slo-mo that betrayed an obvious need for supportive underwear. But why furniture, I have no idea.

John McFetridge said...

One of the Maple Leafs' superpowers is, "mass manipulation," which explains a lot.

C. said...

Actually, The Mighty Ducks' animated series aired on Toon Disney until 2004. I'm not sure when Toon Disney started the reruns, but yeah, Disney be not proud.