Can a TV Show Teach Us About Marketing?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: pop culture provides the best source of insight into American advertising and marketing. If you want to know how to tap into the collective consciousness, just check out a little pop culture.

This time around I want to focus on "Lost," the achingly addictive series on ABC. Not only is "Lost" an inventive, intelligent show and groundbreaking in its pioneering use of cross-media distribution, but it's also an amazing example of how an audience will remain engaged across multiple forms of media to follow the show and uncover the deeper plot points required to fully grasp what's going on. Let's consider it TV 2.0.

I've watched "Lost" religiously since last summer, when I first picked up the DVD of season one and proceeded to view the entire set in two days--but three weeks ago was the first time I've ever watched the show on TV during its regularly scheduled airing. I typically watch "Lost" on Thursday after I've downloaded it from iTunes, and I can follow it up with an hour or so spent paging through the message boards to discover all the little tidbits I may have missed. It's here that I typically uncover the literary references



too obscure for my passive-television mind, which make up the deeper elements of the show's mythology.

Three weeks ago was different, though. I watched this airing because I was curious if they were going to do anything different now that the show would be available immediately following airing via I wasn't disappointed, since during the final commercial pod they aired a commercial for The Hanso Foundation, which is one of the elements of the show's mythology and one of the uncovered plot points being weaved in and out of the story (plus a great way to get me to watch the commercials).

This commercial launched the LOST Experience, an Internet game which provides more insights into the show and tries to uncover the background of the mysterious Hanso Foundation while satisfying those of us who can't possibly survive on just one fix per week from the series. The game thus far has uncovered The Hanso Foundation Web site and a spin-off site. There are cryptic passwords and phone numbers to call, some of which lead to dead-ends, but all of which spark discussion and controversy on the "Lost" message boards.

There has already been a series of books featuring the back-stories of other Losties, and now we have the fictional title "Bad Twin," which was referenced in an episode just two weeks ago, supposedly written by a passenger aboard the doomed flight Oceanic 815. The author is mysterious, but we know the name is an anagram for Purgatory (which is an oft-referenced possible explanation for the story that has been denied repeatedly by the show's creators).

"What does all of this mean and how does this provide some insight into advertising and marketing?" you might ask. Simple--it's all about engagement.

The Advertising Research Foundation recently held a meeting to propose some metrics for measuring engagement. Meeting participants referred not only to tracking reach and frequency, but also to tracking the creative message and the environment in which this message is placed. What is interesting about "Lost" is that it is taking a television show and transforming it into a brand that speaks to a specific audience and provides for an experience that is cross-media, breaks through the clutter, and engages the consumer at a very deep level. It is fast becoming a lifestyle brand that goes far beyond a television show. Imagine the score on engagement that the show is receiving, and imagine the engagement an advertiser would have if it followed the experience around different formats of media.

The way "Lost" appears to engage the audience and break through the clutter is by providing insight at different touchpoints through the course of a media day for its audience without compromising their intelligence. You have to be relatively focused to pick up on many of the show's deeper plot points, and you have to be willing to go along for the ride.

The ride itself is not a solo journey, as it has quickly provided a forum for a community of people all interested in the show. They meet online and they discuss the show, and they imply a sense of trust and loyalty that can be harnessed to evangelize the show much like they would evangelize any other brand (I started watching the show because other people kept telling me I should check it out, not solely because of the advertising).

By providing a sense of community and tapping into the mind of the audience across multiple points of contact, "Lost" presents a cohesive message and breaks through the clutter not by being fancy or flamboyant, but by being clear. Even though the story of the show is a complex one, the audience continues to imagine storylines which wrap up all the pieces into one simple explanation. We know there will be an explanation eventually, and the show provides us with an outlet to engage one another to predict what it will be. The message is an attempt to provide simplicity in complexity. It is about redemption in the face of fear.

We as an audience make sense of the messages and try to find a simple solution for the sum of the pieces. The show provides a story for us to follow and a reason to follow it, in hopes of an eventual payoff. A brand tries to instill the same sense of trust and loyalty and sense of accomplishment, whether it is in satisfying your hunger (like a candy bar), providing a solution for stains (like a laundry detergent), or conveying an image of cool or trendiness (like a fashion label). Every brand attempts to provide a solution in the eyes of its consumers and they do so by raising questions throughout the daily lives of their audience, in the hope that when it comes time to make a decision, they'll associate and think of your brand first. In that instance they have become a lifestyle choice as much as a solution to a problem.

It may be a stretch in your eyes to consider dishwashing detergent an extension of a lifestyle, but that is what brands try to become. Popular culture is one way to tap into the consciousness of the consumer, and watching what a TV show like "Lost" does and how it reaches into the consciousness of the consumer is one way to learn. Don't you agree?

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