As we look back on the year 2019, the Arkside team came to realize how it was truly bizarre. Each year we gather in our conference room and review all the major happenings in marketing and pop culture. It is a time to reflect on tide-changing moments. Those memories serve as fuel for our annual end-of-the-year card. We select a theme for the card and then begin discussing design ideas. For the first time in six years we faced a lack of inspiration.
2019 was difficult to summarize. The marketing industry saw no important shifts. We did not have any major moments that genuinely shaped or redefined culture. Brexit was stalled, we were blessed with a lack of devastating natural disasters, no major elections, and a relative lack of large scandals in marketing.
Further complicating our discussion was a rule I instituted for 2019: no politics. The conversations of our nation and world have been defined in recent years by the acrimony, conflict, and chaos of politics. Massive upheaval and drastic turns have turned neighbor against neighbor. Despite the tremendously positive responses we have received in the past to our neutral inclusion of politics such as our “Clinton/Trump mashup” in 2016, or controversial topics such as Colin Kaepernick in 2018, it was important that we go beyond those targets.
Once we turned our attention to media, we started to find some hope. We began with a list of major movie and television productions. Avengers: Endgame broke the box office revenue record (currently $2.8 billion) this summer and did it in record time. More recently, the audience-acclaimed Joker became the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history and also did so in record time. This was due largely to the incredible performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Audiences had a chance to revisit Stephen King’s creepy version of Maine for IT Chapter 2 and see the end of Pennywise 30 years after first venturing to Derry. And of course, there was the much anticipated but massively derided finale to Game of Thrones. It became the most watched single program in HBO history with 19.3 million viewers.
But what did these major moments have in common?
Two things. The first was that none of them were firsts. There are now 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe feature films. There have been at least a dozen Batman feature films with many including Joker. Pennywise was making his third feature film appearance. And Game of Thrones was wrapping up after eight seasons and seven books. Lest we forget the many other reboots and remakes this year.
The second commonality was evil. All of these successes focused on evil characters. Thanos is a genocidal narcissist in Avengers, the Joker is a homicidal genius, Pennywise is a deranged alien, and Daenerys is a murderous ruler. Does this speak to a cultural dark turn in today’s society? We’ll let you decide if the collective billions of dollars spent on these stories says so.
In all, it took us three separate meetings to find this thread woven through the year. But not all hope was lost as we wrapped up our 2019 year in review. Many of us felt like something was missing. And then it hit us like an anvil in a cartoon.
The Popeye’s chicken sandwich. Many Americans expected that Chick-fil-A had the best chicken sandwich. Why should anyone try to dethrone the king? It turns out that people were willing to consider options and when they got a hold of the Popeye’s chicken sandwich creation, they were thrilled! There may have been media-hyped incidents of insanity but it could not be denied that America had embraced a chicken sandwich alternative. And this one could be found on Sundays.
It was simply a good product that met the unmet needs of an audience. It was promoted through effective channels. These are all the things we love as marketers.
The year 2019 taught us that while audiences may deride the lack of new stories from Hollywood, they are more than willing to ignore their criticism in the face of a good story. They still love the theater experience, especially as more theaters add better food, comfortable leather seats, and even seat-side service. Even things we didn’t need -like a new chicken sandwich- are warmly welcomed.
Each of our cards is a look back on the year. It isn’t about the holidays or winter season, but the year we experienced with you and the lessons we hope to take into the next one. Marketing shapes all of our lives as we experience products, services, and messages daily.
So we take these lessons into 2020. We hope to work with you to provide a better experience, better service, and tackling any preconceived bias about things already done. The people have asked for good stories and good experiences. Let’s provide them together and grow your business.
Nathan Greenberg, CEO
Twentieth Century Fox apologized last month for an “X-Men: Apocalypse billboard because it shows Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Mystique, being choked by Apocalypse (a male character). The outrage over the X-Men billboard began when actress Rose McGowan posted her disappointment on social media after seeing the billboard in Los Angeles. After the public flogging, Fox issued this statement:
In our enthusiasm to show the villainy of the character Apocalypse we didn’t immediately recognize the upsetting connotation of this image in print form. Once we realized how insensitive it was, we quickly took steps to remove those materials. We apologize for our actions and would never condone violence against women.
The offended people and 20th Century Fox are both missing the point. When analyzed from a marketing perspective, both groups are making a mistake.
Of course. Everything is offensive to someone. The legendary “Got Milk?” ad about the assassination of Alexander Hamilton may have offended people. Budweiser’s Clydesdale ads offend people against the use of animals in advertising. Does that mean they were bad or mean-spirited? No. Marketing is a combination of art and science. It should be understood that “you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time” (John Lydgate, adapted by President Abraham Lincoln). The important issue is whether or not the offense or the size of the offended party merits attention in your marketing.
In this case, the size of the offended group and their voice were extremely small until Rose McGowan used social media. After that, the size of the offended group remained small but they had a larger megaphone to broadcast their grievance. They became a very vocal minority. It can be said with some certainly that most people understood that the latest installment in the X-Men movie franchise had violence in it. Why was this violence so offensive?
It is worth noting that the image depicted on the billboard is taken from the movie itself. It is an actual scene in which Apocalypse battles Mystique. But only the advertising was vilified. Why is the on-screen “violence against women” not decried yet the advertising depicting the violence is maligned? According to Ms. McGowan and followers of her cause, they didn’t feel it was right to have the image “forced” upon them (especially their children).
Some facts need to be added for the sake of marketing analysis and public perception:
It seems counterproductive to criticize a billboard for violence against women when that movie has a strong, female lead character who defeats all the men that stand against her.
Furthermore, the same level of outrage was lacking from Ms. McGowan and her fans when Mystique was killing military personnel in previous films or when she was beating up men at all. A double-standard in objecting to violence seems inappropriate.
Fox’s mistake came not in the billboard, but in their apology for the X-Men billboard and removing it from the campaign. As marketers, we fully appreciate the pressure on major corporations to walk many fine lines to please customers. In this case, we would not have advised Fox to apologize or remove the billboards. It is our opinion that they should have stood behind their campaign, the strong female lead character, and the film’s PG-13 rating which deems it appropriate for most of the world’s population to watch.
For parents, the billboard is an opportunity to have a positive discussion with their kids. They can explain Mystique, her strength, her redemption, he leadership, and her triumph over evil. Tell them Apocalypse is an evil character who thinks it is okay to use power over people instead of helping them.
The X-Men, like the Fantastic Four, and many other comic book characters are about good defeating evil, equality among all, and justice reigning supreme.
Fox could have told that story instead of apologizing for it.