New promos for TV shows blur the lines between fiction and reality.
As TV begins to play an increasingly important role in consumer’s lives, creative networks are creating campaigns that place their characters directly into the real world, adding a new dimension of reality to the characters on screen.
In June, full-page ads appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times featuring an alarming headline, “The Russians Are Here,” above an image of the Washington Monument wrapped in a Soviet-style flag. The ad was actually taken out by FX to promote The Americans, its critically-acclaimed show about Soviet spies living in a Cold War-era America.
While a website at the bottom of the page led to an FX page, no other copy directly clued the reader into the purpose of the ad. In today’s political climate, many likely took the ad for a warning from a political critic or think tank. By tapping into a real-world political event, FX likely generated interest (and views) beyond what would have been possible with a traditional ad.
Another show with a political bent, Netflix’s House of Cards has also played with viewers’ perceptions of reality. For its newest season, Netflix hired former White House photographer Pete Souza to shoot the show’s fictional president Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. The “day in the life” photographs used Souza’s well-known style to show Spacey in famous DC locations, interacting with crowds in a natural way.
This is not the first time Netflix has blurred the boundaries between promotion and reality: In 2016, the company unveiled a painting of Spacey in his presidential character at the National Portrait Gallery, where other presidential portraits hang. The event featured Spacey in character, with members of the actual White House press corps in attendance.
“We were captivated by Jonathan [Yeo, the artist]’s bold idea to depict Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, which also reflects the changing way in which people consume media,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, in a statement. “Now ‘binge watching’ television has put control into the hands of consumers, who can watch their favorite shows at their leisure. Not only does it reflect the impact of popular contemporary culture on America’s story, but it also exemplifies the fine art tradition of actors portrayed in their roles.”
Perhaps one of the most unsettling recent examples of “realvertising” was a promotional stunt for The Handmaid’s Tale, a new Hulu show based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel set in a totalitarian America. At this year’s South by Southwest conference, women dressed in the show’s notable bright red costumes for Handmaids could be seen roaming the grounds. With no splashy billboards or posters announcing The Handmaid’s Tale, the stunt seemed designed to blend in to the conference—and stand out all the more for its unsettling realness.
Blurring the lines between reality and fiction even further, fans of the show, perhaps inspired by the South by Southwest stunt, have worn the same red costumes to state legislatures in Texas and Ohio as part of protests against anti-abortion legislation.
The number of scripted TV shows has grown 71% over the past five years, according to the Wall Street Journal, with a record of 455 shows in 2016. According to FX Networks president John Landgraf, the industry has hit “peak TV.” Most of the growth has been driven by streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, adding more original content.
Amid more choices than ever before, TV networks must get creative to stand out in the crowd. Ads that infiltrate on the real world not only generate interest and attention, but can form a strong connection with consumers where they least expect it—in the real world.
For more coverage from SXSW, read JWT Intelligence’s 2017 roundup here.