White Buffalo, Fried Chicken and RFID Chips: How Series Are Marketed at SXSW

To make their mark among an overabundance of television content, series resort to experiential and immersive marketing as was demonstrated during the 2017 South by Southwest festival.

Of all things seen, heard and experienced at SXSW, one remarkable trend seems to be a return to ‘actual reality’ whereas virtual reality, represented during the last four festivals, takes up more and more space.

It’s a form of reality that translates into a tangible and physical commitment as well as a ‘living together’ application revisited from a marketing perspective. It’s something that TV series understood perfectly when they occupied a few blocks in downtown Austin during the festival.

Photo credits: Mathieu onlike.net

Performances and retweets

Although discrete in the programming—at most a half-dozen titles (including digital series) inviting to be officially discovered—, series were nevertheless omnipresent at SXSW.

It’s in the streets that festival fans could witness American Gods take over large spans of the city. Right next to the Convention Center stood the giant buffalo. The series is an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s best-seller (starting April 30 on Starz). However, at the animal’s feet, passersby contented themselves of classic goodies (T-shirts, tote bags, etc.) that did not have much to do with the teeming mythology of which a glimpse was provided in the pilot.

More furtively, servants dressed in red paraded around to announce another upcoming adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or yet the quasi nudist performance announcing the new series Stripped.

More originally, the delicious Royal Blue Grocery housed the time of a few days the lockers of the young heroes of the new series 13 Reasons Why, available on Netflix since March 31. At once short-lived and localized, this smart form of ‘street marketing’ reached its goal of creating an enormous social media buzz.

The locker in 13 Reasons Why (photo: Oriane Hurard)

A first observation is easy to make: video channels and platforms use the festival as a launching ramp for their new offerings. Given 455 series were broadcast in 2016 in the United States, it makes perfect sense. To be discovered among hundreds of hours of content, you need to stand out.

The numerous festivals and fan conventions held in the US have always represented preferred venues for communication agencies that strive to promote new films or series in increasingly novel and immersive ways.

As early as 2007, the alternate reality game Why so Serious was launched during the San Diego Comiccon, the largest geek meet on the planet, more than one year before the release of the film that it was promoting, i.e., The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan.

And it’s not the first year that SXSW hosted events prepared before the launch of a new series. (For example, we recall our first VR experience in the Game of Thrones exhibit in 2014 as well as the Mr. Robot enigma the following year.) However, as Vanity Fair points out, it would appear that the festival’s 2017 edition represented the quintessence of this trend.

In Austin, fictional places are set in real life

Although HBO was once again present with Game of Thrones, it made it a point of honour this year not only to propose an Escape Room around its star franchise but also pay tribute to two of the chain’s other most popular and inclusive titles: Silicon Valley and Veep.

Three ‘living puzzles’ had teams of fans evolve in a meticulously recreated décor and solve a mystery created for the occasion within a limited time in accordance with the proven principle of the escape game that has been very popular since a few years.

“We continue to value traditional marketing but are starting to take a less traditional path by proposing interactive and immersive experiences that enable consumers to touch and smell the series’ universe,” explained Joanna Scholl, HBO’s vice-president of marketing, to Adweek with respect to the operation.

The initiative was announced a few days before the beginning of the festival, and it took only a few seconds for all places to be filled. What a surprise!

Amazon also made a noticeable impression by recreating another scene of one of its best-known series, Resistance Radio, straight out of the last season of The Man in the High Castle.

Free admission through a short semi-narrative, semi-marketing course wearing a RFID bracelet to watch a few minutes of the new releases proposed by Amazon and especially to enter the “bar in the bar”—a secret place accessible through a door hidden behind a shelving unit—a savour a well-deserved cocktail. For fans that did not attend the Austin festival, Resistance Radio was also launched on the Internet.

Photo credits: Mathieu onlike.net

Food and binge-watching go well together

A little further into Austin, an ordinary fast-food joint rose from the ground at the beginning of the festival… Binge-watchers are very familiar with the logo (two dressed chickens back to back) and the name, Los Pollos Hermanos.

It was a reproduction of one of the restaurants owned by the infamous Gus Fring, the bad guy in the Breaking Bad series. And it wasn’t a coincidence if the restaurant reappeared four years after the series ended. Indeed, season 3 of Better Call Saul starts on April 10 and we will be witnessing the encounter of Jimmy ‘Saul’ McGill and Gus in this prequel to Breaking Bad.

Photo credits: Mathieu onlike.net

Likewise, the mythical Double R Diner of the no less mythical Twin Peaks series made its appearance at the end of the festival to announce a third season (coming out on May 21).

Neither venue had any entertainment experience to propose per se if not for the pleasure to visit emblematic places showcased in our favourite series, taste one of the culinary specialties and leave with a goody or a photo of the show’s main actors (Bob Odenkirk and Giancarlo Esposito in the first case, Kyle McLachlan in the second).

Heading toward an increasingly realistic virtual experience

These different examples all testify to the predominance of experiences over content. It is interesting to note that, beyond American Gods, none of the series mentioned here held screenings during the festival.

In the coming weeks, we shall all have the opportunity to discover the episodes on TV or online, but the festival goers will remember the unique experience and time spent in such or such a fictional place that became a reality (their reality) during the festival.

This search for immersion and highlights to be shared between friends or with strangers marks a stark contrast with the increasingly individualistic uses of technology (screens are getting smaller and smaller, virtual reality headsets obstruct the field of view, etc.). And it is precisely this paradox that is at the core of SXSW—a hybrid festival that caters to multiple genres.

Finally, it should be noted that virtual reality is also headed to occupy physical space with multiplayer, interactive and custom-designed facilities. It’s the entire entertainment industry that seems to be focussed on a virtual reality that is becoming more and more realistic in the hopes of attracting and retaining viewers who are increasingly solicited as well as of penetrating fictional universes that are increasingly realistic.

And what if they were impossible to escape from?

Oriane Hurard
Oriane Hurard is a producer with Les Produits Frais as well as a festival programmer for new storytelling formats (transmedia, webseries, VR) and a new media and community management instructor.
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