A few months back, a rather heated debate flared up in regards to an avenue of comics advocacy that has rarely been explored: that of advertising. By “advertising,” I’m not referring to niche advertising, ads in comics for other comics, because honestly what good do those do? I mean actual ads for comics that the public might see, ads that have the potential to truly expand the fanbase of comics and get more readers interested in what comics have to offer.
Ideas for a possible comic book awareness ad campaign have been compared to the national ad campaign for milk. However, there are some major differences between how milk and comics would be advertised, and that’s even after forgetting the fact that milk is universally available at every grocery and convenience store in America and comics aren’t. With the “Got Milk?” campaign, all of the milk producers came together to get behind it. In comics, I don’t think that kind of solidarity is very likely, unfortunately.
Even if the publishers were to put aside their disagreements and unite under this common cause, going for a similar campaign to the milk ads wouldn’t work. Their campaign is too general to work in our situation, because, unlike milk, not all comics are uniform. You can go to the store and buy any carton of milk, and they will all be similar. But each comic is different, and it wouldn’t work for newcomers to just show up at a comic shop and say, “I’d like some comics please.”
However, current thinking is that a poster campaign featuring celebrities who read comics will be enough to convince non-readers to check out what comics have to offer, a decision that I think is a mistake. First of all, I have to wonder how effective a series of posters is actually going to be. Wouldn’t that kind of advertising make comics seem small and even a bit cheap, like when a band hangs fliers for their latest gig at the local coffeehouse? Shouldn’t we be trying for something bigger, something that’ll get wider exposure like a magazine ad? Why not show a brief ad for comics before a movie or during a TV show that draws inspiration from a comic? Stephen King seems to recognize that his made-for-TV movies are not enough of an ad for his books, so those shows almost always carry rider ads for their source material. Why doesn’t Smallville?
Secondly, I’ve heard some people comment that pinning our hopes for legitimacy on celebrity endorsements in a way makes comics look even less hip than it did before. If we have to point out to the general public “Hey, look! Cool people like us!” it just seems as if we’re trying too hard. Plus, the cult of celebrity is such a fickle thing and we might end up riding the coattails of a celebrity who, three months from now, isn’t so famous anymore. Worse yet, we might become very popular for a short while and then fizzle out like most other fads. No, we want a campaign with a little more staying power than that, I think.
And then there’s the whole issue that such posters would not show comics in them at all, relying solely on a celebrity’s image to succeed. The maker of these ads has said that it is the goal of good advertising to “show the hole, not the drill,” to sell the consumer on the benefits of the product not the product itself. If that is the true goal of these ads… are we trying to say that if people read comics, they too can have a life like Ben Affleck’s? Comics did not cause his fame like a drill caused there to be a hole in a piece of wood. Besides all that, I have to wonder how valuable an ad campaign for Black and Decker would be if the drill itself were hardly mentioned in the ad, and all we saw is a hole the entire time. I think advertising is most effective when it shows the product in action, when it focuses on the drill as it makes the hole.
Advertising is much more likely to succeed if the actual product being advertised is depicted in it somewhere. Imagine that—people wanting to read something based on hearing about that thing itself, as opposed to someone else who read that thing. I don’t understand why that’s such a hard concept to understand. People only want to buy a sandwich from a fast food restaurant when they have seen an actual picture of the sandwich. Car commercials show the car itself in them, even if it’s only for a few seconds, and even in those Gap ads that feature pop stars making fools of themselves, they’re wearing Gap clothes while they do it. You have to show the product you’re advertising, and you have to show it being used.
Product placement might work much better than actual ads, because it would place the comics within a normal context. If comics are seen more and more in everyday situations on TV and in film, then people will slowly start to change their minds about comics, stop thinking of them as for little kids and grown-up geeks. That very idea is why I’ve suggested time and again in this column that people read their comics in public just as they might a newspaper.
Now DC has clearly already started down this road with The OC, in what to me is an obvious move to improve the image their comics have. Every week on this show two of the main characters, both reasonably intelligent teenage boys (albeit one slightly less hip than the other), can be seen reading the latest issue of Batman, JSA or The Legion. The fact that it is always these titles, some of which might be a bit more obscure than, say, Spiderman, is what leads me to believe it was a calculated move on DC’s part and not simply the doing of some fan on the writing staff. But still, every week there the comics are, and every week I can’t help but think of the countless teenage girls out there watching the show who are starting to think of comics in a different way because of it.
And what about Free Comic Book Day? Is that not advertising? Well, actually no, it’s a promotion, and there is a big difference between the two. What it sometimes seems that the organizers have failed to realize is that a promotional event needs to be advertised to work. You can offer all the free comics you want, but if no one knows about the offer, it won’t do any good. If Free Comic Book Day is ever to be effective at reaching the masses, comic book companies that participate need to pool their resources and advertise the event together: in magazines, on TV (and I mean more than the niche market of Sci-Fi and Cartoon Network, by the way), and in movie theaters.
Don’t get me wrong; advertising is definitely a good idea, one that we as comics advocates need to get behind. But by the same token we need to be careful how we do it, so that we’re sure we’re not throwing our money away. A concentrated effort, involving as many of the major publishers as possible, is necessary to promote comics in general, in concert with individual publishers biting the bullet and spending some money to promote specific books on their own. We comics advocates, running our little grassroots campaigns with flash mobs and other giveaways, can only do so much; we can’t bear the whole brunt of it. It’s long past time for comics publishers to get out there and start advocating themselves.