Television, Flashbacks, and Complicating Marketing Copy

What innovations in TV can teach us about consumers

by My Web Writers

In his bestselling book, Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson asserts that popular media such as TV, video games, and the internet are actually making people smarter. In doing so, he flies in the face of the popular wisdom that watching TV or playing video games turns one’s brain into Jell-O. He argues that television programming has become more complicated through the a proliferation of layered subplots, complex social networks among characters, and more information viewers must keep in mind to fully appreciate each episode.

As programming becomes more complicated, so are the means of consuming media. Massive changes in the production and distribution of television and other media through the rise of iTunes, Hulu, smart phones, and other technologies have fundamentally changed the way audiences watch TV. In The Television Will Be Revolutionized,Amanda Lotz discusses the way technology has changed television as we know it, ushering in a “post-network” era. Among her many observations is a discussion of how audiences are increasingly split by time and space, rather than watching water-cooler staples on the same night. In other words, rather than everyone watching Friends on Thursday night and talking about it at work on Friday, through TiVo, Hulu, and other venues, audiences are increasingly watching TV shows whenever they want. Often, this viewership is accompanied by participation in online commenting, forums, or blogging. Thus, bolstering Johnson’s claims, the new technologies allow for audiences to become more discerning in their viewership and more inter-connected in their responses to the media and their various forms of access. For example, a college student watching The Daily Show is likely watching the program on his or her laptop or has the laptop open while watching. This dual-usage of technology allows for the student to chat with friends about the show while watching or to look up more information about the stories highlighted on the program. Finally, he or she can share clips or responses to the show on social media, creating a web of technology and response around his or her viewing.

A forthcoming collection of essays, Television and Temporality: Narrative Time in 21st Century Programming (Spring 2012 Mississippi UP), will examine how these technological changes and other shifts in the culture have lead to an increase in experimentation with narrative time. Some shows, such as 24 and Prison Break compress time so that each episode fits a certain timeframe, while others such as Arrested Development interrupt time, layering plots onto each other. Further, shows such as Pushing Daisies, How I Met Your Mother, Medium, and Lost use flashbacks and do-overs as part of their narratives.

Although it may be difficult to imagine how these narrative devices can apply to non-narrative copywriting, some of the principles underlying the temporal play can still apply to successful Internet marketing copy. It is no secret that creating highly-connected, quality content is a huge part of building a site that ranks highly in SEO. Because of recent changes in algorithms, Google+, and Panda, the consumer’s experience with a site and its content will play a much larger role in how sites rank going forward. Thus, innovative, enjoyable content will be a huge asset. Thinking about the above trends in television, there are some specific takeaways about creative content.

1. Non-linear thinking draws in viewers. Come at your content from a unique angle. While nonlinear stories—those using flashbacks, interrupted time, etc.—hold an audience’s attention by making them think, creative ways of approaching information can keep readers on your site. For sites where quick information access is the primary goal this technique is probably not best, but for other sites, especially blogs, playing with how information is presented can make for a more pleasurable reading experience. Insert anecdotes, delay exposition, or create more inter-linked and overlapping posts so readers are drawn from one post to another.

2. Make the familiar new again. Flashback programs move beyond nostalgia to creative remixing. Shows like Pushing Daisies and How I Met Your Mother use flashbacks laced with nostalgia or retro-aesthetics, but what makes them successful is the way they remix genres through their flashbacks. For example, Pushing Daisies mixes mystery, romance, and fantasy, often highlighted in the overlapping of plots. How I Met Your Mother revamps the classic boy-meets-girl plotline by delaying the actual meeting, keeping viewers engaged as the entire series builds to that moment. The way the shows make familiar genres new again follows Al Ries and Jack Trout’s Law of Category, described in The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, “If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in.” Innovative content does not necessarily have to create something entirely new. Instead, it can push the boundaries of the category or use a classic technique a new way.

3. Stay attuned to cultural changes. As the impact of Google+, Panda, and other developments in SEO and technology unfold, keeping up with the demands can be important. On the other hand, staying in touch with changing trends in other media and genres can help you stay on the cutting edge of the types of content, narration, and designs that readers want to see on your site.


Kasey is currently a Ph.D. student in English literature and a first-year composition instructor. Her research interests include popular culture and girlhood studies, focusing especially on gender performance, education, and the media. In the past, she’s written conference papers on Gothic convention and childhood in Harry Potter, masculinity and monstrosity on Dexter, and the portrayal of overachieving girls on Glee.


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