Television networks once again banked heavily on the power of nostalgia to draw in viewers, betting that the formula that catapulted earlier period shows like AMC’s “Mad Men” (1960s), BBC’s “The Hour” (1950s) and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (1920s) to success will prove just as magical with two new period series that debuted this September. But this season, the time machine trick was designed to do more than just revive “Must See TV” for the major networks—it was also designed to breathe new life into flagging brands.
The approach may not be traditional, but neither is it far-fetched. The airbrushed versions of the past served up by TV writers have struck a powerful chord with contemporary audiences and, as evidenced by the “Mad Men”-inspired clothing line at Banana Republic, one that resonates beyond the living room couch and into the shopping mall. By romanticizing culturally significant decades on-screen, Hollywood is able to influence consumer behavior off-screen, proving that the time machine tactic does more than simply increase viewership and drive the networks advertising business.
So the memory merchants were at it again this season and hoping that the virtual whiff of Brylcreem and Camel cigarettes could do more than just lure people into stores but also resurrect once-powerful brands. For instance, two shows that were heavily promoted in advance of this fall’s television season -- NBC’s “The Playboy Club” (which was cancelled after its third episode) and ABC’s “Pan Am” (whose fate is uncertain)– attempted to capitalize, respectively, on the mystique of 1960s Playboy Bunnies and airline stewardesses, who have been largely mythologized by a culture that tends to view the past through rose-colored glasses (particularly enticing during our troubled economic and political times) in order to manufacture consumer interest in brands that reigned during the era of skinny ties, four o’clock martinis, bunny suits and pencil skirts.
Life After Death
Nearly 20 years since the grounding of Pan Am’s planes, the almost comatose brand has maintained a pulse through licensing Pan Am-branded travel accessory products. Now nearing the end of its first season, ABC’s “Pan Am” is still floundering and uncertain whether or not it will live to see a season two. But that doesn’t take away what ABC hoped to accomplish beginning this fall, which was generate the same traction that “Mad Men” did, taking the brand off life support and transforming Pan Am into a formidable player in the lifestyle and travel category. ABC has realized that successfully glamorizing an industry that has fallen out of consumer favor since its hey day in the ‘60’s is no easy feat. However, with the possibility of the show continuing, there is still the potential to witness Pan Am luggage pop up in airports across the country, while other sales and marketing opportunities are not out of the realm of possibility either. But the show needs to generate staying power. Only time will tell if the show can generate buzz and generate ratings.
There may not be another brand that exists today that would have reaped more benefit from turning back the clock than Playboy, whose primetime series was, unfortunately, the first to be cut from the fall lineup. Hope that the series would pump up flagging readership for the magazine was made clear in the media company’s accompanying marketing tactic, a 60-cent promotional price for its October issue.
Set in the early 1960’s, the show was centered on the first Playboy Club in Chicago and followed the lives of the first Playboy Bunnies and the clientele they served. As Hugh Hefner’s core business model has shifted in recent years from a publisher to a lifestyle brand, Playboy’s licensing program, which has also gone in several different directions over the years, is currently a $900-million program at retail and a bright spot in the company’s earnings report. A popular television series could have led to the successful reopening of Playboy Clubs in target markets that would have allowed new and younger audiences to experience the brand and fuel future success of the program. I was reluctant to think that “The Playboy Club” might make Playboy cool again and judging by the program’s ratings, and subsequent cancelation, audiences seemed to agree.
The concept of resurrecting a dead, dying or dormant brand is not new or unique to this season’s fall television lineup. Licensing the image and likeness of deceased celebrities has been a profitable category and a cottage industry for decades. As with the Pan Am and Playboy series, the resurrection of deceased celebrities for contemporary audiences is usually a heavily edited affair that sacrifices accuracy in the quest to capitalize on some shared sense of nostalgia for better or simpler days. In those instances, celebrity character flaws or public missteps during their lifetimes are often glossed over and the airbrushed version is accepted by an overwhelmingly forgiving American public. Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley are perfect examples. Various other celebrity estates are also trying to morph their deceased relatives into consumer products programs, such as the estate of Frank Sinatra.
Entertainment properties, particularly comic books and cartoons, are also leveraging the silver screen as a means to resurrection. DC and Marvel have continuously mined their endless vaults of comic book franchises to create big budget live-action films that re-establish those characters in pop culture, drive merchandise sales and pave the way for sequels, prequels and three-quels. Batman, X-Men, The Avengers, GI Joe and Transformers have driven children and adults to the box office, and more importantly, created a marketplace for a host of licensed products that range in categories from apparel to food and beverage. In fact, Hasbro is contracted to produce Marvel toys until 2017. Parents who grew up with a steady diet of these cartoons and are nostalgic for their own youth gladly engage their children with these recycled properties, creating immortality for some of these franchises in the process.
It is important to emphasize that extending a brand into television or film is not a ticket to print money. The success of “Mad Men” and its extension into pop culture and fashion is rooted in its ability to hold viewers’ attention through riveting content. Pan Am and Playboy are in essence attempting to shift the core of their brands to entertainment, but if that core lacks strength or if the television content doesn’t hold its viewers, like “The Playboy Club,” it is nearly impossible to support an extension of any kind based upon the television series.