Tweeting the End Times: Supernatural Branding

ImageThis is another story of Twitter, about which you've likely already heard a lot. But this particular tale of the tweet is an object lesson in how the "micro-blogging" bellwether of social media can boost an entertainment property — but not always in ways that adhere to corporate priorities.

Much pop-industry talk about using Twitter, Facebook and kindred sites for promotional purposes misses a crucial point: These are unpredictable, organic, user-driven phenomena. You can similarly "use" the ocean to propel your boat to a desired destination, but you remain at the mercy of prevailing winds, freak waves and other unbidden factors, no matter how swift your vessel or hardy your crew.

"Supernatural" is a horror-action series on the CW network about two hunky brothers who drive around in a vintage Chevy Impala fighting demons and other evil manifestations. Between bloody confrontations with wisecracking hell-beasts, Dean and Sam Winchester squabble, rock out to Survivor and Kansas, drop snarky pop-cultural references, consume burgers and beer, and research ancient lore on their laptop.

This absorbing, frothy, often very funny genre franchise, now in its fifth season, has cultivated a fan base as rabid and formidable as any of the snarling phantasms that stalk its heroes. In addition to holding conventions around the world, "Supernatural" fans furiously blog, tweet and otherwise communicate about every aspect of the show, enshrining their favorite episodes and writers, excoriating others, penning purple fan fiction, creating elaborate artwork for fan sites, and debating the merits of Dean over Sam (or the reverse) with Talmudic fervor. Most shows (not to mention films, recording artists, games and sports beverages) would kill to have so dedicated a community.

The show's fan base is as rabid and formidable as any of the snarling phantasms that stalk its heroes.

In anticipation of Season Five — in which the Winchesters face nothing less than the apocalypse — quite a few of those fans began tweeting "Lucifer is coming." The words run together and fronted with a "hashtag" (#), #luciferiscoming vaulted up the "trending topics" list. This ascent was aided by frequent "re-tweets" (re-posting of other users' messages). "Lucifer is coming" soon roosted with cloven-hooved ferocity in the Top 5.

"To my knowledge, this was a spontaneous occurrence," reflects "Supernatural" executive producer and writer Sera Gamble. "There was no marketing-department involvement. I think they just watched with amusement and then reported on it to the press later."

This organic, fan-generated flurry would be significant all by itself, proving as it did how spontaneous, community-based use of Twitter can draw attention to a TV show without the expenditure of a single marketing dollar or man-hour. But this was just the beginning of the story, which quickly (befitting the fantastic narrative of the series itself) got weird.

ImageIt seems that Twitterers of a religious bent saw these communiqués in a more sinister light; many believed some Satanic cult had infiltrated the tweetosphere, while still others feared (especially after glancing at its progress up the trending-topics list) that "Lucifer is coming" in fact signaled a shot across the bow in the REAL apocalypse. Did a significant portion of users sophisticated enough to participate in micro-blogging actually think they'd learned about the End Times via the same forum in which Perez Hilton critiques the wardrobes of demi-celebrities? Verily, we say yea.

In any event, the godly desktop warriors — apparently rallied by, among others, hip-hop impresario/executive P. Diddy — countered the tweets of evil with their own assault, pushing "God Is Here" up the trending topics in response. At some point, perhaps at the urging of concerned believers (or maybe just to free up space for other subjects), Twitter's moderators stepped in and banned the Lucifer tweets. "Supernatural" fans countered with an array of alternative phrases and complaints of censorship.

Soon this tug-of-war devolved into a progressively more cryptic campaign, spearheaded by show co-star Misha Collins (who plays the dashing angel Castiel on the series but here showed a decidedly more devilish side). Collins and his followers poked fun at Diddy and "Mr. Twitter" with playful challenges to cupcake-eating contests on horseback, among other taunts. Tagged keywords such as #pdiddyisscaredofhisTV, #mishasminions and even #Twitterisafraidofmishasminions cropped up, and some were blocked. ("What is this," tweeted Collins, "the Stalingrad of the Internet?") Fan sites and a few media-watching Web publications, meanwhile, posted stories about this mini-conflagration.

Had the "Supernatural" tweet wars been a top-down marketing campaign, it's unlikely it would've taken this turn. And this goes to the heart of what social media are all about: the users. They will happily spread all manner of "viral" messages about TV shows and other products, but they will not be mere shills.

Fans will happily spread all manner of "viral" messages about TV shows and other products, but they will not be mere shills.

The effect of all this on the premiere episode's ratings is uncertain, but the larger impact suggests that fans of "Supernatural" are numerous and active enough to shift the balance of one of the Web's most populous destinations. And even in the later, absurdist and highly "inside" phase, fans were able to join a star of the show for interactive fun. This may not directly or consistently serve the linear priorities of network marketers, but it's gold for solidifying the brand — which has long been about belonging to an affinity group as much as consuming an entertainment product.

Will series marketers attempt to use Twitter more actively in the wake of this event? "So far, I think Twitter has worked well in the hands of the fans, perhaps better than if we'd tried to orchestrate something," says Gamble. "And we drew attention from entirely new sources because of this weird little controversy."

Have YOU witnessed any brand-expanding Twitter battles? Got your own prophesies about fan communities? Has the tweet jumped the shark? This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it angels.