Exploiting Our Brand: Is There a “Right” Way?

by Jami Gold on March 29, 2012

in Random Musings

Giant can of Coke for a Coke machine

Our brand is the impression others have of us.  So we all have a brand, whether we know it or not.  Hopefully, we’re building a brand that reflects who we really are, in a way that shows us at our best (however we each define “best”).

Once we have a brand, we might wonder what we can do with it.  Can we use it to gain readers or make sales?  Or will using our brand for marketing “tarnish” our brand?  I think the answers there are “yes” and “maybe.”

After all our time spent on blogging, social media, and networking, we understandably want to get something back, a return on our investment.  But we also don’t want to throw away all that work by ruining our brand with a marketing misstep.  We have to balance a tightrope to exploit in a positive way.

Everywhere I look lately, I’ve seen the bad kind of brand exploitation.  First, we have the Fifty Shades of Grey books, which exploited the Twilight fandom.  Then we have the new 21 Jump Street movie, which is nothing like the old TV show.  And just this week, I was struck speechless by the trailer for the new Dark Shadows movie.

My first thought: I love Tim Burton’s work.  Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies.  And Tim Burton and Johnny Depp together make magic.

My second thought: The trailer was amusing and the story looks interesting.

My third and overriding thought: But this isn’t Dark Shadows!

The 1966 TV show Dark Shadows was a classic gothic genre story.  As described in the Beginning Writer’s Answer Book by Jane Friedman:

“[G]othic novels are characterized by atmospheric, historical settings and feature young, beautiful women who win the favor of handsome, brooding heroes—simultaneously dealing successfully with some life-threatening menace, either natural or supernatural. Gothics rely on mystery, peril, romantic relationships, and a sense of foreboding for their strong, emotional effect on the reader.”

Think Wuthering Heights.  Many of the old episodes of Dark Shadows are on YouTube.  Watch the first minute or two of the Dark Shadows recap, and you’ll see the hallmarks of the gothic genre.

YouTube: Dark Shadows Recap

Atmospheric? Check. Mystery? Check. Foreboding? Check. And although it’s not obvious from the first few minutes, we have vampire Barnabas Collins to provide the brooding hero.  Supernatural menace? Check and check.   Listen to the opening theme music at the :50 minute mark. Perfect for the genre.

The reruns of this show captured my attention as a child and probably helped start me down the path of writing paranormal stories.  Sure, it looks a bit campy to us now, but that’s a function of the show being made before many of us were born, not because of any inherent intention to be campy.

Now compare that to the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Shadows movie trailer.  Watch at least up to the 1:10 minute mark to see the tone difference.

YouTube: Dark Shadows Trailer (Tim Burton)

The premise of the new movie looks to use the idea of vampirism to play with a comedic fish-out-of-water, time-travel story, with a witch thrown in for bonus conflict.  That’s a great story idea.  But other than the character name of Barnabas Collins, this movie has nothing to do with the 1966 TV show Dark Shadows.

That’s when it hit me.  Some of these recent reboots are “professional” grade, alternate universe, alternate history fan fiction.  They use the character names or the core idea and nothing else, and yet keep the original brand name.

Why call it Dark Shadows when it’s not?  Why call it 21 Jump Street when it’s not?  Heck, why is Michael Bay calling his reboot movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if his version of the characters is rumored to be aliens and not mutants at all?

Because Teenage Alien Ninja Turtles doesn’t have a brand following.

And that’s what this comes down to, people exploiting the brand following of one thing, whether that be Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to gain attention for something completely different.

Normally, authors don’t have a problem with fan fiction because no money changes hands.  At best, fan fiction honors the original source material.  At worst, non-profit fan fiction exploits the original brand for attention.  But now, everywhere we turn, we’re seeing exploitation of brands for money.

Not all reboots (or fan fiction) are bad.  The latest Star Trek reboot made an old brand feel fresh and relevant while honoring the original idea that made it popular to begin with.

Honoring the original idea—that’s the kicker.  That’s what makes these other attempts to cash in on a brand name feel icky to some.  People grow very attached to their impressions of some brands, and dishonoring their perception of the original brand risks alienating those same people.

Brands—people’s impressions—are tricky things.  We mess with them at our own risk.

Didn’t The Powers That Be learn anything from New Coke or George Lucas’s debacle with “Han shot first“?  Rule number one in marketing should be: Don’t alienate people, especially not your target market.

Now I’ll probably go see the Dark Shadows movie, but I’ll have to keep the two impressions separate.  If done well, people will go through the effort to maintain two different “brand boxes” in their mind.  The original Batman TV show and the various movie reboots fall into this category for me.  But asking people to wait before passing judgment isn’t something that most of us can get away with for our own brands.

So as we experiment with how to use our networks for marketing and sales purposes, we must always keep an eye on honoring the brand we have.  We shouldn’t suddenly become someone different just because we’re trying to make sales.  On social media, we have to maintain our normal socializing habits while adding a few marketing mentions.  We should remain us, our brand, who we are inside, with just a touch of sales.

Don’t become an example of brand exploitation gone bad.  Be the Star Trek reboot, honoring why people like us.  Then they’ll be more likely to stick around to hear our message.

Can you think of other examples where brands were exploited simply to cash in?  What about examples of brand exploitation done right?  Do you think our acceptance of reboots depends on how big of fans we are of the original?  Do you see parallels between these reboots and fan fiction?  Do you have tips for how to maintain the brand vs. marketing balance?

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31 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Angela Quarles March 29, 2012 at 6:13 am

Oooh excellent way to have us look at our own branding efforts! I also liked your correlation to these movies as fan fiction. But I’ll have to confess I never saw the original Dark Shadows (never heard of it) and so when I saw that trailer I about creamed in my pants because of the Depp Burton brand :) I didn’t even know it was a knock-off… *dodging sharp objects now*

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Jami Gold March 29, 2012 at 10:16 am

Hi Angela,

LOL! Honestly, I wouldn’t have known about the original Dark Shadows either if it wasn’t for the after-school reruns on my local TV station. I’ll forgive you. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Chihuahua0 March 29, 2012 at 6:43 am

Hmm…it seems like there are three reasons behind such cases like these:

1) Money
2) The creators are having their own fun with the work.
3) Money

But I think the “Dark Shadows” case, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp know the show, but faithfulness is under enjoying creating their own vision of the show. Know how many creators, regardless of quality, say that they had fun with their project?

Take the Rihanna ft. Chris Brown remix of “Birthday Cake”. They were having fun…or their labels set it up as a marketing stunt…or both. In any case, eyebrows were raised over such a duo, considering what happened three years ago.

But in any case, the creators are either having their own fun with the brand, or it’s for the money. Although I would prefer the former, since a mainstream crowd is easier to sell to than the fanbase of a brand.

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Jami Gold March 29, 2012 at 10:50 am

Hi C0,

(Sorry, I had to rescue your comment from the spam folder for some reason. :( )

Great point! I do think Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are having fun with their vision of the story. And it might not have ever occurred to them to change the name to reflect all their updates. (I’d be okay even with something like Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows to point out that this is his vision.) But as there have been several past instances of fans complaining about dishonoring brands, I do think they should have thought about that issue. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Andrew Mocete March 29, 2012 at 7:15 am

Here’s how I think it went:

A studio gets the rights to Dark Shadows. Now they need to find a writer. They could’ve met with a bunch of people before Tim Burton or maybe he’s their go to goth guy. Either way, they want to use his brand to update something that their target audience probably never heard of. You’d think it makes more sense to target the new and old audiences, but maybe concentrating on what’s working NOW is how the studio wants to go.

Star Trek, to me, was a happy accident because with J.J. Abrams’s popularity, his brand was the perfect fit for a reboot. Yay for us, he, Orci and Kurtzman were huge fans and managed to put a great movie together. Who knows? Maybe they had to fight hard to keep the movie the way they wanted it.

With so many people working on one project, it’s difficult to say whether a movie based on a popular brand is being exploited or is the product of lots of ideas and compromises. I like to think that the majority of people involved genuinely want to create something all fans will enjoy.

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Jami Gold March 29, 2012 at 10:20 am

Hi Andrew,

LOL! Yes, Tim Burton could very well be the “go to goth guy.” :)

I’ll probably enjoy the movie, so I can’t say for sure they’re making a “mistake.” However, I don’t like how they’re keeping the original name–that’s what makes it feel exploitative to me, so I just wish they’d made a different decision. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee March 29, 2012 at 8:18 am

I really think it depends on the type of fan you are. I have friends who hated the latest Alice in Wonderland movie because it undermined the purpose of the books (satire). Others (like me) loved it because it sort-of took the books literally. So before I recommend it to someone who hasn’t seen it, I ask “Are you an Alice in Wonderland purist?”

If the answer’s “Yes,” then they won’t like it. Otherwise, I also recommend Jason Anderson’s Gears of Wonderland.

But I have friends who get all in a tizzy if the vampires aren’t “true” to the old Dracula type. They can’t stand any kind of reinterpretation of an original.

Personally, I tend to love reinterpretations. (…Okay, so I write them, too.) But there still has to be something connecting the reboot with the original.

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Jami Gold March 29, 2012 at 10:26 am

Hi Carradee,

Ooo, great point about Alice in Wonderland. I’d forgotten that one. Yes, I think you’re right that it comes down to the type of fan we are–purist or not.

I usually love reinterpretations too, so I think this Dark Shadows case is one where the genre change from very dark and serious to comedy rubs me the wrong way. I worry about whether they can make it funny without being disrespectful to the original, so I guess that’s where my dividing line falls. :) I don’t want something to be disrespectful to the original and yet keep the name (indicating it’s not a straight parody).

Thanks for the comment (and making me think)! :)

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Jami's Tech Guy March 29, 2012 at 9:05 am

Excellent post Jami. Remember two months back when there was talk about “The Princess Bride” being remade? The Twittersphere erupted in WTFian outrage at the thought.

Having a loyal and engaged fan base is the greatest accomplishment any creator can achieve. People have built a relationship with the product you have created, be it your characters/world or even a device like an iPod. Yet too often this relationship is exploited by the creator (or rights holders) instead of reciprocated. *looks squarely at George Lucas*

Meanwhile, the latest rumor out of Hollywood is that due to unforeseen delays with Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”, Catherine Hardwicke’s reboot will be released first. “Hold on spider Hobbit!”

-Jay
@jaytechdad (yes, I changed my Twitter handle)

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Jami Gold March 29, 2012 at 10:35 am

Hi Tech Guy,

I think I avoided most of that Princess Bride outrage by hiding under a pillow muttering to myself. ;)

Great point about how when we create brands, our goal often is to make people feel connected to us. Connected fans become our “street team” for marketing purposes. We have to respect that connection. Sure as the right’s holder, we can technically do whatever we want, but there are ways to make changes respectfully and ways to do it disrespectfully.

As you pointed out, much of the George Lucas “Han shot first” hoopla was caused by the fans feeling insulted when he insisted that they’d been wrong about their interpretation all along (despite that the movie novelization, authored by George Lucas, disputed his claim). That’s disrespectful of the fans.

LOL! The idea of a remake coming out before the original it’s remaking is a sad and scary thought. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover March 29, 2012 at 9:47 am

Oh my, I tend to be a purist. I have watched a lot of older movies and shows (30′s-60′s), and I often struggle with the remakes not honoring the original’s intent. Here’s one well-done: The Shop Around the Corner (Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullivan) and You’ve Got Mail (Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan). They changed occupations and pen pals to email pals, but the story and mood stayed true. It was a great update. One poorly done: The Avengers TV (Patrick McNee, Diana Rigg) and The Avengers film (Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman). They should have made another movie for Fiennes and Thurman because this one had NONE of the wit and charm of the original.

Great post . . . again.

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Jami Gold March 29, 2012 at 10:40 am

Hi Julie,

Interesting point about You’ve Got Mail. I like to see reinterpretations like that too, especially because they typically change the name to reflect the update. Clueless and 10 Things I Hate about You fall into that category for me. The name change makes me believe that they’re doing a true update and not just trying to exploit the original fanbase. Thanks for the great comment!

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Todd Moody March 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm

You nailed it with head fake branding. It’s irksome at the least and downright dishonest at its worst.

I’m not actively trying to pimp my brand. It’s kind of a passive aggressive branding if there is such a thing. I do post my blog updates to twitter, so I guess I can’t say I don’t’ use it at all for marketing, but as a general rule I’m not trying to sell anything there, just trying to find interesting people to follow and improve my world SA and make some friends. Of course I don’t really have anything to market yet. I wonder if I will turn into one of “those” types. I hope not.

The entire idea was to have a place for people to come to when I do publish, not so much to actively seek followers with it. Don’t get me wrong, I love that I have people coming to my blog and actually reading and commenting, but I never set out to promote anything per se. Right now I think I am attracting writers and that’s very cool, but my hope is to actually attract readers. I’m just trying to be myself and post what I find interesting and chronicle the process, its not translating to readers yet, but when I have a book out there perhaps it will. Osmosis anyone?

Awesome post as usual, Jami!

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Jami Gold March 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Hi Todd,

I understand. I’ve mentioned before that I actively try to avoid paying attention to my numbers, whether that be Twitter followers, blog readers, etc. I don’t want to be one of those people who are in it only for the numbers–or the dollars. I value the connections I’ve made too much to let the numbers get in the way.

All that I do so far to pimp my brand is link to my blog posts on Twitter and FB (and when I remember, which is almost never, G+). However, I do try to make my posts interesting, educational, or informative to others, so I hope I offer some value in return for that bit of promo. As you said, my blog is more about being my online home than trying to focus on the numbers. I’m a writer who blogs, not a blogger who writes. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp March 30, 2012 at 7:04 am

The one benefit of my evil day job is that it is in PR & Marketing, i.e. Branding. I think I might be able to point out a few things based on years of experience.

When dealing with our personal brands, which we are managing, it is indeed important to be careful and think through what we are doing to build and utilize our “brand” in order to gain the greatest benefit for ourselves and our “clients” – in this case, readers. The old song “Careless Whispers” always comes to mind when I consider this topic – always keep your brand/image in the forefront of thought when in the public sphere because small missteps can echo for days.

Converse to this, are “old brands” which have passed beyond their original ownership and become product. Companies spend large sums of money to purchase brands for use in advertising campaigns (Popeye for chicken), product marketing (Betty Boop on your shoes) or PR reasons (“our new spokesperson is Bambi”). In most cases, these “properties” or brands have moved beyond their money-making shelf life (you can find all the episodes for free on YouTube speaks volumes) and thus, in order to keep them viable a re-visioning or re-branding needs to take place. This is when a company or investment group will buy it up – in industry terms: speculative investment. Because they now own the brand they can use it as they choose, however, because a (typically large) money investment is being gambled, they will try to make the most of it. Sometimes this backfires, sometimes it pays huge – the difference is a very thin line between the core aspects of the original brand (21 Jump Street is a show about heroic misfit undercover cops) and the subjective content (the tone, feel, storyline, etc.). Trying to duplicate the subjective is often more offensive to “old fans” then a complete restructuring because it can easily come off as mocking the subject.

Hope all of that will make some sense of things. Yes, it can be distasteful to fans of the original brand, however, in the end it is a business like any other.

Great post, Jami :)

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Jami Gold March 30, 2012 at 9:36 am

Hi Gene,

I always value your insight into branding and marketing issues! :)

You make a good point about the difference between new brands (like our personal brand) and old brands of products. Around here we have Donald Duck orange juice. Why? I have no idea what Donald Duck has to do with orange juice, but it’s obviously there so kids in grocery stores pester their parents to buy that brand of OJ. :)

However, someone claimed copyright and had the old Dark Shadows episodes pulled off YouTube within a few hours of this post going live. (I sincerely doubt it was this post that got the rights’ holder’s attention–I don’t get that much traffic. :) ) So I had to reword the post a bit to reference a recap video I found instead. So someone still cared about those old episodes enough to bother with a takedown.

Anyway, back to your point. Yes, I see what you mean about how trying to duplicate the subjective stuff can be tricky. After all, the image is subjective. Like if you’re trying to sing a specific song, one wrong note can cause cringing, while if you’re making up a song, the notes are what they are. :) Thanks for the comment!

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AE March 30, 2012 at 9:21 am

Great topic and an interesting way to show the differences between attempting to truly recreate something in an original way or trying to brand something connected to something popular to then increase your own marketability.

I suppose the hard part is as an artist (of any kind) trying to establish your own brand it feels like we may be fighting a system that cares less about individuality than originality. I feel stupid stating the obvious (that $$ is the final outcome) but it is frustrating when you hear over and over, “Oh, no one likes vampires anymore. Zombies are yesterday’s news. Or, please no more Dystopian,” from agents and publishers when everywhere you look in every direction is a industry and consumer base that seems to want exactly those things.

A rehash of a rehash.

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Jami Gold March 30, 2012 at 9:46 am

Hi AE,

Ooo, good example with the point about originality and genre. I fight that with my writing too. People feel that “x” is so overdone they don’t even want to take a look at something, whether that’s vampires, paranormal romance in general, or heck, even writing styles or prologues. As I pointed out in my post about story ideas last week, implementation is more important to originality than people think. Thanks for the great comment!

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Amber March 30, 2012 at 9:29 am

Interesting discussion!

I love reboots when they are done well…and the name doesn’t much matter to me. However, I do think that when you keep the name of the original, you run a HUGE risk of angering fans of the original, especially if you run too far from the original. Fans might see it as honoring the original, but only if you do bang up job. Talented artists with good intentions can do it, but MOST movies where they use the original name have gone badly, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that there wasn’t an artistic vision honoring the artist – it was simply a tool to make money from an older franchise.

Without getting into a long discussion about it, I think 50sofg is totally an example of exploiting another’s brand to benefit your own, which I think is icky. But I don’t feel that way about all fan fiction.

As far as remakes that I’ve enjoyed go – High Society was a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. I loved the original, but I enjoyed High Society. The movies are VERY much the same, but the musical element makes it different. Had they used the same name, I wonder if people would have been up in arms about it? (Given they were only 16 years apart, that might have been confusing.)

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Amber March 30, 2012 at 9:35 am

Also, I used the word original about 80 times too many. This is what happens when you type while playing games with your toddler.

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Jami Gold March 30, 2012 at 9:51 am

Hi Amber,

LOL! Well, there’s only so many original ways to say “original.” ;)

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Jami Gold March 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

Hi Amber,

Yes, I think a big part of the issue crops up when they use the same name. That creates a stronger link to the original fans, which comes with its own set of pros and cons. :) I like what you said about making sure the original artist is still honored in some way. Without that, the artist and the fans of the artist will all feel disrespected. Thanks for the comment!

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Heather Day Gilbert March 30, 2012 at 11:43 am

SO MANY THOUGHTS ON THIS! I hadn’t seen the trailer, though I knew Depp was doing the revamp. I loved the TV series (in the 80s? 90s?), which seemed to capture that melancholy, Bronte-esque air. This looks like a comedy, almost.

And remakes gone bad? OOH, yes. How about The Bionic Woman TV series? Epic fail on the remake. I thought it was telling that the guy who made it said he hadn’t watched the original. Or what about the attempt at the Wonder Woman TV show that didn’t even start up? Just hoping they’ll get it together if they ever do a movie, but most people agree that NO ONE can top Lynda Carter. She was classy, even in the more revealing outfit.

One remake I LOVED was TRON. I loved the old one, and I loved the new one. Maybe it’s b/c it picked up where the old one left off. Maybe it’s b/c it kept it reasonably clean. Regardless, it’s a fave now.

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Jami Gold March 30, 2012 at 11:57 am

Hi Heather,

I don’t watch much TV, so I managed to avoid Bionic Woman. ;)

“I thought it was telling that the guy who made it said he hadn’t watched the original.”

Gah! Seriously? If someone isn’t familiar with the original at all, then they obviously don’t care to “honor” it in any way. In that case, it’s blatantly using the name for brand and following recognition–and that’s it.

Oh yes, I love what they did with Tron Legacy. It tied in with original while going new places, and the sequel had something to say so it wasn’t just a money grab. Plus, the soundtrack rocks. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Brooklyn Ann March 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm

I don’t get why Tim Burton felt a need to call it “Dark Shadows” anyway. He already IS his own brand. I’m wondering if the film company is the one to blame.

Either way, the movie looks like a lot of fun even if it obviously has nothing to do with the show.

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Jami Gold March 30, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Hi Brooklyn Ann,

Good point! That goes along with what I mentioned in a different comment about how even if he’d called it Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows that would have been an improvement from the not-pissing-off-the-original-fans perspective. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Laura K Curtis April 10, 2012 at 6:37 pm

I was taking a marketing class the summer New Coke was introduced. Many…MANY of us thought Coke was deliberately mucking about with the formula so they could come out with something we called “Original Coke.” When Coke Classic came out, there was much high-fiving. Did it happen that way at Coca Cola’s plant? We’ll never know. But none of us believed for a minute that a company so intent on preserving the “origins” of its brand would abandon it entirely. (We did think they’d run both sodas for longer than they did…new coke was just so bad they couldn’t keep marketing it.)

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Jami Gold April 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Hi Laura,

LOL! Interesting. Yes, I thought the Wikipedia article I linked to did a good job of summing up the history–and discussing whether they’d done it on purpose. Ah, to be a fly on the wall in those meetings. :) Thanks for the comment!

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mokie April 16, 2012 at 4:29 am

An earlier Dark Shadows revival in ’91 flopped miserably. The suits thought they had a show about a brooding, tortured vampire arisen in search of lost love, the public thought they had a silly vamp soap opera that took itself far too seriously, complete with terrible ’80s hair. The problem is that Gothic has a peculiar flavor, and audiences can taste when it’s off—the self-conscious actors, the overblown-even-for-melodrama vibe, the material that’s jumped the shark into smirksville…

Real gothic is just damned hard to pull off, and it’s pretty hard to take anything vampire seriously these days. The self-aware, tongue-in-cheek Addams Family approach bows to the smirk while re-introducing the brand to a modern audience, and in that respect will likely do far more for the brand than a faithful remake, which would likely tank Dracula 2000-style.

For what it’s worth, New Coke did better in blind taste tests. What people rejected wasn’t the new formula, but any change at all to an established and popular brand, and that’s almost more an issue, I think, of how people identify with the brand. There’s a reason every change Facebook makes gets flack, while MySpace can turn the site upside down without any great hubbub. They’re not redoing Twilight, but a series that hasn’t seen the light of day since ’91 and that terrible, terrible hair… :)

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Jami Gold April 16, 2012 at 8:50 am

Hi Mokie,

I don’t disagree with anything you point out. :) You’re right–it probably is easier to take an Addams Family approach than risk having the gothic tone off and/or the audience reject the remake.

Honestly, what I’d most want to see wouldn’t be a “faithful” remake (with the melodramatic cheese factor), but a remake that kept the dark tone and lost the melodrama. And yeah, that’s probably even harder to pull off. :)

About the New Coke taste tests: Exactly! The objective measure of whether something is “good” or “better” doesn’t necessarily matter when people are upset about the change to the brand. And great point about Facebook! :) Thanks for the comment!

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