Night of the Living Dead Productions: Culture remix in the age of interactivity

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by: John Sviokla

When it comes to content, the internet collapses time. "Now”, “then”, and in some cases even the “future”, is a click away.

This means that every piece of accessible content is potentially relevant and old content comes alive again — with the right merchandizing. As in the movie Night of the Living Dead, the undead rise to take back the world of the living. Put another way, ESPN Classic is not just a clever idea, it is a genre of content – remixed content. Of course, the idea of reusing content is as old as story telling itself (see my blog on What Would Disney Do?). What I think few people realize is that there are “memes” in our culture, collective memory traces of things we have experienced, or vicariously watched, which have not been appropriately “merchandised”.

These memes are mental real estate to be tapped. I asked my 23 year old son John about this idea, and he said, “Yeah. Where are the Smurfs? When I was a kid, the Smurfs were huge, but I can barely find them anymore." (If you go to the Smurf's web site, it has that wonderful 1990s feel to it.) If I ever quit my day job, I might start a company called Night of the Living Dead Productions, whose strategy would be to buy up the rights to old content, like the Smurfs, and re-merchandize them. It would be similar to the way The Himmel Group purchases tired brands like Lavoris and Ovaltine and breathes new life into them. There may be an opportunity to purchase those memes that are lower priced – meme arbitrage if you will – and bring them alive again through audience interaction and clever branding.

In this, I am not making the sophisticated argument that people like Lawrence Lessig have made, in which he notes that culture itself is constructed of recycled content and to bind expression with excessive legal lashing freezes societal development. His brilliant work on the Creative Commons provides a practical beginning solution. Instead, I am saying something more pecuniary and picayune – to the right “eye” there is mental real estate to be recognized, acquired, and developed. Some of it exists in the closets of the world's biggest companies.

Of course, if you are really lucky, or have deeeeep pockets you can get content like classic Boston Celtics Basketball which can raise the pulse of those who were not even born when Havlicek stole the ball. Most content, will need remixing – that it taking the core form and tweaking it a lot or a little, to create something old, yet new again. The skill of remixing is critical, and as artists from Aerosmith to Roberta Flack have realized, it is better to be remixed by a current rap artist than it is to be relegated to the dusty shelves of “purity".

The unlikely duo of GE and advertising giant BBDO has just announced their “One Second Theater” where they create one second spots that are a remix of their General Electric Theater idea, which both companies worked on from 1953 to 1962 – with the then B-roll actor, Ronald Regan. This time, the “theater” has made up characters like Elli the Elephant, who has a fake profile on MySpace, (as Eddie Izzard says, “like you do…”). Although I am a bit skeptical about the appeal of an elephantine charter in MySpace who has witty quotes like, “will work for peanuts”, I am impressed with the general idea of hitting the market with a remixed winner, across media and social spaces. If GE allowed the audience, not just their advertising agency, to remix old ads and formats, I think they would get even more buzz. The imagination reels at what one could do with the phrase, “We Bring Good Things to Life”.

Understandably, most firms are wary of letting things out of the attic, for they will be in less control of the outcome – but that is the point. The “juice” of audience involvement, is what lends buzz, which is what shocks the otherwise dead content to life – much like Victor Frankenstein’s lightning rod brought the creature alive. It is powerful and potentially dangerous – but where life comes from. The good news for most large companies is that they have control of some very interesting and useful cultural memes that are far better than the bad parts Dr. Frankenstein had to work with. Think of how many old memes are awaiting remix, and remarketing. Imagine Mayor McCheese and The Fries – both of McDonald’s fame, recast in anime; imagine, the old Nike ads – when Just Do It was being born – online. I want to know what should happen when you “click” on the swoosh? It is an icon, but despite Nike’s reputation as an action oriented company, they have managed the swoosh as a noun, when it should be a verb, and if you go to and click on the swoosh, nothing happens! Clicking on it should “do” something. I want access to the old Alka-Seltzer ads where the stomach argues with its “owner” about what he eats. Imagine Donald Rumsfeld’s stomach arguing with him. These are just a small slice of the memes that “live” in my 48 year old mind, and can be mined.

So what? Well, companies like Kraft, McDonalds, Duracell, Gillette, and their industrial brethren have a memory museum full of content, which sits in the minds of us who experienced their advertising and branding campaigns for many decades. In order to remix it and bring it alive, they only need to have the faith to share it with the market.

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