Thursday, December 05, 2013

Why Killing Superman is my Favourite PR Stunt

When D.C. announced a fresh storyline called “The Death of Superman” back in '92, every comic book geek and his dog (myself included) rushed out to add it to their pull list.

So, Clarks's dead.

I don't even like D.C. stuff on the whole. I'm a committed fan-boy for all things Stan Lee. Vertigo (and it's precursors) in the late 80's and early 90's was brilliant, when Constantine was taking his monthly snipe at Thatcher and Sandman was still doing a 70 year stretch in a snow-globe, but it was just the occasional worthy Batman for me and that's about it. I often give D.C. a hard time but, to be fair, over the years I've loved Preacher, Fables, 100 Bullets etc. and they've helped changed the way I looked at comics.

As ever, I digress.

“The Death of Superman” was a bold move. This is a character that's been around since '38, and is the back bone of the D.C. universe. Moms apple pie, the very embodiment of all things Americana, leaping building, racing bullets, bench-pressing trains, laser vision, the whole 9 yards. He is, pretty much, indestructible. A demi-god who walked amongst us. My generation grew up with Mr. Christopher Reeve, turning the world backwards and fumbling with his bifocals. It only took a red towel, and any kid was Superman. Needless to say, the comic forums went nuts. Proper, nuts.

Now obviously D.C., never planned for one second to wave goodbye to their 65 year old cash-cow. They just had a strong enough knowledge of the market and the product to see something great, and to put their faith in it. They believed, and rightly so, that they could rely on their fan-base and the emotional attachment we all had to the character - in my case, weather we liked him or not.

Our curiosity was already killing us. We couldn't believe they'd go through with it. Where was the get-out clause? Who, from D.C.’s rogues gallery, would do (or even be powerful enough to do) the dirty deed? D.C., in one bold statement of faith in the fanbase, got priceless media coverage, viral word-of-mouth, and sales went through the roof. All this on what, at the time, was becoming something of a jaded title. Issue one of “The Death of Superman” sold out on the first day. “Funeral for a Friend” was the same, then the inevitable “The Return of Superman”. In this instance, all down to having faith in your audience and knowing they are hungry for what you have.

“Everybody going to be dead one day, just give them time.”
- Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys.

Working in PR, as I now do, I was asked the other day what my favourite PR campaign/stunt was. This one instantly sprang to mind. Not only did this give D.C. a lot of instant interest, it gave them a chance to - in subtle way - reinvent an ageing franchise. By adding a little spice to the mix they made themselves edgier, and added some kudos back into the brand. This is exactly how a 'stunt' like this should play. It should fulfil it's goals, but it shouldn't 'feel' like a stunt. It was an easy win (for them, as they controlled the art and story) so they were working within their assets and limitations - something to think about when we try this sort of thing at home. It's directed to, and 100% for, the community, and it's giving the brand a chance to update, modernise, and place itself firmly in the public consciousness.

Nicely played D.C., now please can you give Hellblazer a fresh kick up the arse?