6 (Spoiler-free) Observations About the Phenomenon That Is Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is one of those things it feels pointless to write about. Anything you have to say about it simply crumbles under the weight of the show’s bajillion Emmy Awards, unforgettable cast and characters, perfectly executed story, complete cultural dominance, and immense critical acclaim (recently earning it a Guinness World Record for highest-rated show of all time). All you have to do is mention it—check it out:
The point we’re trying to make is that there hasn’t been a TV show like Breaking Bad since… Maybe never. It’s a TV show that, in 2013, has actually convinced us to watch TV. Not Netflix. Not Hulu. Not YouTube clips. Real, honest-to-M*A*S*H, broadcast television. That’s pretty cool.
As the final episode looms, Breaking Bad is bringing in more live viewers than ever before. It’s prime time, must-watch, can’t-miss, two-words television the likes of which we haven’t collectively participated in since before we were taking advice from ducks or engaging in Photoshop battles on the Internet.
As it turns out, people will still engage in the lost art of sitting down on a couch at the same time every week and watching something on a screen in real-time – commercials included – just when you thought that behavior was so last decade.
What is it about the show that has resurrected TV, even if temporarily? Here’s some thoughts:
Spoilers are your
friends enemies frenemies
When your content is so important, so urgent, that people get angry at each other for talking about it too soon, that’s a good problem. But when your content sparks wars on Twitter, has to be censored on Reddit, and becomes nearly un-Googleable, that’s not so good a problem.
Spoilers keep loyal viewers engaged and motivate audiences to consume every piece of media in order. (Unfortunately, spoilers also alienate potential audience members and diminish the lead time of an experience, giving content creators and PR directors less control over how and when their messaging occurs. But anyway…)
Leave them hanging, then flip them upside down
It’s an old rule that’s easy to understand, but almost impossible to get right: Give your audience a reason to stay tuned.
The hard part about cliffhangers? The really, really hard part?
Zooming out to show that the cliff is actually a volcano. Strapped to the back of a baby bird. What so many stories lack, Breaking Bad excels in. Showdowns, deadlines, and reveals are naturally disappointing. Except in Breaking Bad, where events unfold in surprising, totally unpredictable ways that are much more exciting than whatever we thought was going to happen; and which, in hindsight, always seem totally inevitable.
In marketing terms, anyone can throw the Priceline Negotiator off of the Grand Canyon. Only Orbitz could have brought him back as a surfer.
“I’m the one who knocks,” “You are not the guy,” “Say my name,” “Science, b****!”, “I.F.T.”, ding ding ding ding ding. Call them catchphrases, call them memes—whatever, Breaking Bad is full of memorable moments fans can sum up in five words or less. Every season has one, and so should you (we are working on ours for 2013).
Social media is great for acting gloriously out of character
In Breaking Bad, Dean Norris plays Hank Schrader, a morally ambiguous DEA agent suffering from PTSD and extreme paranoia. On the Internet, Dean Norris reenacts The Lion King and a self-written, “leaked” Breaking Bad ending featuring spacefaring skateboards and a gratuitous blond wig.
In Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a morally ambiguous (sensing a pattern?) high-school chemistry teacher turned crystal meth cook with terminal cancer. On the Internet, Bryan Cranston makes out with a mask of himself for a photo op and jokes about how much he enjoys seeing people on set get hit by cranes.
In Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman, a morally ambiguous… guy. On the Internet, Aaron Paul tweets about eggnog, saving baby birds, “Gatorading” fans on the street, and cat puzzles. He’ll also direct message his followers on their birthdays. Brilliant.
Nail the offscreen engagement
All TV shows these days are trying to connect with fans outside the show itself. Breaking Bad has done a ton of online fan engagement, including the (poorly named) ‘Talking Bad’ online forums, where actors would engage with fans, sometimes in character. Hell, they even sold props from the show. That’s pretty cool.
It’s all about the writing. And the acting. And the cinematography. And the…
If there’s one lesson you should take from Breaking Bad, dear marketer, it’s this: Tell a good story.* The rest will follow.
*And also, don’t do drugs. Especially meth.