I was a little nervous about attending USC and UCLA's joint annual Transmedia Hollywood Conference, whose focus this year was on how social media and storytelling are changing the face of digital marketing and philanthropy. Sure, I'm interested in web entertainment, but am I eight-hours-of-panels interested? I didn't want to fall asleep and embarrass myself. Especially not wearing a press pass.
The minute the moderator introduced the panelists to the packed UCLA auditorium by means of video clips and more humorous slides, I knew we were in good hands. For the rest of the day, the audience of professors, students, movie studio execs, digital consultants, filmmakers and I were treated to a fast paced crash course on how the companies and technologies we interact with every day are transforming the way they market and how that affects us as consumers and as potential employees. Who knew your Instagram account might be part of your next job application? Or that MTV's 16 and Pregnant is acting as a vehicle for social change and was pitched as such?
One interesting revelation of the panel that's been happening all around us but I hadn't quite identified was that millennials, a general term used for the generation born between around the early 80s and the millennium, are ushering in the Era of the Image. Facebook is passe. Their parents are on it.
“The introduction of Pinterest and Instagram changed the trend from saying what you're doing to showing what you're doing,” explained Rachel Tipograph, director of global digital & social media at Gap. To put this image explosion into perspective, ten percent of all traceable images ever were created in 2012. Now that consumers are eating pics like candy, companies can't afford to sink millions into a photo shoot that only gets them eight images for the season. They have to have massive amounts of their product featured in low budget viral images with links but no logo.
Another topic that put a current trend in historical perspective was one panel's focus on the shift of most social action movements from the courtyards of universities to the conference rooms of corporations. “Baby boomers were out in the streets expressing their discontent,” said the head of the producers program at UCLA Film School, Denise Mann, who co-founded the conference with professor Henry Jenkins of USC. “Today's activists see themselves as insiders, business professionals using social media and crowdsourcing to bring people to their cause.”
One such modern activist is Rob Schuham, who participated in the panel “Revolutionary Advertising: Creating Social Movements.” Schuham worked at several major ad companies, marketing things like packaged food, until his child told him he hated marketing because it didn't do anything for the world and only hurt people. This inspired Schuham to start Fearless Revolution, a consulting company dedicated to working with global industries to help them capitalize on being true advocates for the health and well being of their consumers and the world. He also founded COMMON, a social venture capital company that encourages entrepreneurs to develop enterprises that help address social issues.
Schuham's panel advocated sustainable development hero L. Hunter Lovin's idea that “hypocrisy is good.” If brands that deliver harmful products to the world choose to do good as well, no matter how contradictory this is to their main mission, it still adds good to the world.
In true fashion of a world renowned university, the speakers on the later panel “Transmedia for a Change” challenged this idea. Is it really OK for KFC to promise to donate $1 to diabetes research for every meal a person purchases with a 800 calorie Mega Pepsi including 56 spoonful's of sugar? Is it really a better world when no one knows a GAP ad is a GAP ad because it's on Instagram?
“If saving the world isn't fun, who's gonna do it,” Schuham challenged the audience. “You can't make a brand famous by being boring, so the two can go hand in hand.” This comment resonated later in the afternoon when the topic of how much education content creators can pack into a piece of entertainment and still grab the amount of audience that's going to affect change. 16 and Pregnant was conceived by MTV executive Lauren Dolgen as advocacy television for teens. Where cheesy after school specials talked down to their eye-rolling audiences, Dolgen hoped to draw in a broad audience with the entertainment factor, then feature the reality of what these decisions can mean.
Panelist Katie Elmore Mota, CEO of PRAJNA Productions, a film company dedicated to telling stories with social relevance, hopes to do the same with their new CW-esque soapy web series East Los High. The storylines focus on a group of students in a lower income area dealing with issues of sex, drugs, poverty and violence. It seems like a teen soap, but if you're asking yourself the same questions as the characters on the show, their choices and the consequences can be enlightening. “You've got to pull your audience in and then you can figure out how to interact with them,” said Mota during her panel. “You never lose the importance of good stories. Its gotta be about 75 percent entertainment, 25 percent education if you really want to reach people”.