Who Won the Corporate-Media Activation Battle in Austin This Year?
Photos by Omar Gallaga
Locals in Austin, Texas, love to grouse when South by Southwest begins its boozy march in the spring, bringing tens of thousands of badge-wearing entrepreneurs, musicians, very earnest documentary filmmakers and marketers who smell dollar signs over the whiff of tacos and beer.
But these Austinites are also quite human. They don’t want outsiders to “Dallas their Austin,” but they can’t help but be wowed when, say, the latest Steven Spielberg film is the subject of a newly constructed VR wonderland , or when a critically-beloved TV show sets up a gigantic Ferris wheel in the middle of a downtown city block. The so-called “Activations” (as in the brand is activating your interest in what’s being promoted) employ thousands of locals, typically give away lots of swag and are sometimes open to the public for free.
South by Southwest 2019 had as many of these as ever from companies including Samsung, Bose, Vice, Comedy Central, Bud Light and DoorDash, as well as some brands you might not expect, such as Land O’ Lakes, payroll firm ADP and the Wisconsin cheese industry, which brought 3,000 pounds of much-needed dairy to clog up colons of festgoers.
Among media companies, the players have become familiar the last few years: WarnerMedia with its HBO, CNN and DC brands, Netflix, Amazon and Viacom (Comedy Central) appear again and again at SXSW.
How did they do this year? Let’s take a gander!
Warner offered a mixed bag this year with an embarrassing “Tubular!” display at CNN’s Clubhouse, an ‘80s-styed house so garish that this child of the 1980s wanted to cry into a can of Tab soda.
DC Comics baffled Austinites by announcing it was going to release 1.5 million bats into the night sky to celebrate Batman’s 80th anniversary. Never mind that we already have Mexican free-tailed bats in Austin that do that every night without the Caped Crusader’s urging.
The real Warner show at SXSW usually comes from HBO, which in past years has done well-regarded presentations for Veep and Westworld. 2018’s “SXSWestworld” set the gold bar for what an activation could be. It whisked visitors away to a remote ranch that recreated the fictional robot town of Sweetwater with dozens of paid actors who stayed in character the whole time.
The model worked so well that for 2019, HBO applied it to Game of Thrones for a final-season activation called “Bleed for the Throne.” It cleverly offered an optional blood drive for sped-up access. Inside, as with the Westworld project, it mixed actors with detailed sets and props, a choir, a maze, fighting and a walk of shame.
It was popular, of course. “Thrones” fans lined up for hours to get inside, but it didn’t quite live up to the buzz of the more experimental “Westworld” experience and it had a few things that didn’t work in its favor. Its location in East Austin, away from the downtown fray, reduced its visibility. Stars from the show didn’t come around as the ones from Westworld did last year for a rollicking panel presentation that had an Elon Musk cameo.
Mostly what was missing was the element of surprise. The “Westworld” experience felt truly novel and groundbreaking, while “Bleed for the Throne” felt like the same experience with a different skin applied. “Game of Thrones” will be a juggernaut its final season anyway; it’s unclear if spending so much money on something elaborate like this will really draw more viewers.
Ready for a misfire? Of all the shows and movies Netflix could have promoted at South by Southwest, it chose to put its marketing dollars behind “The Highwaymen,” a just-released movie starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson that screened at SXSW.
It’s not set in outer space or a fantasy kingdom or a world of hackers, it’s about some Texas Rangers chasing Bonnie and Clyde. So Netflix rented out a club called Bangers and transformed it into a speakeasy with fake gambling, drinks inspired by the film and live music every night from bands including White Denim and Father John Misty.
The 1930s basement décor was drab and the venue crowded. They asked guests to wear an interactive wristband and complete challenges at kiosks, like getting their “Wanted” poster taken. It felt like soulless social-media work, and the reward was a General Store full of “Highwaymen” merch to choose from if you won lots of fake points from the fake gambling. Netflix offered fake Stetson hats, fake denim shirts and fake pins to put on your fake denim.
A very tiresome experience of streaming fakery.
Good Omens, the upcoming apocalyptic fantasy about angels, demons and Jon Hamm was all over SXSW with shuttle bus displays, multiple appearances from showrunner/co-author Neil Gaiman and a star-studded cast panel.
Who knows if the show, which it out May 31, will be any good; the trailers have left me a little cold. But Amazon seems insanely confident in the limited series. Its biggest “Good Omens” presence at SXSW was a city block-sized “Garden of Earthly Delights” just south of the Austin Convention Center.
Decadent even for South by Southwest, the Garden offered Snapchat animated-filter photo opportunities, sushi, wine, tote bags, umbrellas, hardbound notebooks, live music, a puppy petting zoo and what seemed like endless yards of artificial turf for lounging.
As with HBO’s activations, actors in costume walking around promoting the activation sold it. In this case, demons with gross scars, angels with beautiful makeup, nuns aplenty, and street teams handing out an end-of-times newsletter extended the garden’s reach past its home base.
It might have seemed like overkill for most shows, but the presence of Gaiman himself, who is to fantasy nerds what George R. R. Martin is to fans of rapey dragon drama, gave the whole enterprise a sense of whimsy and legitimacy.
Now if only the show lives up to its activation.
For sheer execution, Central’s “Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library” won the activation war. The real-world version of a sketch and subsequent book from The Daily Show took up a wide area of Austin’s Driskill Hotel for SXSW.
It’s one thing to believe the presidents Tweets are dumb, dangerous and a waste of your screen time. It’s another to see them blown up into museum-sized displays to give you a truly horrifying and hilarious take on the state of the nation.
Funny and well-organized groupings included “Verified survivors” of Trump’s Tweet storms, “Sad! A Retrospective” and plaques of deleted Tweets that are gone, but not forgotten.
Visitors could wear a robe, wig and MAGA hat while sitting on a golden toilet positioned in an Oval Office set for an emergency Tweet simulator.
The activation paired well with a SXSW panel that included Trevor Noah and six correspondents from the Comedy Central show.
Well done, Comedy Central. Now please come back with something just as good next year.