Fifty shades of marketing

Despite its lack of literary merit, much can be learned from Fifty Shades of Grey, especially from a marketing perspective says Cathie McGinn

Let me be completely clear: Fifty Shades of Grey is the worst book I have ever read. It is far and away the most poorly written, repetitious, coy, scarcely literate bilge I’ve ever chewed through.

A good part of me wants to make bonfires of its pages and smash every Kindle or tablet carrying it, feeling much as poet and critic Ezra Pound did when he said: “The man of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets literature decay than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts.”

And yet, I read it cover to cover. It would be a pointless exercise to dismiss its extraordinary success as merely the product of some overheated Twilight fan frustrations. It’s the fastest selling novel of all time.

There is much to be learned from the secrets of Fifty Shades’ success and the way that its popularity built over time.

Beginning with a small online following, it reached new audiences via e-readers before making it to print.

Now there’s an adaptation as a musical and rumours of a film with a screenplay by Brett Easton Ellis in the works.

Fifty Shades reversed the revenue model. That meant taking pressure off a creator needing to recoup a large up-front investment made by a studio, publisher or network and allowed the content to find an audience organically, without being hot-housed into new formats before anyone wanted them.

It gave people something to talk about, with the additional frisson of the forbidden or illicit.

So often campaigns to promote content – films, TV series and the like – seem to focus on the mechanics of the marketing and not the content itself.

‘Harnessing the power of social media’, a phrase rapidly becoming the most overused in history (second only to Fifty Shades’ endless references to the heroine’s ‘inner goddess’) is only possible when there’s something worth conversing about.

The marketing cleverly builds on that, reinforcing the idea that you’re the only one left not to have read the darn thing, and secretly you’re dying to know if it’s as terrible as everyone says. (Take my word for it, it most certainly is.)

And lastly, it proves the adage that sex sells – even abusive, prissy, oddly boring sex.



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