Wednesday, October 27, 2010

To Market, To Market

Did you ever ask yourself, "Why am I a hockey fan?" Maybe you have, but it's probably more likely you haven't. You just are one. If you do think about it, though, you probably realize you fall into one of the two main categories of "fan." You are either a fan of the game itself, regardless of which team is playing, or you are a fan of a particular team, regardless of what kind of hockey it's playing. You may possibly fall into both camps, but there is a distinct divide in the way you approach them.

If you love the game of hockey, you probably enjoy the Olympics better than the NHL version. You can objectively watch a Pens/Sharks game and appreciate Crosby's skill and Thornton's seeing-eye passes without mocking Sid's whining or Jumbo's playoff chokage. It doesn't matter which team wins as long as the hockey is fast, exciting and skilled.

If you love a particular team, it's different. You are attached to that team win or lose, and, with the inevitability of loving just one team among thirty, losing happens much more often. As generations of players and fans before you have learned, losing isn't much fun. So: enter, the marketers.

The marketers give us a slick, fun, glossy reason to love a team even when it trades our favourite players away or misses the playoffs or hires coaches who make inexplicable decisions. The marketers manipulate our perceptions, stroking the loyalty we invested in a team as children and breathing continued life into its brittle adult incarnation. They deal in nostalgia and glory and emotion.

Marketers are able to create their castles in the sky because there's...unsurprisingly...a market for them. We want to believe miracles can happen. We're willing to ignore current player scandals, big-money contracts and cynicism in favour of basking in an air-brushed version of the glorious past. We warm to images of players as children, in their younger innocence, set to music that stirs our memory and our blood. We love highlight reels and dramatic symbolism in pre-game presentations. We're letting ourselves be manipulated. The funny paradox is we know we're being manipulated, in theory, but we don't want indisputable proof of the fact. We don't really believe in the Wizard, but we get angry if someone exposes the bald old man behind the curtain.

That's why it was so disappointing to find out this week that Andrei Kostitsyn's apparently exuberant gesture of throwing pucks to the adoring faithful after being named a game's first star was nothing more than a marketing ploy. The marketers decided throwing autographed pucks to fans would be a good way to keep bums in the seats while the Bell-sponsored stars are voted upon and announced. Bell's paying good money for the right to own the three stars, after all, so the company deserves to have fans stick around to hear the announcement. If throwing a few pucks keeps more people in the building longer, that's good for marketing.

The problem is, we like our illusions. If we think Andrei Kostitsyn is showing some genuine emotion and saying thanks to the fans with his puck toss, we warm up to him. Now that we know he's been told to do it, the gesture has lost its appeal. Not only does Kostitsyn remain as much an unknown entity as ever, but when the next player to get first star does it, throwing out the pucks will be tinged with cynicism.

The Canadiens' marketing team is the best in the business. Usually, they manipulate us in a very comfortable, subtle way. They make us feel warm and fuzzy while they sell us the sanitized version of the Habs we're willing to buy. They made a rare mistake with the three-star puck toss, however. By letting us believe Kostitsyn was making the gesture in honest celebration, we bought into an image we liked. The marketers now telling us that image was a fraud means the one they're really selling us is cheaper and less honest. They pulled back the curtain, and even though the old guy behind it might be a lovely gentleman, he's not the Wizard.

Sometimes, it's easier to love a game than a team, because even with all its flaws, a game is honest. Its outcome is undetermined every night, and can't be massaged into something it isn't. Loving a team means buying what the marketers sell, and sometimes, when they slip up, love just makes you a sucker.


Anonymous said...

I vote to have ice girls like other cities do. Why not? We need to be entertained! And watching these honeys on the big screen would so make my day. I think there's a push to add ice girls in Montreal. What do you think?

Topham said...

I think you're off on this one. Sometimes marketing departments have genuinely good ideas, and just because they come from marketing departments doesn't make them evil.

The three stars themselves were a marketing idea back whan and it has proved a popular idea over the years.

Perhaps it's a little disappointing to discover this wasn't Andrei's unbridled enthusiasm, but in the end he still looked very enthusiastic and three fans got autographed pucks.

Considering all the other advertising intrusions on the game, this seems least. And there's plenty of positive associated with it. Personally I applaud the marketers who thought of the idea.

J.T. said...

@Topham: Fair enough. But they should have announced this would be a new gimmick this year and that all players would participate. Letting Andrei go out and do it without a previous announcement just tricked fans into thinking it was his idea and that he was doing something special. I didn't like that.

@anon: Ice girls do not belong in the Bell Centre. Fans come to see hockey and there's no need to throw on more frills to fill the seats. In fact, I'd advocate removing some of the things they already have, like the blaring music and t-shirt cannon. The hockey in Montreal should be enough. If you want half-naked dancing girls, hit Crescent after the game.

Lmayo said...

As a fan from the west coast, I am very disappointed this wasn't Andrei's idea. It would have showed him to be genuine and the fact that marketers told him to kinda sucks. What Spacek did last year during playoffs leaves positive impressions (tapping kids on shin pads / fist pounds). That was genuine. At least the marketers are doing their jobs. They just need to keep their mouths shut and convince Andrei it was his idea. How hard is that.

dwgs said...

Absolutely agree on the puck toss issue. It's not evil but it was done in a very ham-handed fashion. Especially since it was AK, people wanted to believe he was a changed man.
Also total agreement on the between and during periods scoreboard-induced cheers, kiss cam, POM fan of the game, t-shirt cannon, etc etc. I'd trade all that for ice girls ;-).

MC said...

I am glad they clarified. Just because everyone wanted to believe it was AK46's idea, does not mean they should continue with the misunderstanding. This makes WAY more sense based on everything we have seen from AK46 before. As long as he keeps scoring goals, who cares? This also protects the next first star so that it does not look like he is stealing Kostityns's thunder.

A non-hockey-fan asked me once why I was loyal to one team when the players change all the time, especially when it is not the team of the city you live in? It was tough to answer and sound rational!

Steph said... cynical today! :)

Why does the marketing department have to announce it as an initiative? It may come from a corporate place and not a spontaneous act of fan appreciation, but that doesn't take away from the act itself which is fan to player engagement.

Throwing three pucks to the first three rows isn't a ploy to keep people in their seats since the chances of catching a puck anywhere but those three rows is zero.

As a director of marketing and communications at my company, I can take an educated guess that the motive was engagement not trying to get 10 more people to see a Bell logo.

dwgs said...

"Throwing three pucks to the first three rows isn't a ploy to keep people in their seats since the chances of catching a puck anywhere but those three rows is zero."
That gives me an excellent idea, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...The Puck Cannon!!
We can use it to fire pucks at slapshot speed up into the cheap seats.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the dark side. I don't see any marketing ploy there either. I think it's a way to have players connect with the audience. Anyway, who would be stupid enough to think that the player (Andrei) devised the whole plan. He would have to have hid pucks in his pants, along with a sharpie and hope to God that he was 1st star. I'm not sure how much appreciation he would have received in the locker room afterward either.

As for the ice girls... I don't want them there either but disagree with your reasoning, J.T. Ice Girls would not attract more people. The seats are filled to the max, the whole season is sold out. And I would keep my ass parked in the seat between periods to watch them perform, therefore preventing me from buying beer...

Anonymous said...

It never occurred to me that AK46 was doing anything other than a promo. Likewise it never occurred to me that Kovalev's foundation was anything less than it appeared, or that Lecavalier's work with the St Petersburg Children's Hospital wasn't on the up and up.

It is funny though. Both Kovalev and Lecavalier are booed in Montreal. Kovalev because he has so much mystery talent and such a big heart for the city and those who need a hand, and Lecavalier because his foundation works in Rimouski (kidding) as well as Tampa Bay.

Hockey is a great game, with great players who give so much back. Guys like Crosby, Kovalev, Lecavalier, Lemieux, well the list just goes on forever. So some marketing minions figure out a way to sell another beer. That is what those guys do, figure out how to get another buck out of your pockets.

Meanwhile, back in the trenches, the class guys are doing what class guys always do, quietly, effectively, and going public only when they need more help to do it. That J.T. ma belle, is why you love hockey.


wg morgan said...

I think it would have been great if they had let us continue to think that Andrei was doing it by himself, and if the next person did it as well - it would have been like passing a torch - not stealing his thunder. And Andrei's english isn't good enough for /him/ to explain that it wasn't his idea, so if the marketers hadn't outed themselves, I'm sure we wouldn't have known.

As for Ice Girls, I like that we don't have them. I like that we don't need them.

Howard said...

Nothing will take the place of the so-called 'Centennial' Season. Habs got their bad karma back in spades. I've never seen more marketing ploys in my life. If I never see another 'barber pole' jersey it won't be soon enough! The trouble is, the Habs are getting too good at it. I walk into the Habs' Zone and it might as well be a place of worship replete with any amount of merchandise to buy so I can display my loyalty on my sleeve. I look around my room and sometimes I do feel like a 'sucker'.

Number31 said...

Other teams give the first star player a "custom" team stick to toss into the crowd (only one). I like the pucks. And it's nice to see them go for a skate. So long as they don't bring in the awkward "first star interview" with the Bell Center MC lady like they do in some of the USA rinks...

georgieboy said...

I disagree with you on this one JT. I think it's a great idea by the marketing dept for a very cost effective impact. What if it was two different Habs that were voted first star (eg. Plek then Price) and each threw the 3 pucks into the crowd, would you feel the same indignation toward the marketers?

Is it only because it was AK and we all wanted to see a change in him that you are up in arms? Also what if it was another player who was voted first star twice instead of AK, would you have been upset that the marketing dept announced it was a planned innitiative? I think it was the set of circumstances and made us all hope it was their idea because we wanted to believe they were finally the player we all expected him to be.

I think that it would be even more awkward if the marketing team didn't announce it and everyone just appeared to be following in AK's footsteps.