What Have I Missed?

By | Friday, November 15, 2019 Leave a Comment
For a good chunk of last year, I was largely immobile. Weeks in the hospital, months in a wheelchair, and more months where I could use a walker but not drive. One of the problems with this was getting out to pick up any new comics I wanted, whether that was a New Comic Day visit to my local comic shop or picking up something neat-looking at a convention; I just could easily get out to do any of that. With a new Fantastic Four series going back into publication (with a writer whose work I generally really enjoy) I signed up for a subscription service so I could keep reading while I was getting rehab.

With more of a corporate emphasis on the FF, I started picking up several Marvel titles in addition to the FF (Two-in-One at first, later FF: Grand Design, Future Foundation, Invisible Woman and Power Pack) something I hadn't done since the Civil War storyline back in 2006/2007. The main book is interesting enough, but the others I find generally lacking. But that's not the point of this post!

Fantastic Four #16
The point is that the contents of Marvel's books seem different than when I last checked in with them. Not so much in terms of the story content itself, but in terms of the advertising. Let's take a quick run-through of the ads that show up in Fantastic Four #16...
  • Inside Front Cover: Axe Body Spray featuring a superhero called The Fresh-Man, apparently designed by Marvel. (The ad includes the Marvel logo and a joint copyright from Unilever and Marvel.)
  • Page 3: Marvel Contest of Champions mobile game featuring the Fantastic Four
  • Page 9: Kid's Spinbrush toothbrushes featuring Iron Man, Black Panther, and Hulk
  • Page 11: Marvel Champions card game featuring Captain Marvel
  • Page 22: Marvel digital comic house ad featuring Spider-Ham
  • Page 24: Marvel house ad reprinting Stan's Soapbox from January 1970
  • Page 27: Letter column
  • Page 28: Marvel house ad for FF #17
  • Inside Back Cover: Citizen Watches featuring The Avengers
  • Back Cover: Avengers Endgame soundtrack
There is literally not a single ad in here that doesn't prominently feature a Marvel property. Now I get that there's some degree of trying to work towards a target audience, but this strikes me as incredibly insular and, ultimately, problematic. Not so much that the ads themselves are a problem, but rather it suggests that Marvel is increasingly catering to its own audience to such a high degree that they don't even seem to recognize anything beyond Marvel. It suggests that they're not even trying to reach new audiences; they're just exclusively focused on people who buy their comics week after week, month after month.

Now, to be fair, I've looked at a couple other recent books (Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Invisible Woman) and there's a tad more variety there... but not much. They both have a Geico ad (poorly) drawn as a comic; and they have ads for John Flanagan's series of fantasy novels and Ransom Riggs' Home for Peculiar Children books. But the rest of the as are pretty much the same: house ads or products with some of their characters slapped on them.

Speaking as a marketing guy, I see two possibilities here. 1) Marvel's publishing arm has done an insane amount of consumer research and found that their readers are all over the map with regards to interests, and the only thing that's really consistent that might speak to everyone reasonably well is using their characters. 2) Their research is actually somewhere between crap and non-existent, and they're trying to pull things together intuitively, based on some really broad, cursory assumptions. I'm sure Marvel, as a corporation, has some huge resources at its disposal for consumer research. But whether that extends down to the publishing division, I don't know. Given what I have seen first-hand with regards to their credit card promotions, I kind of doubt it. They were pushing credit card designs based on some pretty gut-level hunches, so I'm not sure that much more data sourcing goes into the ads in their comics.

Like I said, I don't think the ads are a problem in and of themselves. But it does suggest a somewhat ouroborosish approach to their comics division. Like they've given up even trying to attract new audiences.

I hope I'm being too cynical here. I hope I'm wrong. Because that kind of approach doesn't seem sustainable for very long to me. And while many of the Marvel comics I've read lately weren't actually very good, I'd hate for them to go away entirely; that would be devastating to the industry as a whole.
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