While I have no plans to watch the recently released Star Trek: Discovery — both because of its premise and because I’m not a Trek fan — I have observed its pre-release marketing campaign over the past few months, and make no mistake, this is a marketing plan. It doesn’t mean that those who worked on the show don’t mean what they say, it simply means they stated their beliefs in a very strategic way.
They not only talk up the diverse casting, but they also use the Klingons as commentary on the 2016 US presidential election, linking the warlike alien race to President Trump’s voter base. Furthermore, they redesigned the Klingons, which aroused the ire of longtime Trek fans.
Taken together, it is clear what the studio is attempting. It is what political journalist Mike Cernovich calls “Go Start a Fight” marketing, intended to drive viewership by making the show controversial. Groups distasteful to the average Trekkie would complain about it, thus spreading word of its existence. Furthermore, critiques from these groups would rub Trekkies the wrong way, making them want to see the series as an act of defiance. Finally, the generalized sound and fury would make non-Trekkies stop by and take a look at what all the fuss is about.
Most famously, Donald Trump used this start-a-fight tactic to get free media coverage and propel himself to the White House. Likewise, this is the core of pundit Milo Yiannopoulos’s publicity efforts. But these are far from the only two that have effectively used this: Protein World once ran an ad with a “beach body ready” woman in a bikini; this ad caused great outrage from feminists, but Protein World refused to back down. Import game retailer Play-Asia called out SJWs as the reason why the game Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 wasn’t getting a Western release, and it answered the ensuing outrage with mockery. The result was record sales of the game.
However, all four of those have something in common: when they first used this tactic, they were nobodies. Donald Trump had no history of government service. Milo Yiannopoulos was merely one of many dime-a-dozen right-wing pundits. Protein World was just some average company that sold supplements, and Play-Asia was just a website that sold games from Japan to the West in their original form. Except for Trump, none of them were prominent brands, and even Trump had no clout in the world of Washington DC politics. Start-a-fight is a guerrilla tactic, well-suited for the weaker party.
Which brings us to Star Trek: Discovery.
In the world of entertainment, Star Trek is a major brand. It is something that most people are familiar with in some way, and it is repeatedly quoted not only in the media, but in casual conversation. It is a big cultural touchstone, and it shapes many people’s idea of what “science fiction” is. Someone with the rights to a mainstream series like Star Trek wouldn’t need such measures to raise awareness of the show.
Unless…their confidence in the show was low. Thus, the marketing of Discovery could be seen as a way for the show to save face and boost its viewership numbers since they believed that a more conventional marketing campaign would doom it to obscurity.
However, it’s one thing for a plucky upstart to court controversy. It’s quite another for a broadly popular mainstream entity to do the same.
The reason is simple: small upstarts don’t require broad popularity to sustain themselves. All they need to do is carve out a profitable and consistent niche of loyal customers since their costs are very low. Even if the majority of people find the upstart off-putting, it would merely increase the upstart’s credibility with its niche. The internet lends itself well to this due to the ease of communicating with large numbers of people.
On the other hand, large and established brands require broad popularity to sustain themselves due to their much higher overhead. They cannot survive on a niche market; if revenue does not exceed expenses, it doesn’t matter how large the revenues are — it’s still a loss. This is the reason large brands have such a bland and mealy-mouthed image; they cannot afford to offend anybody.
The hazards of a major brand doing this can easily be seen in Marvel Comics. Like Discovery’s producers, Marvel Comics has resorted to a strategy of courting controversy. They attack established fans, replace beloved characters with impunity, and insult even the moderate political Right both on and off the comics page. The result? Marvel’s sales have nosedived rapidly, to the level of niche indie books. Its easy to see why — Marvel was already well-known and well-loved throughout the world, but the current tactics have driven readers away, adversely affecting sales numbers. If Marvel was some small company looking to make a name for itself, angry detractors and broad unpopularity wouldn’t affect it, but Marvel is an established brand, so the start-a-fight strategy has proved very harmful to them.
It is too early to tell whether or not Star Trek: Discovery will succeed, but corporate bigwigs may have gotten the wrong idea from the rise of the trolls. Start-a-fight marketing works best if the entity using it has no name, so the signs fare poorly for the series.
Then again, CBS was using it to sell their rather obscure streaming channel, so the Star Trek brand isn’t even the point. Maybe they’re smarter than they look.