In a session broadcast live via YouTube, MediaCom’s global strategy officer Jon Gittings was joined by The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun, executive producer Dave Alpert, and CEO of AMC Josh Sapan, to talk data, disembowelment and dangerous stories.
Over 430 zombie films have been made since George A. Romero’s genre-defining classic Night Of The Living Dead in 1968, ranging from straight-up gorefests to comedy (Shaun Of The Dead) and even romance (Warm Bodies). But what is it about these gruesome, often apocalyptic scenarios which remains so compelling to audiences?
Through a screen, darkly
Fiction has always provided us with a space in which to safely explore and unpack our real world fears. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could only have been written at a time when religious conviction was clashing with scientific discovery on an almost daily basis. Skip ahead a century and you have Godzilla, a larger-than-life proxy for concerns over the nuclear age. Apocalypse myths, says Gittings, reflect specifically 21st century fears, such as the abuse of our increasingly limited natural resources and unchecked consumerism.
Of course, different cultures will engage with these disaster parables in different ways. Nations like the US and the UK, which value individualism over hierarchy and have a high tolerance for uncertainty, will throw themselves into the place of Rick Grimes and ask themselves; “what would I do in that situation? How far would I go to survive?” Elsewhere in Europe… well, let’s just say you don’t want to be in Cannes when the world goes to hell.
Just as the advertising industry is becoming more globalised, Gittings believes that “brands need to adapt their stories,” and become “globalised storytellers.”
Shock, sicken, surprise
While watching zombies feasting on human innards has a morbid appeal, writing for the show takes guts of a different kind; the character death toll rises each season. “We approach any character in the show as if they’re real,” says Sapan, “and we treat storylines with equal respect. When you’re putting characters in life or death situations, sometimes they have to die.”
Plenty of TV shows have adopted the ‘no-one is safe’ rule in order to buck narrative expectations and keep viewers on the edge of their seats. But to Alpert, these aren’t merely water cooler moments, designed to shock in the short-term. Whenever the writers contemplate killing off a central character, the mandate is: “This storyline earns this death.”
The best brands already know that capturing an audience’s imagination is all about taking risks and subverting expectations. But, just like (spoiler alert!) Beth’s untimely demise, these gut punches need to be earned. If not, you come across just as ghoulish and thoughtless as one of the zombies.