Comment Culture

We’ve survived the final season of Game of Thrones, cried our way through Avengers Endgame and Toy Story 4, and now that we’re almost finished with the Skywalker saga of Star Wars, we’re about to embark on the third season of Stranger Things. To say we’ve found ourselves wrapped up in multi-year (and multi-decade) story arcs is an understatement. The amount of passion, fandom, branding, hype, and even dissatisfaction across these long entertainment journeys has been immense—but who really wins in the end?

The obvious answer here might be the brand, because of the absurd amount of money said properties are bringing in. However, I think at the end of the day the real winner here is consumer culture.

Not only are entertainment properties being celebrated on enormous, global scales, but they’re done because brands know the fandom is personally invested, and likely to continue to invest—even to extreme levels. But fan investment doesn’t always mean dollars spent or attention paid—sometimes investment takes a turn nobody is prepared for.

The final season of Game of Thrones is a unique example, with more than a hundred brands collaborating on a merchandising front, travel campaigns, exclusive experiences—and a season of writing so divisive it drove some fans away from the series as a whole.

As brands invested in the fandom, they positioned themselves as going along on the ride with the audience—except they didn’t. Brands didn’t react to bad writing, or the now-infamous on-screen errors such as a coffee cup or bottle of water in a final shot. They just stood on the sidelines of the biggest television event in recent history with merchandise in tow, waiting for consumers to spend away.

And so, comment culture grabbed the reigns and did what it does best—fill the internet with everything and anything negative it could. To be clear, comment culture is when fandoms reciprocate around how their favorite characters, franchises, and properties are acted out—especially when it unfolds in any way other than how the fandom envisioned it. We got a taste of how intense such a backlash could be years ago during the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, where fans found the ending lacking and took to the fleet of social media services to express their dissatisfaction.

The difference between then and now is that fandoms have become content engines in their own right—creating memes, deepfakes of scenes, audio dubs, animated retellings, and, of course, angry video rants expressing how they would do things differently. All it takes to fuel the flames is when more than one person with the same idea of how things should go find each other online—then, not only is their personal opinion validated, it’s shared—and becomes an opportunity to create content.

This new wave of fandom and comment culture has become a vicious cycle, one in which brands create something new—and the fandom hates it before it even arrives, on principle alone. The phenomenon of negative-centric fandoms both thrive on and hate new opportunities for beloved franchises. It gives them something new to talk about while, at the same time, something to criticize, because it will never be “as good as it used to be” again.

This new wave of fandom and comment culture has become a vicious cycle, one in which brands create something new—and the fandom hates it before it even arrives, on principle alone. The phenomenon of negative-centric fandoms both thrive on and hate new opportunities for beloved franchises. It gives them something new to talk about while, at the same time, something to criticize, because it will never be “as good as it used to be” again.

We’ve seen it happen across television, books, movies, and video games, and every time a coveted property launches something new, fans wait with baited breath to see not only how other fans react but how the property itself grows or moves forward.

For Game of Thrones, fans have petitioned the final season to be rewritten, amongst an onslaught of other responses. Movies from the Avengers and Star Wars franchises have bootleg fan edits online where story arcs and entire characters are erased from the series in the name of negative fandom. And, now, as we approach the fever pitch for Stranger Things 3, you can’t help but start to wonder what’s in store for Eleven, the Upside Down, and the gang.

Much like Game of Thrones, Stranger Things is seeing a huge surge in marketing surrounding season three, with major brands participating, such as Coke’s promotion which has gone as far as reselling the infamous New Coke in limited edition cans. Baskin-Robbins and Burger King have jumped on board as well, changing their branding to fit the 80s vibe.

As excited as fans are, there’s always that question as to whether it will live up to season one—and if it doesn’t, how bad will the fallout be. Rest assured, as we approach the 4th of July holiday weekend and homes around the country prepare to binge watch, we’ll have plenty of memes, original content, recaps, and fan events along the way to get us there.

Regardless of success, comment culture will always win. The power of the brand is in the consumers’ hands; the brand can’t control what the consumers do with it and how they react—positive and negative. Brands are having to navigate the playing field as influencers rise and fall based on the perception of a property, and instead of simply standing on the sidelines waiting for consumer praise and investment, they, too, are going to have to engage on the same level as the audience.

So, get your groceries to host that watch party, set your social media status, and prepare for the ride ahead. Even if you are just watching alone in your home, there’s an entire internet culture watching alongside of you. And if you ever feel like something isn’t right, rest assured, someone else feels the same way—and will gladly tell you all about it.

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