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What The Simpsons can teach us about PR and marketing

1 year ago

Way back in 1993, The Simpsons was on its way to becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

After some of the series’ best episodes, the show’s fourth season ended with a particularly memorable story, which demonstrates some genuinely useful lessons about PR and marketing.

Yes, in this blog, we really are going to dissect a 27 year old episode of The Simpsons to demonstrate marketing and PR in action.

Trust me, this is going somewhere.

Gabbo in The Simpsons - Krusty Gets Kancelled


The episode, Krusty Gets Kancelled centres on a mean-spirited ventriloquist’s doll which takes over prime time TV and almost ruins the career of beloved children’s entertainer, Krusty the Clown.

The episode is a classic, but you’ve probably never considered the marketing and PR principles that it very neatly demonstrates.

Right away, the episode gives us an example of viral marketing: Homer and Bart are watching TV when, during an advert break, the word ‘Gabbo’ flashes on the screen with an echoing voice announcing “Gabbo, Gabbo, Gabbo!”

“BART: Did you see that?


BART: What’s Gabbo?

HOMER: I figure it’s some guy’s name. Some guy named Gabbo.”

The advert ends and Homer and Bart are both thoroughly distracted by it, their curiosity piqued:

This is the start of a viral marketing campaign across Springfield which is designed to get people talking and wondering what the mysterious Gabbo might be.

The local newspaper runs the headlines “Who is Gabbo?” and “Five days ‘til Gabbo’ while roadside billboards display the word which quickly becomes the talk of the town: Even Mr Burns, Jasper and Reverend Lovejoy remark on the Gabbo phenomenon: 

LOVEJOY: Everyone is saying ‘Gabbo this’ and ‘Gabbo that’, but no one is saying ‘worship this’ and ‘Jericho that’”.

Finally, with a front page article, the Springfield Shopper announces “Gabbo here today” and the Simpsons family sits around the TV to watch out for their first glimpse of Gabbo.

Within the space of just two minutes, the episode has demonstrated an extremely successful PR and marketing campaign the likes of which were just beginning to appear in real life.

Viral marketing and teasers beyond Springfield

At the time this episode was created, viral marketing was just beginning to take off as a marketing tool. In fact, it wasn’t until two years later that the term ‘viral marketing’ was coined by the team behind the launch campaign for the original PlayStation.

The idea behind it is that, with people generally being cynical of traditional advertising, most consumers reject things that are pushed at them, but they seek out things that elude them.

As Lisa remarks while Homer is reading the newspaper headline; “I don’t think they’re giving enough information, Dad”, to which he replies; “I’ll work it out, using all the power of my brain…”

The Playstation’s viral campaign made use of flashing imagery with only the briefest of glimpses of the games the console could play. To most viewers at the time, they wouldn’t know what it was advertising, but they’d be just as confused, curious and maybe a little concerned as the people of Springfield.

The viral adverts sparked conversation, they stuck in the mind and people lapped up every following advert in the campaign as more and more glimpses of the Playstation were revealed. You can imagine parents across America saying exactly the same thing as Homer after watching this bizarre thirty second advert from 1995:

Since the 1990s and the rise of social media, viral marketing (so named because it spreads like a virus) has become one of the more commonly used types of marketing – and it’s capitalised on the all important power of sharing.

Whether it’s 2010’s Old Spice man, who generated 56 million views on YouTube by telling women what their man could smell like, or the incredible ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $115m within eight weeks of people pouring cold water on their heads, viral marketing is a popular and powerful tool. But as tools go, it’s one of the most unpredictable ones around.

While viral marketing can be effective, it has significant limitations. For one thing, by holding information back, you run the risk of spending your marketing budget pointlessly: If your campaign fails to take-off and ‘go viral’, you’ll have spent a lot of money not saying an awful lot about the brand you’re trying to promote. Secondly, if every company is trying to use viral marketing, then the strategy becomes less and less effective each time.

Mr Burn's car drives past a Gabbo billboard - The Simpsons, Krusty Gets Kancelled

It’s become a marketing cliche to say that you want your next campaign to ‘go viral’. A lot of care needs to go into how to make it happen, why you would even want to, or whether your organisation is prepared to handle it should you succeed.

Today the TV advert for Gabbo might be best described as a ‘teaser’; a type of viral marketing which gets people talking with a subtle, ambiguous hint of what’s to come. They’re a great way to launch a new product, whether it’s a film, product or gadget, but if they’re handled badly, they can fall completely flat.

Here are a few great examples from the real world:

Before the name of the sequel to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War was announced, the directors delighted in teasing its name to fans who were eager to lap up any hint they could get.

This clever tweet was posted three months before the name was officially revealed – if you look very closely, you can see the word ENDGAME spelled out in the environment behind the two directors:

Avengers Endgame name teased in a tweet by the Russo Brothers - a great example of viral marketing
If you’re struggling to see it – the wooden boards on the left form the E, the N is formed by the leaning board against this and the white wall behind it, the D is the stack of storyboards, the G is formed from the crosses on the back wall and the man in the chair, the ladder is the A, the M is the leaning edge of the back wall and the space behind it and the E on the right is the metal on a large box.

Of course, the master of viral marketing is Apple. Whenever they have something special to announce, they tend to tease their fans with subtle graphics to stir anticipation and invite speculation.

Here is their teaser for MacWorld 2007 where they launched the original iPhone:

Apple Macworld 2007 image

And then there was this terrific teaser poster for Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace in 1999:

Star Wars Episode One poster with Anakin Skywalker with Darth Vader's shadow
It’s a pity that the movie wasn’t as good as the poster…

Gabbo fabbo, Krusty rusty

Back in Springfield, the marketing campaign moves on as Gabbo is revealed to be a singing and dancing ventriloquist’s dummy. Gabbo hosts a TV show which is to be broadcast in direct competition with the Krusty the Clown Show.

Bart is shocked when he realises this, saying to Lisa, “That cute little character could take America by storm.  All he needs is a hook.”

Sure enough, Gabbo ends the trailer by introducing his catchphrase: “I’m a bad widdle boy”. Bart is stunned.

Meanwhile, Krusty is in denial about his programme’s falling ratings, claiming that he’s not scared of “the dummy”.

Nonetheless, he’s persuaded to fight fire with fire and beat Gabbo at his own game.

“So you want ventriloquism do ya?”, growls Krusty behind a fake moustache before beginning a doomed routine which will terrify his audience in a few horrifying seconds.

Krusty with ventriloquist's doll in The Simpsons - Krusty Gets Kancelled

The local showbiz magazine instantly turns on him: “Gabbo Fabbo! Krusty Rusty!” reads the frontpage.

Worker and Parasite

Brand imitation is surprisingly common across a wide range of industries. Companies often find their products being imitated by rivals, whether it’s in the form of me-too products, legal knockoffs or illegal counterfeits.

Typically, it’s a smaller brand which emulates the products or services of a larger or more successful rival or it’s a budget brand copying a luxury brand. For example, H&M and Zara have been accused many times of allegedly “stealing” designs from high-end labels and selling them at a lower price to enormous success and Lidl and Aldi take pride in their own-brand products which replicate more expensive alternatives.

Larger companies also tend to copy one another; since the launch of the i-Pad, it’s hard to think of a computer company which doesn’t produce a tablet, and Amazon’s Echo smart speakers were almost immediately followed up by Google Home.

Meanwhile, fake Gucci handbags and Rolex watches fill the streets of popular tourist destinations.

While this might justifiably frustrate those who developed the original product or service, there’s been little research to suggest that it does them any actual harm. There is evidence, however, to suggest that it’s generally the imitating brand which suffers the most harm in these situations, rather than the brand which was copied.

When, like Krusty, a brand decides to shamelessly copy a more successful rival, they have to work hard to market their product in a way which makes it clear that their product is more than just a knock-off: They have to persuade consumers that their products are better in terms of quality, function and value for money… and they have to show confidence in their own version of the product versus that of their established rival.

If Krusty’s ventriloquism routine had been genuinely more impressive than Gabbo’s or if he’d done some unique twist on the formula to make it more entertaining, he might have succeeded with Alphonse the dummy. 

Instead of this:

Horrified children scream at broken ventriloquist's doll in The Simpsons

To make up for this disaster, Krusty resorts to offering children a cheque for $40 every time they watch his programme (cheques will not be honoured).

Instead, he really should have had a crisis communications strategy in place – but you can read more about those here.

It’s worth bearing in mind that imitation can be played by both sides: Later, Gabbo rips off Krusty’s crank call skit…. Which Lisa points out he stole from Steve Allen… and, as Grampa explains:

 “Everything’s stolen nower days. Why, a fax machine is just a waffle iron with a phone attached!”

Ok, maybe that example wasn’t that good. 

I’m a bad widdle boy

Meanwhile, the runaway popularity of Gabbo is even being capitalised by the town’s mayor to get him out of hot water.

Apologising for misuse of public funds in a speech outside the town hall, Mayor Quimby wins over the angry crowds with Gabbo’s catch-phrase:

QUIMBY: “I admit I used the city’s treasury to fund the murder of my enemy. But as Gabbo would say “I’m a bad widdle boy”.”

Springfield Shopper front page reads 'Quimby re-elected by landslide'. Second story reads 'Two more bodies surface in Springfield Harbour' - The SImpsons

By charming his detractors in this way, Quimby wins reelection, having successfully buried the scandal which threatened his position.

Burying bad news is one of the more shady tactics in the PR armoury, mainly used by large organisations and political parties which have the capability to dominate the front pages with their own actions.

How many times has the government or the opposition announced a major piece of immediately after a major scandal?

Of course, another tactic is to reveal bad news at a time when the public and the media are likely to be distracted – for example, on the Friday before Christmas, on September 11th, or on when other scandals mean it’s impossible to make the day any worse.

Another tactic which some suspect was used during the 2019 General Election was the so-called ‘dead cat strategy’, whereby you do something so odd, that it takes all the attention away from stories you’d like to go away.

Speaking in 2013 about the strategy used by ‘an Australian friend’ of his, now-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is quoted as saying:

“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

Boris Johnson, 2013 (as quoted in The Spectator)

And let’s not even go into the cringe-inducing moments when politicians have dropped a pop culture catch phrase.

“Do they still buy human hair down at the wig shop?”

Things get worse for Krusty’s show, which even loses animated cat and mouse duo, Itchy and Scratchy to the Gabbo Show.

As their replacements, Worker and Parasite play, the last few audience members – and his camera crew – abandon Krusty before the programme is over.

Krusty is cancelled.

After trying and failing to win roles in live theatre and spending his last $10 at the horse track, Krusty’s final humiliation comes live on air on The Gabbo Show.

Krusty’s reputation seems to have finally hit rock bottom.

A short time later, Bart sneaks inside the Gabbo Show studio and overhears the puppet being rude about his audience. Switching on a camera, Bart manages to transmit footage of Gabbo saying “All the kids in Springfield are S.O.Bs”.

The gaffe becomes TV news and Gabbo suffers the scandal, but the Springfield Shopper still proclaims the next day; ‘Gabbo still #1 in Springfield’.

KRUSTY: “35 years in show-business and already, nobody remembers me. Just like what’s his name and whoozits, and, you know, that guy…. always wore a shirt.”

Send in the Clowns

Reputation is a unique currency. While some can build renown in an instant – and lose it just as quickly – the strongest reputations are built over many years and that makes them more resistant to the smaller hiccups and minor scandals.

Many firms have bounced back from a terrible knock to their reputation, even when it seemed like the end for them.

In 2016, Samsung neared bankruptcy and had to recall two million devices when it’s Galaxy Note 7 devices were reported to be bursting into flames. Today, they’re still the world’s number one smartphone manufacturer.

In 2014, General Motors recalled 30 million cars after an ignition switch failure allegedly caused 124 deaths. Today, they’re the world’s fourth largest car manufacturer.

After acknowledging their failures, taking steps to make amends for them and ensuring they won’t occur again, an established brand with a well earned reputation can bounce back – and the passage of time can go a long way toward healing old wounds.

Like these large companies, Krusty had built up a strong reputation over his 35 years in showbiz.

Krusty also had a lot of friends in high places, including the likes of 90s icons Luke Perry, Johnny Carson Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler and Hugh Heffner who could rebuild his profile with their endorsement.

Celebrity endorsement can work wonders for PR and marketing, which is why brands pay stars get paid big bucks by advertisers. Taylor Swift was paid $26 million to advertise Diet Coke in 2014 and George Clooney is reported to have earned $40million from Nespresso. Meanwhile, Charlize Theron is reported to have earned $55million from an 11 year deal with Dior.

With the endorsement of big named celebrities and after losing a load of weight, Krusty is able to remind the people of Springfield why they loved him in the first place.

Krusty the Clown on his Comeback Special on The Simpsons

Now, the front pages count down to Krusty’s special comeback show and the audience is queuing around the block…. While the upstart, Gabbo slips back into ignominy.

Finally, Krusty is a star again and we’ve all learned some important lessons about PR, marketing and reputation management.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this overly detailed analysis of a classic episode of The Simpsons.

This might be the first of a series of articles about what pop culture can teach us about PR and marketing, so be sure to look out for more blogs from us in future…. Or maybe we’ll just keep writing about The Simpsons.

Homer Simpson reads a book on marketing

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Endut! Hoch Hech!

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