The past weekend the Jacob Javits Center hosted New York Comic Con, the East Coast’s largest popular culture event run by the ReedPop division of Reed Elsevier. Early reports estimated this year’s attendance at more than 130,000, putting the event on par with North America’s premiere pop culture event, San Diego Comic-Con run by Comic-Con International.
Like most major Cons, New York Comic Con included a wide array of pop culture activities: a show floor filled with exhibitors and vendors, panel sessions on comic books, movies, and television shows; and abundant costumed characters (both attendees and marketers).
It is interesting to note the unexpected outliers, however. This year’s New York Con evidenced two trends — one disheartening, one encouraging — at the opposite poles of Con culture.
Marketing to Nerds
As with last year’s New York Comic Con, among the stalls of vendors selling comic books, video games, and sci-fi action figures were a smattering of general consumer products having little (or nothing) to do with the traditional pop culture focus of Comic Con (see Knowledge@Wharton, “Consumer Brands Go Geek at Comic Con” for a report on last year’s consumer marketing trend).
Like last year, Chevrolet had a major presence with a large booth on the show floor. In the Javits atrium, a row of four Chevy Sonic Hatchbacks were decorated with images from comic book publishers BOOM! Studios, Dark Horse Comics, Image, and Valiant. Outside of Artist Alley, a Camaro was being adorned with illustrations by comic book artists.
While most of Chevy’s presence seemed tangential to the usual themes of Comic Con, there was at least one pop culture moment for the company: The Marvel booth featured S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson’s 1962 Chevrolet Corvette, “Lola.”
Craftsman, which last year had a large booth on the show floor touting their Bolt-On tool system through a comic book tie-in with DC Comics, didn’t repeat their appearance this year.
But Playboy was there, promoting their Super Playboy Fragrances. The company sponsored a sci-fi speed dating event and provided the opportunity for Comic Con attendees to participate in a photo session with a Playboy bunny. When asked how Playboy’s presence relates to Comic Con’s usual focus on comic books and popular culture, and spokesperson mentioned that Super Playboy “transforms you into a sexy superhero.” While this may seem like a stretch, even Stan Lee had a fragrance being marketed at the Con, indicating how far geek culture has spread from its historic roots.
Perhaps the most unfortunate ad campaign at this year’s New York Comic Con was from Arizona Beverages. The company was publicizing new soda flavors available in large, 23.5 once cans. To promote the latter, a fulsome model wearing an “I ❤ big cans” T-shirt was striking poses for the crowd. When asked what this has to do with comic books or pop culture, a representative in the booth initially seemed puzzled and then stated, in perhaps an unwittingly apt expression, “It’s about exposure.”
While Arizona Beverages’ presence at the Con provided visibility for their products, it may be the type of marketing more likely to misfire than to build brand loyalty. Successfully promoting a pop culture brand involves more than just exposure; it’s about connecting with your audience in a way that builds a loyal fan base.
For Fans of All Ages
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Playboy bunnies and models with T-shirts about big cans, this year’s New York Comic Con featured a number of events targeted at young people.
With a large percentage of modern comic books targeted at (and only appropriate for) an adult audience, a number of industry watchers are concerned about fostering a new generation of fans. BOOM! Studios co-founder Ross Richie raised the issue in a panel session on the company’s upcoming products. “We need to start building the next generation of comics readers,” Richie stated. John Rogers, president of Comic Con International which hosts the other major North American Comic Con in San Diego, has expressed similar concerns about the need to cultivate a new generation of fans so the audience for comic book conventions doesn’t “go extinct.”
To be sustainable, popular culture needs new cohorts of fans, and this means supporting material for young readers to enjoy.
For the first time this year, New York Comic Con provided a “family room” featuring three days of presentations and events for fans of all ages.
The Anti-Bullying Coalition had a significant booth presence at New York Comic Con, as well as a panel session titled “End Bullying! Responding to Cruelty in Our Culture,” hosted by Chase Masterson. The booth included notes from Con attendees to young victims of bullying or those with self-esteem issues. The sentiments on the wall of cards included “You are important. Don’t allow other to have control of who you are! ❤” and “It’s not you. It’s them. Be yourself.”
Meanwhile, Elsewhere at the Con…
This year I forwent most of the panel sessions to spend time on the show floor and Artist Alley photographing comic book creators and industry professionals for a project in conjunction with a major pop culture publication.
Random celebrity encounters — always a fun aspect of the major Con — included bumping into Whoopi Goldberg walking the show floor, spotting 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit conversing with illustrators in Artist Alley, and running into famed book designer Chip Kidd chatting with Jim Sternako (with whom he once worked as an assistant).
And, as always, there was a lot of great cosplay throughout the Con.
For all 215 photos of New York Comic Con from my point of view, see my Flickr site: New York Comic Con 2013