It’s not enough for a webcomic creator to be a great artist, a sparkling writer, and a high-energy networker; they also have to be brilliant entrepreneurs. A handful of creators pay their bills through a combination of merchandise sales, banner ads, commissions, and fan donations, but even they must keep creating new products and looking for new opportunities to monetize their strips. Until now, however, no major webcomic has dared wield the double-edged sword that is product placement.
In the last couple weeks, PvP, the popular webcomic created by Scott Kurtz, has been running its first in-comic storyline featuring product placement. For those not familiar with PvP, the comic centers around the staff of a gaming magazine. In the sponsored storyline, business manager Cole and junior staffer Francis head to the Wizards of the Coast offices to pitch a partnership idea to the Magic: The Gathering team.
As a figure in the webcomics community, Kurtz can be controversial, but he’s extremely thoughtful about the way he runs his business. He knows that webcomics live and die by their audiences, and he admits that he had eschewed product placement up until now for fear of turning off readers.
So what changed? Well, Kurtz explained that watching Mad Men convinced him that product placement could be done in a way that was so natural to the storyline, viewers wouldn’t necessarily read it as product placement. So, he decided to test the waters with a sponsored strip. His first foray into product placement has proven quite successful (and, one hopes, lucrative), but not without some careful management on Kurtz’s part. Here are a few key reasons the sponsored strips have been, thus far, enjoyable rather than obnoxious:
He announced his intentions. On Mad Men, a producer isn’t going to hop into a scene and explain that Utz Potato Chips sponsored the storyline with Jimmy Barrett, but webcomics’ strip-plus-blog format gives creators ample space to explain what they’re up to. Kurtz explained what was going on in the new storyline, why he decided to test drive product placement, and his personal rules for sponsored strips. It’s a nice gesture to let your readers know they’re being advertised to and what they can expect in terms of quality control. It also lets Kurtz avoid the awkwardly sneaky product placement tactics that plague many television shows.
It’s product placement, not product advocacy. I have no doubt that Scott Kurtz likes Magic a lot. I have no doubt that the fictional staffers of PvP like Magic a lot – and it’s not because they walk around crowing about what an amazing product Magic is. Kurtz treats Magic and Wizards of the Coast as the setting for these strips rather than their purpose. The humor is still built around his core characters and their interactions. The strips offer plenty of positive associations with Magic – it’s very much a company that PvP Magazine wants to partner with and the staffers are portrayed as friendly, cool-headed people – but as readers we’re not being blasted with the virtues of the game. In fact, the placement is so seamless that I actually forgot that the strips were sponsored as I read them.
It’s a good fit for the comic. The fact is, even if other creators decide to follow Kurtz’s lead, not every comic could, artistically, take advantage of product placement. PvP has the advantage of being set at a magazine; conceivably, any business that could be an advertiser in the fictitious PvP Magazine could be fair game for product placement. Other cartoonists might find their subject matter more limiting. Still, could we see sex toy products placed in Girls with Slingshots? Caffeine supplements plugged in PhD Comics? Ron Paul 2012 a foregone conclusion in Escape from Terra?
The sponsor is game. It’s important not to underestimate how important this is. A sponsor who doesn’t understand the comic, has unrealistic expectations, or tries to exercise too much creative control could derail the sponsored comics, or worse, pressure the creator into turning it into something that turns readers away from both the comic and the product. Fortunately, it sounds like Wizards of the Coast came into this relationship knowing what to expect.
The first round of Magic strips have taken us to the Wizards of the Coast offices and set up a potential partnership between the company and PvP Magazine. Kurtz has said that Magic is PvP’s sponsor for the quarter, so we’ll likely see more Magic strips in the future. It’s advertising that I strangely find myself looking forward to.