How David Bowie infiltrated our minds with his viral album campaign

by Jasmine Gardner / Evening Standard

12th March 2013

That dream you had about David Bowie recently — it wasn’t just a dream, it was an advert. While you were sleeping, it was planted in your brain.

Okay, perhaps not exactly, but that full-page newspaper advert that you saw at the weekend of continuous white text on black print: that was Bowie. That white square on the pavement: Bowie. Those fly-posters on Holloway Road covered in more white squares: Bowie. The guerrilla advertising for his album has been seeping into your subconscious as you walk around London.

So, when a music blogger tweeted “OK, did anyone else have a dream about David Bowie this past weekend? Trying to establish whether it was part of a viral marketing campaign,” and collected a list of tweets reporting dreams about the rock star to demonstrate what he called “David Bowie’s Dream Marketing Campaign”, he was probably only kind of joking.

Yesterday saw the UK release of The Next Day, David Bowie’s first new album in 10 years, after a silence that some had decided meant he must be close to death.

But all of a sudden he is back — with a made-for-viral marketing strategy.

The new single Where Are We Now?, on his birthday, January 8, was the first step. With no word of warning to announce it, it made the virus instantly infectious. Nobody knew how Bowie had kept a forthcoming album secret. His producer Tony Visconti even tweeted he was “so relieved to talk about the new DB album after two years of silence”.

By the time a slickly produced mini-movie for the second single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), came out, starring Tilda Swinton, it easily hit the three million YouTube views mark (and finally put paid to the conspiracy theorists who thought Bowie and Swinton might actually be the same person).

Most pervasive of all, however, has been the white square. The album cover was devised by graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook. It shows Bowie’s Heroes album image covered with a white block and the words “The Next Day” and is intended to suggest that new great rock music (the white square) can obliterate the past — but not entirely (the old image is still partially visible).

The white square has turned into a viral internet meme. All over the net people are posing with white squares obscuring their faces or slapped into the middle of a scenic shot. One has even been painted on the pavement outside the Evening Standard offices for the past few weeks and Instagram got so covered in white squares that Sony Music created a Facebook app that instantly plasters the same blank block over your profile picture.

“It became apparent very early that the white square was such a strong tool and the simplest way to spread the word about The Next Day,” says Ken Marshall, head of marketing at Sony music. “Our hope was that fans would take this and run with it and the reaction so far has been incredible.”

It worked — not just in London but in Berlin, New York and San Francisco too, with fans tweeting images of posters that have been white-squared on the streets — some of them by Barnbrook but others produced by the record labels.

“All over the world the individual territories’ record companies have had free rein, so in France, Germany, America and the UK, they’ve all done something different,” says a source close to the campaign. “A white square on the front of something now means David Bowie.”

Barnbrook is both surprised and “extremely pleased”. “When we first had the idea we very much thought people would use it in their own way, but I didn’t anticipate the level it would go to or that people would start tweeting so many pictures of themselves holding white squares in front of their faces. People have taken it on as a very simple way of expressing allegiance to Bowie.”

Meanwhile every mainstream advertisement has been carefully planned to stand out. One weekend paper ran a Barnbrook-designed advert with every lyric from the new album printed in four continuous columns, with the only reference to Bowie being the last few words — “David Bowie. 11.03.13.” Another showed a white square image containing the words “Your idea of David Bowie here” and the album release date, 11.03.13.

Then on March 1, more than a week before the album release, it was made available for anyone to stream for free and legally on iTunes.

“It’s almost an anti-campaign. In this day and age when we’re bombarded with scientific marketing plans, this is going back to the Sixties and letting the music speak for itself,” says the source close to the campaign. “So far there haven’t been two adverts the same, which is actually what people used to do in the Eighties. They would do a specific advert for a specific publication.”

The risk, of course, would be for all this effort to look like a necessity to cover up a mediocre product, but Andrew Harrison, editor of music magazine Q, doesn’t think so.

“It’s absolutely not a lot of hype to cover up a bad album. You can only make something saying, ‘This negates everything that came before’ if it’s a great album. We’ve had it on continuously in the Q offices. Everybody thought he was on death’s door and this shows that he is in rude health both physically and artistically.” As for the white square meme: “It’s very clever because it’s marketing that feels like an art project.”

The success of this strategy has been closely watched in the publicity industry. Julia Wailes-Fairbairn of Admiral PR has been blogging about Bowie’s viral campaign to demonstrate the importance of viral and social media to clients.

“David Bowie is an old man but most of the campaign has equalled what even the most up-to-date pop acts such as Justin Bieber are doing,” she says. “This is a campaign that has done very little in the mainstream. On social media you get a build-up of people messaging each other which is far more powerful than a record company getting in touch to say ‘here’s the new album’. It has become a business and sales tool and it’s not just for the young.”

Of course the impact is doubled by a finely tuned conglomeration of events that it would be hard to call coincidence. Next week a long-awaited Bowie retrospective exhibition, David Bowie is, opens at the V&A.

Iman, his wife of 20 years who — much like Bowie himself — rarely gives interviews, turned up in weekend newspaper saying that she is “sure we will” come to London from New York for its opening.

On top of this, the tune of Bowie’s Heroes has been stuck in our heads since the Olympics opening ceremony. Danny Boyle wanted Bowie to play at the event and visited him in New York to try and coerce him. We got no live act but Heroes still played in the background, just as it does on the new album cover. Nobody has yet been able to confirm whether Boyle was in on the whole thing.

“In terms of timing the V&A was in place before the album was in place. When the V&A was announced nobody was even aware there was an album,” says the source close to the campaign. But there are snickers at the idea that perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into everything coming along at once. “That’s the way David likes it — very ambiguous, everything shrouded in mystery. You might think that [he planned it all]. We couldn’t possibly comment.”


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