Fan art is everything and nothing depending on your perspective. It can be a doodle on a piece of paper, graffiti on a wall, or even a viral meme that’s shared thousands of times across social media. It can be used to tell a story or tell the “other” story—the one that isn’t scripted that lives inside a fan’s head. But most importantly, it’s a natural creative extension of fandom that provides emotional amplification for a product or a brand.
So why aren’t more marketers championing it to drive their campaigns rather than just using it to check off a box? After all, it’s free publicity that feels authentic both to the person creating it and the person viewing it. Why do we so often look internally for creative direction when the very people that know our brand best and are powerfully invested in it are already promoting it for free?
Trip back in time to the ’60s, and the idea of fan art was something akin to collecting baseball cards, meant to be traded among the most rabid of fan bases. It eventually migrated into zines and finally the Internet where it figured prominently alongside favorite first cousin, the dastardly fan fiction. Neither the consumer nor the marketer looked upon fan art or fan fiction favorably—they simply weren’t “true” art forms. But a recent shift in thinking has propelled fan art from obscurity to true legitimacy.
Suddenly fan art has earned its right to be hung in galleries next to respected works of art or shared on the small screen, bringing with it buzz and acclaim not just for its subject matter, but also for the artists themselves.
For example, South Park isn’t just a favorite muse for its millions of fans, it’s also one of the biggest, having inspired a proliferation of sketches, drawings, and memes across the Internet since its launch in 1997. As one of the first TV shows to highlight fan art in a gallery setting, South Park continues to make strides to integrate user-generated content into its marketing and programming, drawing major buzz last year when it invited its fans to produce and submit original yaoi fan art to be featured on an episode.
And building buzz is exactly the point. The key to fan art is understanding the motivation that drives it. Explore the hashtag #fandomis on Twitter and you will quickly come to see that one of the main benefits given for being a fan is the passion and inspiration it creates when you surround yourself with something you love and identify with. Despite this positive correlation, marketers as a whole have been leery to use consumer-generated content as campaign drivers, fearing that by giving up creative control, they run the risk of diluting the impact of their product with mass consumers. And while other TV shows like Talking Dead and Orphan Black have recently switched gears to include fan art as part of their show content and advertising efforts, the legitimacy of it is still often determined not by the audience, but rather network executives and their creative counterparts.
MTV Vice President of Off-Air Creative Jim deBarros, who helmed a major exhibition of fan art last year in New York City
But MTV Vice President of Off-Air Creative Jim deBarros, who helmed a major exhibition of fan art last year in New York City for the popular TV series, Teen Wolf (one of the most socially engaged shows on television) says the exact opposite should be happening. “I think fan art is a testament that the show or brand has made a connection. It takes time and thought for someone to write, or draw, or film something and if they’re inspired by our shows then I think that’s great for the brand.”
Ultimately, to accept the legitimacy of fan art you must first accept that while you can’t control what goes into a watercolor painting or 3-D drawing, you can control what comes out of it; the impact your brand has on fans, and the unique opportunity you have to harness it. By demonstrating your respect for both its relevancy and the person who created it, you succeed in further strengthening the bonds of fandom and as a result, the emotional connection and longevity of your brand overall.
PHOTO CRED: NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 25: Teen Wolf Grand Opening of Fan Art Exhibit at the Art Directors Club in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images for MTV)