Editor’s note: The following is an ongoing series of the main theme from of our original zine, The Multiplayer Brand: The future of commerce, participatory economies, and the age of critique. Available now for $20 with free shipping in the US.
Thanks to a host of child-friendly programming partnerships, the NFL was able to simulcast multiple broadcasts—including the Super Bowl—to a new audience: adults seeking off-kilter, ironic content as a celebration of the monoculture.
Namely, millennial adults.
Today on Insiders, we’ll examine the ways that this embodies our thesis around the evolution of consumer brands and their multiplayer dynamics, and how this lo-fi version of “dork mode” creates a social shelter for consuming monocultural content, leading to heightened expectations of personalization in other forms of media, commerce, and consumption.
Participation vs. Consumption
A lot has changed since the publication of our original treatise on Dork Mode. Originally published in 2021, Insiders #107 called for brands to enable a new type of ‘website filter’ that would opt customers into a more whimsical experience. Sure, brands were already heading that direction: Liquid Death’s abandoned cart email campaign where they compare you to an absentee father. Maybe you’ll recall the when Pabst Blue Ribbon declared that anyone participating in Dry January should, quote, “eat ass.”
Where these specific campaigns were relegated to a single channel, what we saw during last night’s Super Bowl normalized a method of media consumption that is at the heart of Dork Mode: that opting-in, even ironically, to an experience that blends self-aware and off-brand commentary on the monoculture, is a new manifestation of what it even means to be a brand.
While the main NFL broadcast partner, CBS, hosted its typical fare, the version available on Nickelodeon took on a slightly sillier, sometimes borderline-NSFW, tone. In the grand tradition of children’s programming, the double-entendre-laden messages went well over children’s heads; but make no mistake they were not missed by millennials.
“You have to firmly grasp it,” implored Patrick Starfish after one fumbled play. SpongeBob echoed, “firmly. grasp. it.”
Nickelodeon groomed at least two generations of media consumption in the monoculture. There was my generation (I’m at the tail-end of Gen X), which easily recall the origins of the green slime troupe that ran throughout the 1990s run of the premium cable network. You Can’t Do That on Television was a Canadian sketch comedy show aimed at tweens which punished adults and children alike when they uttered the phrase “I don’t know,” dumping a viscous green goop on them from above. (Side note: this is the show that launched both Alanis Morrissette and Dave Coulier’s careers, and was reportedly the era in which the infamous ‘theater’ scene depicted in Morrissette’s U Oughta Know took place.)
“Getting Slimed,” as it came to be known, was at once grotesque and desirable, repulsive and iconic. Is it any wonder that my generation grew up to project over-confidence and a reluctance to admit when they were out of the loop?
My generation saw Nickelodeon as a lens through which we participated in the broader culture. Sketch comedy was for mom and dad, at late night? Nickelodeon had a kid-friendly alternative (sometimes the ‘friendliness’ could be debated.) Memorably, there was a 1992 campaign called Kids Pick the President, presented by Target Corporation*.* Target’s retail stores served as faux polling locations.
Then there was the generation after me: the Millennials. Their attachment to Nickelodeon was based on the creation and consumption of new cultural output, and is found in cartoon programming like SpongeBob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer, and in game shows like Family Double Dare, which proliferated the use of the iconic slime. Their cultural context of Nickelodeon is quite different to mine; they relate to the world more keenly through use of patterned language, memes, and absurdity. Ask any millennial “arrrr ya ready kids?” and you’ll get a battle cry AYE AYE CAP’N in response.
All my generation got was Dave Coulier saying “cut. it. out.” It seems unfair, actually.
“It feels so good to finally be the target demo,” said one poster on my timeline of the NFL’s programming during the big game. It’s true, those aged 35-42 enjoyed a fair bit of nostalgia in this year’s broadcast. The hump of the GenX-to-millennial targeting provided the perfect environment to test the Super Bowl simulcast on a companion network, Nickelodeon, which is nostalgic and familiar to us.
What we found when we arrived on Nickelodeon was Dork Mode in action.
Dork Mode: On
Dork mode supposed that the website is largely a monocultural experience. With the exception of the responsiveness of a website—its adaptability to the size of a given web browser, for instance— the content contained within the site has little bearing on the person who is browsing.
Personalization in a Dork Mode future allows for broader opt-in targeting for voice and tone in addition to design and information architecture. This allows us all of the same affordances as any other shopping experience, but with ironic flair.
Applying these principles of Dork Mode, we see similar patterns in the Nickelodeon Super Bowl simulcast. Firstly, there’s the sport itself, which has its own customs and rituals when it comes to a broadcast event. Sideline announcers, color commentators, celebrity sightings, et al. These commonplace elements provide a clever framework to make commentary about the broader cultural behavior of watching live sports.
A common critique is the number of opportunities given to women in the broadcast booth, on the sidelines, and general media presence in sport. Behold: we have Sandy Squirrel on the sideline (inexplicably wearing her astronaut suit).
Though the broadcast is theoretically intended for younger audiences, it’s clear from the IP choices that execs were aiming for broad appeal. Still, being native to a children’s network allows you to use IP to dress up otherwise boring content: like explainifiers on the rules and customs of football. Insert: Dora the Explorer explaining a false start.
The question is: does this truly provide a context that is friendly for children, or for full-family consumption? Maybe not, according to Future Commerce contributor and brand strategist, Leo Strupczewski:
“Does the Nickelodeon broadcast, which they've done for other games before, create an environment in which a kid is watching football by themselves in a way that is sort of antithetical to [the] sport?” If the goal is to instill a love of sport, the answer may be no. If the goal is to create more media consumption and participation, at least for the Millennial generation, it seems like the answer may be yes.
Life in the Hyperculture
For those who have been forecasting the doom of broad monocultural experiences (us included), the data about what viewers actually want shows that events like awards shows and sport are actually on the rise.
At the same time, the past three years of Super Bowl advertising has seen growth of smaller brands testing the waters for larger brand campaigns for the first time. Brands like Oatly, Liquid Death, and Poppi have all paid the Super Bowl piper in the past two years.
To keep the viewership trend going, and to court these nascent advertisers, it’s necessary to futureproof new audiences or re-engage lapsed ones. To commercial brands, you’ll recognize this as reactivation or rebranding. This is precisely the strategy with the NFL. But in media, it’s easier to tell a story with data and numbers; it’s also easier to gerrymander those numbers for more brands that are growing into big-ticket advertising spend.
“The Nickelodeon simulcast presents an interesting re-framing of what a new, modern definition of monoculture could or should be,” says Michael Miraflor, chief brand officer at early-stage venture fund, Hannah Grey. “Celebrating and experiencing the moment, but through your preferred lens.”
Simulcasting the Super Bowl is one way to show growth of viewership. In the same way that MrBeast might create a second Youtube channel for his philanthropy content, courting the same roster of viewers, but counting double the subscribers, in the linear television or streaming a viewer swapping between Nickelodeon and CBS coverage of the same event might as well be two.
Participatory Dynamics in the Hyperculture
By varying the content for novelty, Nickelodeon and the NFL maximize the hyperculture. In this way, they stand to ‘double-up’ the viewership across a variety of channels.
The Super Bowl is a wonderful lens through which to view a hyperculture: the coexistence of dozens of subcultures and countercultures, each independently co-creating contextual content derived from world events. Memes, screenshots, brand activations; for a brief moment we’re all activated in each of our relevant areas of critique and expertise. It’s a truly multiplayer event.
This convergence of so many experts and wannabes is so dynamic that is becomes a media equivalent of a winter solstice at Stonehenge: all things briefly align, at just the right time, for us to realize that each individual facet of our expression of culture is, in fact, part of a greater whole. Now, extend this behavior out into the future, where more creative assets are generated on-demand, at the whim of the consumer.
Henry Jenkins, a modern philosopher and media theorist, provides a summation of what he calls the ‘participatory economy’ — a future where the means of participation is so low that anyone who dares be involved with a brand narrative can elect to shape it:
Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement
“[There are so many] diverse perspectives and personalized experiences,” says Nikita Walia, founder of brand strategy studio, Blank. “The question isn't whether monoculture exists, but how brands can navigate the landscape of shared attention.”
In order to have a multiplayer, participatory, future, we have to be able to exert our will on a brand. The prevalence of AI-imagery discourse at this year’s Super Bowl notwithstanding, there is a more clear example of the will of the crowd in action: successfully petitioning that content be removed.
After the airing of a now-deleted UberEats commercial, advocates from allergy awareness groups loudly called for the edit of their Super Bowl ad, deeming it as ‘insensitive’. This type of reactivity is now-common in our woundrous, participatory future.
What comes next? Customers, commentators, and critics decide on behalf of brands what they want to see.
Perhaps all they’ll need is a particular filter in order to make it so.