Marketing Observations on Jon Stewart’s & Stephen Colbert’s Rally

If you are wondering what Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert have got to do with J C Sum & ‘Magic Babe’ Ning or magic or this blog… read on!

This past Sat, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart (host of The Daily Show) and Stephen Colbert (host of the Colbert Report) hosted their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the Mall in Washington D.C. If you are a fan of both shows and watch it weekly, you would know it started out as two separate rallies that merged into one because Colbert did not get a venue permit (storyline).

Jon and Stephen are comedians whose current shows are satirical news and political shows. While they started out as pure entertainment shows and still contend that they are just that, they have built up significant influence in the U.S. mass media, pop culture and even as a news agency of sorts. This rally was not supposed to be a political one… in fact, no one knew for sure what it was about leading up to it. To a large extent, this was a counter rally to Fox News pundit, Glenn Beck’s, rally held in Aug 2010.

Credit: Reuters Pictures
Stephen Colbert (L) engages in a debate with fellow comedian Jon Stewart (R) at the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall in Washington, October 30, 2010.

In a nutshell, it was an afternoon of entertainment of skits, music performances and light-hearted commentary. The stage had an archway style stage set with an open backdrop that used the natural backdrop of the U.S. Capitol Building. I thought it was minimalistc (probably budget friendly too) and very smartly made use of the environment to give an iconic backdrop as well as a suggested theme/ purpose of the rally.

The only serious speech (and most important, as it served the purpose and platform of the rally) was made at the end by Jon Stewart who treaded in and out of character and gave his intention for the rally and appealled for Americans to remain “sane” and not allow the cable news channels and mass media (or lame-stream media) to create false extremist realities. While founded on common sense, the undertone was, of course, political and a direct chiding of mainstream news outlets. This is no different from “The Daily Show” where he highlights, in comical fashion, the hypocrisy, biasness and often false reporting of news by cable news channels.

But, my entry is not to discuss the political impact of the rally or impact if may or many not have on the U.S. mid-term elections. To understand the point of the rally and how it confounded mainstream media prior to Jon’s speech, read this great article here

Relevant to this blog “Backstage Business”, I will make some observations on the marketing of the rally based on what I observed as a far-off observer with no politcal agenda. Everything I made my observations from are based on what was presented through the Internet. I was not physically there so would not be able to give you first hand experience on the atmosphere.

Being a “mega event” presented by a personality(s), the event interested me greatly from the “how it was promoted and how it would turn out” point of view + I am a fan of the show. From the marketing & promotions persepctive, it did everything an event of this nature needed to do. This in itself, is a lesson for any public event organizer.

The “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” had been hyped and built up over the weeks through the host’s cable TV shows, social media sites and support from prominent personalities, both political and non-political. As with all well promoted events in today’s social networking business environment, both traditional and new media tools were used to promote the rally.

The primary tools were of course Stewart’s and Colbert’s nightly shows (Mon – Thurs) and I would assume in the form of ads on different shows on the network. An important tool was the various websites associated with them. They created stand-alone websites for the rally(s) and linked it to indivdual Facebook and Twitter pages/ accounts. They had interactive devices in the websites for people to vote on various topics, give comments and upload photos and videos. The word of mouth spread by social media played a signifcant part on the promotion of the rally.

The announcement of the rally created mainstream publicity as it was picked up by most major news outlets. Some denounced the rally, some just reported it, some supported it. But all publicity is good publicity. Today, even with the  popularity and demand of traditional news media down, traditional media still gives the needed credibility to such events to the masses.

Personal connections and outreach no doubt prompted high profile personalities and celebrities to support if not at least draw attention to the rally. This, in turn, created more word of mouth publicity through these celebrities’ traditional and new media marketing channels.

They also got different organizations to support the rally in different ways (whether by invitation or offerings from the supporters). For e.g. Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington, provided free buses from New York to Washington for all New Yorkers who wanted to attend the rally. This then spread the word of the rally through the supporting organizations communication channels.

This was not a ticketed event but through contributions and sale of merchandize items, money was collected that would all go to the  Trust for the National Mall and the Yellow Ribbon Fund. Besides going to good causes, having a charity benefit offers another channel for publicity and gives people an additional incentive to participate. For an article on the money collected, read here.

Not discounting the pair’s latent fan base and the political undertone of the event,  the result of the superb promotional campaign is an estimated attendence of almost a quarter million people, 4 million people who watched it live on Comedy Central’s live streaming channel, top searched items on the Internet, sparking more than 1,160 mini-rallies in 84 countries and creating international news.

The crowd estimate currently going around (215,000 people) is based on an estimate commissioned by CBSnews. This is significantly more than Glenn Beck’s rally held in Aug 2010 which was estimated at 87,000, by the same company. Read the article here.

 Credit: AirPhotosLive.Com

In today’s social media environment, what is relevant to any organization or event is the amount of online chatter and Internet buzz created. The rally, not surprisingly, created huge online buzz. It was the top trending twitter topic and I watched the tweets come in by the hundreds per second. It was pretty incredible. Based on my casual observation of the tweets, I can say that it was generally very positive. About 50% were positive and inspired tweets, 40% were neutral (fact reporting) and 10% had negative comments.

There are tools and professionals dedicated to sift through the chatter. In an interesting article on online chatter analysis by Rolling Stone, it showed an analysis of chatter comparing Stewart’s rally with Beck’s. “The analysis was performed at Rolling Stone’s request by Cambridge, Massachusetts firm Crimson Hexagon, which uses technology developed at Harvard to sift through the great online din and identify concrete patterns and trends – think of it as opinion polling for the 21st century. It’s very cool stuff, and is now being used by media outlets like CNN and The Wall Street Journal.” The point is not so much to show that Stewart’s rally is much more positively received than Beck’s but to see how an event is perceived by Internet users. Read the article here.

It is also interesting for the new media marketer to track how news is aggregated and spread – Twitter currently being the fasting information spreader. In 2009, an article was published on how the news of Michael Jackson’s death was spread on the Internet. I wonder how much has changed a year later.

The approach of keeping the actual agenda and program of the rally unknown was smart. It kept people talking, debating and wondering what it would be about and how it would be conducted. Getting people to ask “why” is the most profound and difficult task a marketer can take on. Not all events can be marketed using this approach and I think the key is to give them a general sense of the idea but still have enough ambiguity that it will prompt people to talk about it and even attend or watch it.

It is much like a magic or illusion show isn’t it? You know what you are going to watch but still expect/ hope to be surprised and will only know if you do watch it.

I personally thought the rally was only borderline entertaining overall (compared to their usual TV show) but the final speech by Jon Stewart was poignant and I would think (hopefully) inspirational to most Americans. I admire that they pulled it off successfully by all counts and I’m glad I followed/ watched it.

Freedom of speech and expression is what makes politics interesting. In Singapore, we have the freedom to express or say anything we want too. Just don’t do it in person, books, blogs, mass media, video or any communication tool known to man.


About J C Sum

International Headline Entertainer, Content Creator and Investor
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