"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Friday, May 27, 2011

Marketing Mother Monster

By Cheryl Helm

When Lady Gaga announced her deal with Zynga to create her own virtual playground (GagaVille) within Facebook’s popular Farmville game, there was a great deal of muttering about whether (a) she’s jumped the shark or (b) she’s sold out and has become just another commercialized pop product. My reaction was, “It’s hard to go off the reservation if you were never on the reservation to begin with.” In fact, Gaga has a pretty solid track record in circumventing the conventional marketing machinery of the music business when it comes to sharing and distributing her work, summarizing her philosophy in the interview with GoogleTalk:

“I don’t want to be a part of the machine. I want the machine to be part of me.”

The music business machine has a long history of mass-producing pop stars and teen idols who were, indeed, packaged and sold. Pop music early on acquired the cachet of a corporate product much like the Hollywood studio system (and built on that model), manipulating pop singers like puppets: choosing their clothes, styling their appearance, selecting their songs, managing their public appearances and performances, and handling all the advertising, including photo shoots and trade media ad campaigns. Disney was one of the earliest, and, one of the most (in)famous, pop-star factories and continues to be one today. It began in the late fifties when Disney figured out a way to capitalize on the rock-n-roll craze and still protect its brand as good, clean, wholesome fun (as a counterweight to the perceived sleaze and satanic temptation of rock n roll). Their formula was quite simple: find respectable, pretty and handsome white teenagers who could sing well enough not to inflict pain, and dance well enough to perform simple dance routines. Then record some bloodless, but virtuous, insipid pop songs and ta-da: Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. The brand was Disney, and the product was a morally upstanding teenage role model and a sure-fire moneymaker until s/he was no longer so cute, or thin, or pliable.

There are certainly conventions to be observed in how a pop star is imaged and promoted – much like any brand. Photo shoots are utilized to create and enhance the star’s image, and to appeal to consumers to buy their records and attend their concerts. Brand endorsements are lucrative but even more importantly, they reinforce the pop star and hir music as products to be consumed. So in terms of music marketing and promotion, there is a reservation and most pop stars are on it.

And then there’s Gaga.

From the beginning, she was her own creator and her own advertiser. “Just Dance” got airplay because she promoted it herself, tirelessly and ceaselessly. The Fame succeeded because she was touring and campaigning for it before the first single even dropped. With precious little help from the music industry, she created her own brand, and the product is Gaga: her art, her vision, her passion, her conviction.

So it’s hardly surprising that most of Gaga’s promotional efforts are self-defined, self-controlled, and seldom conform to the industry models. That is, her promotional efforts are often art forms in and of themselves, part of her life’s grand performance, and/or what she perceives as her vocation to help bring about social justice for all. Even her records are largely promotional rather than end products; the real product is Gaga herself, on stage where she can be experienced, not consumed. In most of her promotional efforts, there is not a firm separation between the promotional activity and her performance project.

How does she do it?

Leveraging technology has always been part and parcel of Gaga’s aesthetic. She uses technology the way a painter uses watercolors, oils, acrylics, fabric, multimedia collages – as a medium for expressing and conveying her artistic visions, of which music is only one dimension, albeit the most important one. In other words, technology is only one palette, one of many avenues for both creating and sharing her work with her audiences. Her earliest shows were distinguished by the use of avant-garde films as interludes that also conveyed some element of her performance project, and also by such props as the now-famous GaGa glasses constructed with iPod LED screens to articulate part of her artistic message. The deployment of such technology has only become more extensive as her show has grown into a full-scale spectacular extravaganza.

Gaga uses social media to an unprecedented degree, and no other living artist has been as successful as she in employing Twitter and Facebook to build and support a growing fanbase that is fiercely loyal and willing to promote all her ventures. While other pop stars (Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber et al.) have followed suit, they tend to use Twitter as a virtual billboard to hawk their wares – asking their fans to buy products, attend performances, etc. Gaga simply announces that a new release is forthcoming, or an interview or performance has been scheduled, and her fans take on the responsibility of promoting it.

This type of viral marketing by word-of-mouth allows Gaga to completely control the content of her marketing AND builds a greater sense of unity, a sense of “us-ness” or “we-ness” that many of her fans don’t experience in their daily lives. Her fan base is built upon an army of disaffected, bullied, rejected, ridiculed, and socially-isolated people who are cut off from the normal experience of belonging within their peer groups. Her fans have embraced Gaga so avidly because she is one of them, an outsider who is still socially isolated from the mainstream music community and who is subject to a barrage of hateful comments on every media site that posts a story about her. Even though she has reached the heights of artistic achievement in pop music (and her trajectory is *still* climbing), she’s still the odd girl out, she’s still the misfit. Her fans know exactly how that feels and embrace her for it, creating a place where SHE belongs, in a spirit of love and acceptance.

Because in Gaga’s case there is mutual identification between the star and her fan base, her marketing efforts are driven by a desire to serve the community of “little monsters” as much as they are propelled by the need to sell her music, her art, her vision. GagaVille is an excellent example. With GagaVille, she has created a virtual playground for her fans and other users of Farmville who may not be familiar with her music – a place where her fans can create a virtual world of their own and populate it with elements that are personally meaningful. GagaVille reinforces the sense of community within the Gaga fan base as more users join the game, become neighbors, and share and exchange rewards and goods.

With its initial launch, Gaga used GagaVille to distribute exclusive content (songs from Born This Way), but the site has a limited shelf life, through May 26, 2011. However, given her passion for social justice, it’s quite possible that she may choose to extend GagaVille and use it in the future as a way to encourage her fans to become more active in fighting for equality, for their own rights and the rights of others. The potential for GagaVille to become a medium for motivating political and social activism is certainly there.

Additionally, by pre-releasing songs from Born This Way on GagaVille, Gaga managed to cut most leakers off at the knees, and thus did not experience the creative death of a thousand leaks – she employed GagaVille to release and distribute her songs before leakers could steal and post them. Although the album did eventually leak, one day before Gaga was to stream the entire record to fans in the UK through Metro (where she also, by the way, served for one day as a guest editor, a position she used as a platform to promote her educational program about bullying), the net effect has been to drastically undercut the leaking subculture that spoiled the rollout of her previous album, The Fame Monster.

Her latest promotional venture with Starbucks is, at first glance, a much more commercial campaign. Beginning May 19, 2011 and continuing through June 7, 2011, Starbucks is conducting a scavenger hunt featuring Lady Gaga. Store customers scan QR codes to obtain clues to use in the seven-round game, which involves math, logic, and reading skills, as well as pop-culture knowledge to decipher the clues. The game is designed to encourage group play, much as GagaVille is. The first players to solve all the clues in each round receive Starbucks merchandise and Lady Gaga promotional items. Much like Fuse TV takeovers featuring Gaga for a day (and for the Born This Way roll-out, an entire week), Gaga took over Starbucks’ digital network for a day on May 23, 2011, allowing visitors to stream the entire Born This Way album, obtain a digital download of “The Edge of Glory,” and view an exclusive video by Gaga.

Obviously the chief benefit to Gaga in this business deal is to promote sales and airplay for her album and its current single. The album was played in all Starbucks stores on May 23, 2011 (a first for the corporation), and is among the albums sold in the stores. But this deal also achieves an important social goal for Gaga by providing another technology-based means for her monsters to visit and participate as a group by discussing the clues and messages, which further fosters a sense of community among her fans.

In creating and advancing her project, Gaga also differs dramatically from her peers in the area of product endorsement. This technique in and of itself is not unique to Gaga; many pop stars are used as front women (and men) to market everything from clothing to perfume. But Gaga’s choice of what products to endorse, and her involvement in the creation or purpose of those products, are often strikingly different from her colleagues.

Corporations will often hire celebrities as “Creative Directors” to market a product that the celebrity has no actual involvement in creating. Their role is strictly that of a figurehead, putting a familiar face and name on the product. But not Gaga. In her own fashion, Gaga has inverted and reversed the role of such celebrity endorsement deals by creating her own product line (The Grey Line) for Polaroid. When Gaga accepted the position of “Creative Director” for Polaroid, she dove right in to the entire design process.

Together with the Haus of Gaga, she designed a pair of camera sunglasses that could record video or still photos and display them onscreen, a product that recalled her famous iPod glasses from The Fame era. Thus her own performance project bleeds into the design of a new product that is clearly directed, first and foremost, at her own fan base. You can be sure that in next year’s tour, she will look out into the audience and see hundreds, if not thousands, of Polaroid camera glasses displaying messages and images that are significant to her fans. And with this new product, her fans can create and literally reflect their own personal visions, media, and messages to Gaga and the world. This is creative empowerment at its best.

She also redesigned the iconic Polaroid camera for the digital age and incorporated inkless technology into the printing process. She rounded out her product line with a Bluetooth digital printer that can print images from the camera glasses, the Polaroid camera, and a cell phone. These products reflect Gaga’s personal and aesthetic commitment to sustain, re-imagine, reinvent, and reinvigorate iconic pop culture by recreating something that is both ever so familiar and yet so forward-looking at the same time. And it puts the power to create directly into the hands of her fan base.

The conventional marketing model for fragrances – another major product line often endorsed by celebrities – has been turned on its head with Gaga’s involvement in developing her own fragrance for Coty. While it’s likely that celebrities have some say in the fragrances developed for the product lines they endorse, Gaga chose the essential ingredient herself: the molecular structure of her own blood. Talk about bleeding one’s aesthetic into a product! This revelation certainly perpetuates Gaga’s reputation as a quirky, eccentric star who never trods a predictable path if she can avoid it.

It also explains a rather cryptic remark made during her ShowStudio interview in May 2010. Asked what was the nerdiest thing she’d ever done, she giggled and said that she and her Haus were trying to discover the effects of the smell of blood on people. Now we know why. And again, Gaga is creating something both unique and deeply personal directed toward her fans. It’s not just a fragrance for your skin. It’s the essence of Gaga herself….the ultimate bonding between star and audience.

Gaga’s passion for humanitarian and social justice causes is well-known, so her willingness to serve as spokesperson for the MAC Viva Glam products to raise funds for AIDS prevention and treatment is a natural extension of her personal commitment to such causes. In addition to using the products herself, she’s made several personal appearances to promote the cause that the products fund. In an interview on Good Morning America, she leveraged her fashion aesthetic by wearing a Mugler latex outfit, which she said was “condom inspired” because she wanted to talk about the issue of safe sex.

She also created a short video with Nick Knight for MAC Viva Glam that is itself a work of art. It features the Viva Glam products, uses a non-verbal message to promote safe sex, AND foreshadows several elements of the video for “Born This Way,” which was released some time later.

Viva Mac Lotus
"BTW" Lotus Spirals

Left: Viva Mac, Right: "BTW"
Spilt/mirrored-image face

Left: Viva Mac, Right: "BTW"

Top: Viva Mac, Bottom: "BTW"

Once again, Gaga managed to blend her performance project with the endorsement of a commercial product line that promotes her own social and humanitarian values. Much like her music videos, Gaga uses every marketing opportunity to articulate some element of her overall aesthetic, to build layers of cultural references and commentary, and to nurture her community of fans – to intensify the personal bonds and create a larger, deeper sense of belonging and identity, a sense of us-ness that liberates them from their social isolation, out of which is born a new sense of freedom and creativity. She is nurturing the next generation of artists and designers, and the next generation of political activists and leaders who will change the world, one (commercial) project at a time.

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  1. It's also significant that Gaga and only Gaga knows the password to her Twitter account--her Haus members/team don't.

    Great piece, as always, Cheryl!

  2. That Lady is really good, very sexy, absolutely beautiful, sophisticated Gaga. I would give her my autograph on my books about "us", "The Phoenix Stardom Of Snowwhite Lady Gaga - Or My Secret Vault Relationship With Her" and "LG Versus LS - The Cosmic Mutants At It". Yes, I'm the dubbed Czech Hollywood Warrior Priest from Serious Entertainment.

  3. Fascinating! Your observation that Gaga often blurs her promotions with her performance reminds me of her famous teacup. She carried a seemingly ordinary teacup with her for months, she brought it everywhere. It was used in the "Paparazzi" music video and at one point, after she "forgot" it at a restaurant, she sent a taxi back to pick it up. It seemed at first that this was just a tabloid stunt - and it certainly functioned as one. Gossip columns all over the world speculated on the significance of Gaga's teacup. But then, when she appeared one day without the teacup, she said, "“My teacup is so famous, I yelled at her today, I said ‘You’re stealing my thunder, go to bed!’” Lady Gaga gave her teacup its 15 minutes of fame, and then claimed to be jealous of its fame! And so it functioned both as a publicity stunt which marketed her image while she was promoting The Fame as well as another piece of her performance reflecting on fame culture.


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