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Who shot J.R.? If you were around the summer of 1980, it was the question on everyone’s lips. A CBS advertising campaign designed to keep Americans excited about the season finale of Dallas (which has been successfully revived this summer), this was more than a slogan, it was a cultural obsession that spread like wildfire and consumed a nation before social media, viral marketing and Internet memes were even “things.” The answer to this most infamous of television cliffhangers was completely irrelevant: the next season, it was revealed that J.R. was alive and his would-be-assassin-sister-in-law-mistress Kristen was inexplicably set free. Show producers walked viewers to the cliff, pushed them over the edge…only to have them land softly, quizzically – even angrily – on a bed of feathers.

And is there anyone who’s seen The Dark Knight Rises who’s not searching for meaning in the conclusion? Will there be more bats, cats…Robins? I love a good drama and the mental tension created by the cliffhanger’s unanswered questions. And, frankly, if a cliffhanger never ties up neatly, my experience leading up to it is no less enjoyable because of it. 

I also appreciate an element of drama in marketing, PR and advertising campaigns – just not purely for dramatic effect. A near-perfect example of a campaign that justified the dramatic with the pragmatic is the Symantec Smartphone Honey Stick Project. This experiment involved 50 “lost” smartphones that were pre-loaded with simulated personal and business data and intentionally dropped in major metro areas to test how people would react. 

What Symantec found through remote monitoring of the phones was disturbing for the average smartphone owner, yet deeply satisfying from a product marketing point of view. In a nutshell, many “finders” not only did not attempt to return the phones, but stole or attempted to steal data. 

The dramatic risk paid off: human behavior shone a spotlight on the relatable, tangible and critical need for the average smartphone owner to secure his or her mobile information. It was street theatre that appealed to a broad and strategic audience for Symantec, from the BusinessWeek reporter who captured the process every shocking step of the way, to analysts, technologists and the average smartphone consumer.

The drama that unfolded was not simply entertaining – it served a vital marketing purpose and brought Symantec’s storyline full circle. One of the most challenging aspects we encounter in technology product marketing is distinguishing what could be seen as a commodity from the rest of the competitive universe, and helping the audience form a personal connection with it. Especially from a consumer perspective, how different is one software security app from another, really? And how does a brand isolate and elevate the – sometimes nuanced, sometimes staggering – differentiators? 

One way is to set the stage for organic drama to unfold, for human behavior to illustrate why Brand X matters, for research to validate the product need. It’s not enough to stylize a look, feel or message that asserts a smarter, faster, better product – you must help your audience members envision the practical impact it will have on their lives. Just as I desperately wanted to believe J.R. was shot for good reason, we should all expect that brands who pull us into their dramas will not leave us hanging.

~Lisa Vallee-Smith (@lvalleesmith) is co-CEO of Airfoil, a high-tech PR and marcomm agency with offices in Silicon Valley and Detroit. 

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