Multimodality in Transmedia Narrative: Red Bull Stratos.
How did the team behind Red Bull Stratos produce a successful, transmedia narrative?
An era of media convergence is upon us with results seeing content transcending multimedia (Jenkins 2003). ‘Transmedia storytelling’ (TS), as defined by Henry Jenkins in 2003, perfectly fulfils the expectations of such a convergence culture, realising the new ways narrative producers are being forced to create stories that continue to capture audiences’ imaginations (Gambarato 2012, forthcoming: 1). Remaining a relatively new concept – highlighted by the fact Microsoft Word deems it unrecognisable – TS arguably still has no concrete definition. However, we can attempt to define it through its composites, substituting ‘trans’ for ‘across’, with the outcome of ‘across media storytelling’ (Gambarato 2012, forthcoming: 2).Although TS’s ideologies are similar to intertextuality of traditional texts (Baarspul 2012: 8-9), the introduction of Web 2.0 defined it as an entirely novel, participative practice, igniting audiences’ thirst to venture further into the unbounded, new media world (Deuze and Jenkins 2008: 5). This establishes an inherent aspect made entirely ‘usual’ and ‘natural’ by TS: multimodality (Kress 2003: 5). Multimodality highlights how transmedia narratives (TNs) are composed of several dimensions, outlining the instability of meaning that the 'visual syntax' can create (Cleirigh and Unsworth 2009: 182). I am interested in investigating how new media storytellers – brands in particular – employ various techniques to ensure their intended narrative is successfully read, by inviting audiences into a complex, ‘symbolic universe’ (Scolari 2009: 599).
Progressively so, consumers spend more time online. Consequently, brands must seek to engage them through social media, blogs and websites (Bernardo 2011: 18), in order to break through the limitations a singular medium may impose (Baarspul 2012: 12).
- On the 14th of October 2012, energy drink franchise Red Bull sponsored daredevil Felix Baumgartner in his attempt to break four world records: highest, fastest and longest free fall, and highest manned balloon flight (Peneycad 2012). Their mission was christened Red Bull Stratos (RBS). Baumgartner completed this undertaking, while conforming to Red Bull’s slogan: ‘Red Bull Gives You Wings’ (Heitner 2012). The sponsorship saw Red Bull ‘transcending entertainment and sports into Popular Culture’, potentially rendering itself as one of the most spectacular marketing exploits of all time (Sturner 2012 cited in Heitner 2012). Perhaps more of an accomplishment than the mission itself, was how Stratos soared across social media, with Twitter seeing #redbull receive 74,000 mentions on the jump day (Boies 2012).It is transparent that Red Bull Stratos was an exceptionally successful TN, but I am concerned with discovering how and why the story exploded across social media.
Through a comparison of the RBS website homepage and their Twitter feed from the day of the jump, I will look at the narrative techniques producers utilized, consciously or otherwise. I expect to discover a shared narrative framework in terms of the way the most relevant of Jenkins’ 7 Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (2009a, 2009b) are utilised. I predict that the Twitter feed will continue the website’s story, but with differences ensuring RBS is not simply an example of ‘cross-platform extension’ (Davis 2012: 2).
TS situates narrative analysis at the heart of multimodal discourse (Scolari 2009: 589), which is why I believe an investigation into Propp’s traditional functions and characters of stories is imperative (1968 cited in Toolan 1988: 15-16). I will expect RBS to conform to at least some of these features, since narrative can be viewed as a ‘cognitive construct’ of the consumer, not strictly tied to its medium (Scolari 2009: 591).
Davis (2012: 4) places importance on a narrative’s coherence throughout every extension of a franchise. Cohesion, as outlined by Halliday and Hasan (1976: 299) is another necessary element in a text’s interpretation in ensuring continuity, which seems particularly relevant when multiple modes are at work. I will search for examples of ‘cohesive ties’ (1976: 3), particularly through lexical cohesion (1976: 274-288), within and across the website homepage and Twitter. These may ensure the producer’s intended narrative is reconstructed by consumers, when engaging in the ‘parallel processing’ of meaning between modes (Lemke 2002: 305).
Theorists are yet to agree on a set of guidelines of how to analyse all dimensions of TS as a singular unit (Gambarato 2012, forthcoming: 1-2). Instead, similarly to Lemke does in his 2002 paper, I shall analyse each mode separately, concluding with a discussion of how features such as image and text meaning relations combine.
- 76 tweets posted by Red Bull Stratos on the day of the jump:
Red Bull Stratos’ official website:
- First two of Jenkins’ Principles of Transmedia Narrative:
1) Spreadability vs. Drillability
Spreadability refers to the extent to which content is shareable, and encourages cross-platform reading. The multimodal nature of the RBS homepage including a central video, drop down hypertextual menus for website navigation, and hyper-images mean the user has several points of entry into the narrative (Giovagnoli 2011: 21). We are instantly directed to Twitter with a click of the icon, with a tweet being composed for us to share at our discretion.
Since the icon is placed in the left hand margin as 'given information', posting the tweet is represented as a socially accepted and natural thing to do (Hafner and Jones 2012: 54).
RBS’s tweets supply the user with equally shareworthy content through:
- Thought provoking quotes, and
- Twitpics and Instagrams that narrate the story visually.
In fact, almost every tweet during the jump process is accompanied by an image. Consequently, users may recreate a similar narrative, cognitive construct, regardless of their 'preferred mode of reading' - for example if they are more visually oriented (Baarspul 2012: 26).
By hyperlinking to other platforms such as Instagram, the live jump feed and through hashtags, RBS producers ensure cross-platform reading where Twitter may be purely linear and text based. These techniques both expand the potential audience, and aid the drillability of RBS.
Drilliability outlines the possibility that users have to probe deeper into the storyworld (Mittell 2009). The 'Explore The Mission' image on the website's homepage gives potential for just that, which is continued through the exploration of a drop-down menu linking to the blog. A smaller portion of the audience will take the time to commit to each mode’s demands in this way, but will do so in an engaged fashion that encourages a hardcore fanbase (Bezemer and Kress 2008 cited in Unsworth and Cleirigh 2009: 154).
Having read the ambiguous text ‘The World’s Biggest Jump’, audiences are likely to play the video in order to discover exactly what the text refers to. Not only is this encouraging drillability, but also demonstrates where cohesion between modes (here, text and video) aids narrative stability, supplying the user with the missing components necessary to the story’s interpretation (Halliday and Hasan 1976: 299-300).
Givagnoli (2011: 71) states that TS’s aim is to promote the communication of multiple audiences, provoking a more ‘active and privileged contact with the brand’. This feature of drillability is recognised through regular hashtagging of tweets, meaning audiences can discover user generated narrative about the mission.
These two concepts should not be seen as being in competition, but as ‘opposing vectors of cultural engagement’, seeking to connect with the widest possible audience (Mittell 2009). Employing both techniques, the TN ensures that audience interest is maintained through new levels of insight (Jenkins 2006: 96-105), in connecting them more actively with the brand, unlike traditional passive audiences (Giovagnoli 2011: 29). Ultimately, this may lead to free advertising through content sharing, and the construction of a loyal fan base.
2) Continuity vs. Multiplicity
Gambarato (2012, forthcoming: 5) argues that TNs must have storylines that direct the user from one medium to another, all aiming to ‘spread the common goal’ in a believable manner, defining the notion of continuity. All aspects of the RBS website homepage assist in creating a similar ‘visual argument’ (Hafner and Jones 2012: 65). Through space themed images and technical language, the Twitter feed maintains the website’s narrative, demonstrating lexical cohesion through repetition of ‘mission’ and ‘capsule’ (Halliday and Hasan 1976: 274-288).
As aforementioned, impressive statistics throughout the tweets create a sense of believability. This sort of information is not evident on the website homepage, however rather than signalling continuity failure, highlights how an effective transmedia franchise presents content differently between each platform (Jenkins 2003). By including hyperlinks within the tweets, multiple entry points into the storyworld are provided, encouraging active consumption through cross platform continuity (Gambarato 2012, forthcoming: 5).
Interestingly, hashtags were used far more frequently during the jump than after, suggesting the producers’ attempt at intense narrative expansion at the campaign’s climax. However, notice the misspelling of Baumgartner’s name in the hashtag below: