Gimmicks get a bad rap. Often they are associated with snake oil, paying too much for cheap goods, and smarmy salesmen who just want to take your money and give you little in return.

It’s true, there’s a lot of gimmicky stuff out there that ain’t worth the package it comes in. But gimmicky doesn’t automatically have to be a negative. In fact, when executed properly, it can be one of the best ways to draw a crowd – and a paying one at that.

Rock and roll music has been around since the 1950s, we all know that. Guitars, drums, bass. Sometimes a keyboard or organ thrown in for good measure. Men and women, grooving, bopping and moving us with their beats and lyrics. There was a point in the late 60s where rock and roll music had become so commonplace that new bands were cropping up every other week, it seemed. Rock and roll, though still extremely popular, started to feel like a pair of old shoes….comfortable and worn, but maybe a bit tired.

Then, in the early 1970s, four young guys from New York City changed all that.

It’s not that their music was so much different. It was still rock and roll, and even though it was the hard stuff – the screaming electric kind of music our parents cringe at – it didn’t have a hugely unique sound compared to the other heavy rock bands of the day.

What was different about these boys? It was how they looked, and how they performed. They were dramatic and scary, with their black and white and silver painted faces, their huge black hair, and their giant platform boots. They towered over the crowd on a stage flooded with lights and smoke and exploding stuff. They broke their guitars and launched rockets. They spit (gasp) blood!

KISS was all about the gimmick.

Think about it. If these guys had come onto the scene as your run of the mill rock band, in a time when the world was inundated with rock machines like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath, how hard do you think they would have had to climb to reach the top?

Now I’m not saying that KISS couldn’t have done it on their own merits. They are tight as heck, have powerful vocals and great stage energy. All the elements of a great rock band. But perhaps they sensed that rock fans were ready for something more. So they donned wild costumes, and took stage show performance to a whole new level. They found a gimmick, and they took it to the extreme – making it mysterious, a little frightening, and definitely fun.

KISS has sold over 85 million albums in the past 35+ years (source: Wikipedia). They must be doing something right. I think part of their secret is they don’t take themselves too seriously. Just check out this video of Gene Simmons on the Mike Douglas show in 1974 and that is pretty clear.

Gimmickry is an art. And like any art, that means that when it’s executed well, it is brilliant. When executed poorly, it’s laughable.

So how can a gimmick work? Let’s use “KISS” principles:

Be really really good. KISS is not just a gimmick trying to be a really good rock band. They are a really good rock band, with a gimmick. They work hard at being good at what they do as musicians. Then they put the gimmick on top of that, and make it something extraordinary.

Don’t sell the gimmick, sell the product. People aren’t buying the KISS Army. They aren’t buying the makeup, the weird hair, or the platform boots. They are buying the experience that those things create. The gimmick is what gets their attention. The experience is what keeps them around. For 35 years. (Now THAT’S sticky!)

Be over the top, but be practical about it. Ace Freely did an interview once where he said he can’t go on his knees anymore when rockets shoot out of his guitar, because his doctor told him he was wrecking his knees. He said “I’m sorry to my fans for not being able to do this, but I want to be able to walk.” The rocket-guitar-knees thing was a trademark. But practicality (and safety) had to overrule. Make your gimmick something nobody has ever seen before. Be 100% unique, but be 150% practical. Don’t let the gimmick get in the way of health, sanity or profits.

Gimmicks. They aren’t so bad after all. As media makers, marketers and storytellers, sometimes a little gimmick is all we need to get the kind of attention we seek. But over the top doesn’t have to mean giving up value. Provide value first, and use gimmick as a tool. And who knows, before long, you may just be ready to rock and roll all night (and party every day).

11 Responses

  1. I think the problem lies in the terminology itself, Sue – “gimmick” just sounds like it’s at the opposite end of authentic. And no-one likes being taken for a ride.

    But, like you say, if you can turn the gimmick into a “Wow, it actually does that” product or service, it can lead to some of the biggest success around.

    And gotta love the original KISS – man, they ROCKED!
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  2. Nice article, Sue.

    Gene Simmons is the mind behind the brand, and he intended it to be that way all along. This comes up occasionally on his TV show (Family Jewels). He is constantly thinking of new ways to market the KISS brand. On the show, his family often teases him about his obsession to keep making all this money.

    It’s a great show, very entertaining. He, Shannon Tweed, and their teenage kids obviously really enjoy each others’ company. They are all smart, funny, and polite. I’d love to hang out with them for a day because they seem to be really fun, genuine people.

    And while I am not a fan of KISS’s music, I think Gene Simmons is brilliant.

  3. Fascinating to me that Kiss has become, KISS… mainly, I think, due to the popular but incorrect notion that the name stood for “King’s in Satan’s Service” or something equally moronic…

    On another matter, I dispute your statement that they’re “They are a really good rock band” and “They work hard at being good at what they do as musicians,” but we’re all entitled to our opinions.
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  4. Great, enlightening article Sue!

    KISS was the biggest draw this year at the Ottawa Bluesfest – in fact, the largest crowd in its 15 years, over 30,000 screaming fans (and this is a town of 850,000…). So the gimmick, and the music, still works!

    I want to thank you because I was agonizing over the last couple of weeks trying to decide whether I should launch a new website/blog/twitter/facebook account for my real passion (self-growth) using my alter ego GOYAN GOADS and my buddy MythBuster to whack people on the side of the head and kick them in the seat of their pants.

    After reading your article, I’ve decided to go ahead and do it. Yes, it’s self-growth with a gimmick, but hey, it works for Larry Winget, “the Pitbull of Personal Development”.

    Good work, Sue. Keep it up!

  5. Great article. I’ve been a KISS fan for decades. You definitely capture the essence of Gene’s marketing genious. If they were not great musicians, they would have faded into obscurity long, long ago. Yes, a great product with a gimmick can be a good thing!

  6. Gene might call it branding. But semantics aside, you are right — a gimmick alone is not enough for longevity. There has to be something of value under the hair and makeup… and a snake-like tongue. It may not even have to rise to great talent if the experience given your fans is valuable (not saying these guys were w/o talent).

    Interestingly, those of us who were Zeppelin and Sabbath fans saw KISS as a gimmicky band and disrespected them, perhaps unfairly, because of it. As Danny above mentions, we saw Zep and Sabbath as “authentic” (despite Sabbath satanic branding).

  7. I thought the post was interesting, but I have to take to task your statement “There was a point in the late 60s where rock and roll music … though still extremely popular, started to feel like a pair of old shoes….comfortable and worn, but maybe a bit tired.”

    Really? In the late 60s? When Woodstock happened? When “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band” was released by the Beatles in 1967, only to be followed by the White Album in 1968 and the Abbey Road in 1969. Not to mention seminal albums from the Rolling Stones, Byrds, The Who, Led Zepplin, King Crimson, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, The Kinks, The Doors, etc. etc. If the late 60’s/early 70’s were a tired era in rock n’ roll when the heck was it exciting? Check your music history before making a statement like that!

    I think the point is more that rock and roll was reaching its commercial peak and it was getting harder to break through to an audience. What KISS did was to go out completely in costume AND character – a total different character than their real life persona. That is what was so unique about them.

    Keep in mind that David Bowie did the same thing with Ziggy Stardust two years before KISS’ first album was released, but KISS committed more. For Bowie, it was a one-off persona done for a concept album. For KISS, it was a way of life… basically an alternate persona that fans viewed as total escapism.
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  8. Sorry this is almost a decade old, but I’m as a die hard kiss fan and rock musician myself I want to offer a slightly different perspective about them as musicians. I have nothing but respect for them so please don’t take this is putting them down in any way. Obviously they could not have had so much success as they have if they didn’t have musical talent to back up their visual presentation (or gimmick). But I disagree that they are GREAT musicans. They aren’t. Ace was mediocre at best as a lead guitarist, Paul and Gene are not mind blowing vocalists and Peter was actually pretty mediocre as a drummer. They weren’t poor musicans by any standard but they weren’t GREAT. But what they were INCREDIBLE at was writing songs that had awesome lyrics that frickin ROCKED! “I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day” isn’t virtuoso stuff… it’s just bad ass!

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