The Art of the Gimmick
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).