OMG: it happened. After years of waiting for the climactic conclusion to the spellbinding Harry Potter Chronicles, hackers and…could it be…the New York Times done went and spilled the beans before the rest of us have even had a chance to flip open the cover of our freshly-pressed copies. They all die: Harry, Ron, Hermoine, Voldemort. Even Fawkes the lovable Phoenix. Wiped out by a comet crashing into the Earth at a dramatic moment.
No fair! You told us the ending. No fair! Actually, of course, I didn’t. But everyone wants to, it seems.
As Fox News was only too happy to report, the New York Times just published a review of the newest and final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. You can read the NY Times review here. If you want to read the review, feel free. I did and it doesn’t contain any really big spoilers. Ironically, a lot of the stories covering the story that the NY Times broke the story have actually been the ones telling the big secrets (or, maybe more accurately, reporting accurately on how others have told the big secrets: for example, see this other Fox New story about how hard it is to keep the Harry Potter ending secret, which seems to reveal the secret to the ending….).
Yes, this is big news. Everyone wants to know the Harry Potter secret. Everyone wants to reveal the Harry Potter secret. And of course, the biggest group of all wants desperately to keep the Harry Potter secret secret, but also wants everyone who already knows or may know the secret to shut up and keep the damn secret secret.
Isn’t it better to read the ending of the book for yourself than to see it on Fox News, read it in the NY Times, or overhear it in a public bathroom? That’s why the book’s publisher Bloomsbury is on record as being “disappointed” with the NY Times review. Author Joanne K. Rowling is even more emotional about it, quoted by Reuters as saying:
“I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish purported spoilers in the form of reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children. I am incredibly grateful to all those newspapers, booksellers and others who have chosen not to attempt to spoil Harry’s last adventure for fans.”
Of course, she’s chiding them, but she’s right. On a personal note, my sons and I are big Harry Potter fans. I read the books to my sons until they could read them for themselves, and they’ve each read the series of books over three or four times. But for the last three books, my son has consistently had the ending ruined for him. As soon as my son mentions Harry Potter’s newest book, a “friend” will rapidly tell him, “Oh so and so dies at the end.” It’s like a new sport: Potter-baiting. Of course my son like most kids mistakes this information for “knowing” the ending. Which it both is and isn’t, since the book is an entire journey not a single outcome. But still, my kid has known who dies in the books or what the big mystery thing is accurately before he has read the book, and he’s been rightfully disappointed every time. So this little personal anecdote points out that it isn’t just big newspaper reviewers, hackers, and over-eager Internet posters who are spoilers, but that the “spoiler gene” is widespread. A lot of kids will end up spoiling this new book for each other.
This time through, I reserved a copy for my son, and have told him he can stay up all night, segregated in the house, reading the book so that he doesn’t have the ending spoiled for him. I didn’t realize that we might have to fly him to Namibia and put him in solitary confinement as well…
But from an academic marketing Consumer Culture Theory perspective this is all so very interesting. From a marketing standpoint, Harry Potter has become incredibly successful. My Irish colleague, the brilliant and inimitable University of Ulster professor Stephen Brown has written a lot about Harry Potter’s secrecy methods over the years, including in a chapter for my recent co-edited book Consumer Tribes. One of my favorite articles he has written was “Marketing for Muggles” which he wrote for Business Horizons in 2002. In that article, Stephen emphasized the lockdown security over Book IV of the series, and called it a “sadistic marketing strategy.” He said that the strategy for selling and promoting the book was based upon “unavailability, postponement, absence, and deprival.” We know you want it, but you can’t have it. And yet the book as also, paradoxically “ubiquitously unavoidable”–it and its marketing were (and are) everywhere. Stephen has even written an entire book, entitled “Wizard!” about the major marketing lessons we can learn from the Harry Potter franchise and its marketing.
This is a culturally potent combination, and we’re watching its fire burn and cauldron bubble in fine form right now. In this, the final dawn before the ultimate breaking of the story, Harry Potter’s secret climax is both everywhere and nowhere at once. It is instantly visible and yet its culmination is frustratingly out of reach. We have waited over a decade to find this out, and we want to know the end and we want it now. We can’t wait any more.
Stephen Brown has called this kind of marketing “TEASE” marketing, marketing that torments customers (and they love you for it). He finds its origins in carnival sideshows and P. T. Barnum-esque excesses. I also think that its mysterious, paradoxical qualities give it a mystical religious air. It has what Stephen Brown, John Sherry, and I (borrowing from novelist Alex Shakar) have called “Brand Paradessence.”
And as no one who has read the book has failed to notice, the Harry Potter Septology is a Joseph Campbellian mystical heroes journey made accessible to all ages. How could it not be charged with psychic resonance? And that sort of charge wraps itself around people’s identities, enchants them, drives them: it creates fans.
I’ve also been reading some of psychologist Jacques Lacan’s work and find it very pertinent. Lacan argues that at our core, we are desire, we are bundles of wanting wants. But at the heart of this, what we most desire is to maintain the pleasurable tension of desire itself (which is ego’s wanting to continue to exist, since its own existence is predicated upon desire). We learn at a very young age that we are disappointed when we are fulfilled. And so what we most want is to keep right on wanting. It explains a lot about consumer society and the contemporary self, where people seem to get so much and yet want so much more, to never be fulfilled but to always be seeking. And perhaps that is why Harry Potter has enchanted, beguiled, and bedeviled us for so long. We want to know the end, but, wait, once we know then we won’t want to know anymore. But we don’t want to hear from someone else. And we want to want…so…what do we want?
The hoopla over Harry’s fate (will he live? will he die? go read it yourself and find out!) is desire, consumer society, fandom, mystical marketing writ large. Just as I did with the iPhone, I am loving watching this magnificent contemporary drama unfold.