Eastenders’ ‘whodunnit?’ was a PR Bobby Dazzler
Why Eastenders' Lucy Beale murder saga was a hit for PR and story telling.
I’m going to start this with a caveat. I don’t watch Eastenders – I get my regular dose of boredom and depression through my season ticket to Wolverhampton Wanderers. However, last Friday I felt like I'd missed out as what seemed like everyone around me ranted and raved about The Big Reveal.
For fellow non-Watchers, the basic premise of this story was the murder of Lucy Beale, a young girl, last April, and the story has been milked for all its worth. It reached the point where most major betting companies were not just accepting bets, but actively promoting special offers on ‘Who killed Lucy Beale?’ bets. The mind boggles.
Ultimately, viewers were frankly disappointed by the conclusion that it was Lucy’s younger brother Bobby, a non-event of a character with severely limited air time, who took his sister’s life after a bit of a domestic. Obviously Twitter exploded, not with many ‘OMGs’ but more ‘WTFs’, as people who had invested hours of their life watching every twist and turn were left thoroughly deflated (just want to re-emphasise that I honestly don’t watch it).
What on earth has Bobby got to do with PR?
PR is all about story-telling and engaging an audience. Granted, it’s better not to disappoint people with the ending to long-drawn out, heavily teased story lines (I hope you’re listening Apple – this watch better be good). But what interests me isn’t the ending, but the components that make this a story that drove people nuts and compelled them to vent their excitement and fury to the world.
It really had everything:
- The emotional hero: A classic ‘whodunnit?’ won’t work anywhere near as well unless audiences are emotionally invested in the victim. Lucy, from what I’ve read, wasn’t an especially likeable character, although she did offer to surrogate a baby for a couple that couldn’t have children, which is a nice move. More importantly, she was young, attractive and a long-standing character that viewers had watched grow up and evolve (especially as the actress was recast in 2010). Therefore, she can be seen as an emotional hero – a construct of feelings over logic.
- Twists of fate: The most crucial element of any narrative structure is the ‘complicating action’. Stories are essentially a bit like problems. You set the scene, introduce characters, context and other components and then you try to reach a resolution (lovely diagram below for fellow English nerds). The ‘complicating action’ is the bit where a problem occurs, for which you need a resolution. This is the part where your audience is captivated and engaging with the story most. People like to speculate, predict and debate what is going to happen. As the story teller, you can stimulate them by giving them information with which to do so such as teasers and hints or twists of fate, unanticipated events that take the story in a new direction. 13 murder suspects over a 10 month narrative is impressive ‘complicating action’.
- Universal truth and transformation: Soap operas are all about context, but so is every story. Good stories provide a common frame of reference that transcends culture and language – we call this the universal truth. In this instance, the universal truth that makes this story exciting is not people necessarily caring that much about fictional justice being done. But what are the implications for the rest of Albert Square? How does this change the dynamics of the ongoing story? Again, one news announcement can never tell the full story – it needs to be set in context – bound in some way to a universal truth that forms a bigger picture. This is where the transformation takes place, changing you’re the way your audience thinks and feels about the story and being called to action on how it affects the wider context. How does it constitute progress, change? How will it affect me? How will it affect communities?
A good story bucks the trend
You’ll read a lot on this blog about the changing way people consume media, but Friday night had an edge of the 90s about it. People huddled round their sofas all watching the same thing, at the same time and piling into work to share their views on it. There wouldn’t have been much point catching up on the episode the following evening given the media attention it’s received.
Over 10 million people tuned in to Eastenders and the #Eastenders hashtag clocked in with a peak of 64,700 tweets between 9 and 10pm when the final episode was on air. The #EELive hashtag, which has trended on and throughout the course of this story accounted for just over 6% of overall Twitter traffic at various points during the episode. That’s staggering. I hasten to add that they were mainly abusive or sarcastic and had there been more of an ‘OMG’ factor, that number would have been higher.
As it happens, whether the ending was a bit flat or not – this had a very spicy mix of all the ingredients to an epic story line. So brands shouldn’t just write this off and say ‘Well of course everyone is talking about Eastenders because it’s on TV and everyone watches it’. No, they watched it because it engaged them emotionally, mentally and the end-result had tangible implications. Does your story do that? It probably should.