'American Horror Story': FX Marketing Boss Talks Misdirecting Promos and "Twisty-Turny" Season 6

How does a network promote a show that has no theme or cast? FX's Stephanie Gibbons takes THR through the unique campaign (and its desired results) for Wednesday's premiere of the Ryan Murphy anthology series.
Screengrab/FX
'AHS' Season 6 promo

Everything about American Horror Story season six is one big secret.

Aside from a Sept. 14 premiere date for the anthology series, showrunner Ryan Murphy and FX decided to keep everything else under wraps. No subtitle, no plot and no cast.

"The show is in its sixth season, and we've always done everything by the book," Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter regarding the series, co-created by Brad Falchuk. "We wanted to [create a] different experience for the fans this year."

Indeed, the untitled sixth season follows Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show and Hotel, the latter of which saw Lady Gaga filling in for series staple Jessica Lange.

The desire for a different experience this time around resulted in a collaborative effort between Murphy and FX head of marketing Stephanie Gibbons to launch a slew of "misdirect" promos for the series. The five-, 10- and 30-second spots have sent the devoted AHS fanbase into a tailspin after FX CEO John Landgraf confirmed that one of the trailers is, in fact, the real one. 

Gibbons, who joined the network in 2004, has won multiple awards for her AHS campaigns, but she tells THR that this particular campaign marked uncharted territory for her. Not only is the plot a mystery, but FX hasn't officially confirmed any of the cast (though most of the ensemble is expected to return, including Gaga), which means Gibbons couldn't use any of the big stars to her benefit.

Here, Gibbons takes THR through the process of creating and pulling off such a campaign, muses about the "leaks" and reveals what viewers will know come premiere night.

Have you ever done a campaign like this before, where you have to promote a show but can't reveal the plot or cast?

No, I never have. Not in my career.

Why shroud the season in so much secrecy?

We were going into the sixth season, and that number has a particular meaning in the horror realm. In the past, our strategy for the fan base has always been to reveal and build excitement through transparency and inclusion. We would put out these teasers that are amalgams of themes that are sometimes underpinning themes that feed into the show and don’t come to realization until the very end, or that are obvious themes and play on the stereotypes of the genre but that we twist in a new way. And that’s been very successful for us, because we drop these breadcrumbs along the way, but they very much lead to a full sandwich at the end of the trail.

This time, the breadcrumbs are in the form of misdirect teasers, where only one is real. How many are there total?

There are 24 teasers. Then there’s the anthology spot that brings it all together, as well as the other anthology spot which we released with Lady Gaga’s single "Perfect Illusion." Her song is very much up the alley so we played with that. There are also 17 different print finishes, so the outdoor and the print campaign mirror. And then there are another eight teasers that are social-based only. We will release a few more things socially, but now it’s about letting it sit and having the breadcrumbs become, I hope, a gourmet meal.

Was this campaign the most robust you’ve ever done for the series, or does it just seem that way?

This was equal robustness to past seasons. Every season for AHS we give it the same amount of support, because we’re launching it fresh. We have to give it a lot of resources because we have to take it from the ground up. This one has as many resources, but that is awesome that you think it was more. We did want to ignite discussion, and I can tell you we have always had an incredibly robust social community with AHS because it’s that kind of show, but this year, the fans did share and exchange and debate more, and there was a lot more social activity.

Ryan Murphy spoke about a desire to switch things up for season six. Was the idea a collaborative effort?

It was something I pitched to John [Landgraf] and then to Ryan and then we worked together in a collaboration to pull it off. In terms of locking the set down, making sure that PR was right there with us — everything had to be hermetically sealed. We had a strategy as to how we wanted to pursue the season, in terms of reaching out to talent, the actual production and the marketing. So in that regard, we were sutured together so that we could create a campaign that could actually realize this goal, which was difficult, to say the least.

Take me through the method to your madness for the campaign.

I felt we would play on two aspects of the human helix: desire to know, the curiosity to find out what you don’t know; and perhaps more importantly, the notion of how powerful withholding is to the human psyche. Often wanting is more fulfilling than having. So it plays upon that supply-and-demand aspect, and that wanting and needing and not having aspect that drives so much of human endeavor. For us, it was about saying, we’re going to celebrate the horror genre: “Question-mark six — what will it be? This time it will be about seeking, not having." We researched horror and the subgenres and decided to wreak havoc upon some of those really dominant tropes that have pervaded horror for decades, and put little twists on them through a modern lens: Gothic horror and its subgenres, sci-fi horror, evil children — all of those things that are nightmares. Horror is so fascinating because it plays on our fears in a safe way and so everything with American Horror Story has a twist of fun to it. It’s not meant to really invade your psyche to the point where you can’t function for the rest of your life! It’s meant to give you a brief start and a jolt, but also kind of make you smile.

Seasons seven and eight aren't officially picked up, but Ryan has spoken about them. Were you worried about alienating the audience or damaging the brand by taking this risk?

I don’t feel like we thought we would damage the brand. I think the power of the program can precede a marketing campaign. A marketing campaign, by being at the point of entry, we are the privileged babysitter to the primary relationship with the program itself and the viewers. What we try to do is open the door and let people know that there’s something of value to experience. So I don’t think we worried about damaging the brand. What we did worry about is that we didn’t want to do anything that didn’t bring the viewers a thrill, happiness, a twist and a turn that was a positive and thrilling experience; versus a frustrating experience. And I don’t mean to say that there weren’t viewers out there who were frustrated — I’m sure there were — but overall there’s a thrill to the hunt, and that’s what we were celebrating. It was about celebrating the building and worshiping the anticipation.

Why do you think a risky campaign like this works on the AHS fan base and FX audience? I can't imagine it working for every network.

We haven’t pulled it off just yet! I spend a lot of nights wondering if someone is going to walk out and say, “OK, here’s everything it’s about,” and sort of deflate the balloon. But, I think of FX’s audience as a psychographic, rather than a demographic. I’m going to be overly simplistic here, but if you were to think about there being two different types of people: There is the type of person who asks for a tasting spoon of vanilla. Vanilla is one of the most awesome flavors in the universe — it’s a classic for a reason — but they know what they like and they like to repeat it. Then there are people who from a very early age realize that it takes more than that to get them out of bed in the morning. That they want and desire new experiences and aren't afraid to feel put off or to see something that’s polarizing, or experience the stress of uncertainty. They actually prefer this place with tectonic movement underneath them. They like to feel that they don’t know what’s coming next. For people that like our programming, it’s not for everyone, but it’s for a lot of someones who want that type of satisfaction and experience of the new and the different, and the untried and the unknown. So for us, it's playing to the unknown and the thrill of wanting. Marketing is inherently about building desire so that’s what we’ve set out to pursue. That’s what we desired, if you will.

Ryan also said this season begins to tie together the mythology of the series. Did that prompt you to want to market it differently?

No, in fact, you know more than I do. I work off of themes, I don’t have the whole bible to the series. I have the honor of having access to his neurons and him sharing with me the themes that he’s thinking about, the themes that I would call the subconscious things on the writers’ wall that led them to build something else, which helps infuse the landscape we explore. But I don’t know the end of the show any more than you do, which makes my life as a civilian and a fan much more exciting. To creators like Ryan, the show is their baby. I adopt it to the heart and know what they want for this baby and what this baby is, but I’m the babysitter, not the parent. I guess that’s the best way to put it. No one can understand their baby the way that the showrunners do, and if you have 10 minutes with Ryan and he tells you about his show, it’s like a meeting with the pope. I love it, it’s like my Christmas.

There have been a few theories and leaks, which have led the fan base to guess that the season could be about the lost colony of Roanoke, an anthology season, or The Mist (TV Guide and Rotten Tomatoes both listed that subtitle). What do you say to the fans who have landed on The Mist?

I say, hallelujah! I love that they are enjoying the process how we hoped the fans would. Once you’re anticipating something, your mind takes a very special trip, and we very much wanted to give this audience something to share and talk about and something to debate. Yes, they did get it. They bought in and had a great time wondering. Because the truth is in there — we made absolutely certain. It’s like the needle in the haystack or the pebble in your shoe: It’s tiny but boy, do you notice it, and that’s what we wanted. I love saying no comment because you all shall see together. 

Spike TV started production on their Mist adaptation, which is set to air in 2017. Was that on your radar?

No, I didn’t know that. I had no idea.

How does this campaign raise the stakes when it comes to premiere ratings? Are you expecting higher live ratings, versus delayed viewing, because people are dying to know the plot?

That’s an interesting question. Yes, I worry day and night. I’m not clairvoyant and I don’t know what the ratings will be. I won’t disagree with the fact that we are wondering, along with you, if this does increase live. But long ago, we adjusted to the fact that a view is a view, and live versus eight hours later, three hours later, three minutes later or seven days later. The way I look at my job now is that a launch is truly a launch. I’m in general trying to build anticipation for season six versus build live viewership for that particular slot. However, that said, I do think that when you create anticipation for an event, it might, for a portion of the audience, create a bigger degree of urgency. But I don’t know what percentage of the audience it will affect. That’s speculation. So for us, this is an interesting case study to see what drives live viewership.

After the premiere airs, will fans have a solid understanding of the theme and main cast?

I think that’s a question for Ryan. They’ll certainly know a lot more, related to the marketing. They’ll certainly understand. But I think one of the thrills of this season is that it’s very different — and I mean that in the most thrilling and awesome way — than anything that’s come before it. They will understand definitely from the marketing and they will have a better understanding of the landscape, but I won’t promise that they’ll know everything that lies ahead, because it is one awesome, twisty-turny season and I’m not kidding. When I watched it, I was running around the halls saying, “Oh my God, oh my God!”

How will the campaign change once the premiere has aired? 

This season has a lot of ongoing mystery, so we will definitely make our ongoing promotion of this season less didactic and less explicit than it has been in previous seasons. The initial mystery will definitely be solved, there will be no bait and switch where they’ll be wondering which spot or theme is true. But as we’ve seen with other seasons, much lies ahead. You know more when you’ve read the first chapter, but it’s far from the end of the book. We want to continue to build anticipation for the next episode.

Ryan and the network have remained silent on cast confirmations, though some, including Gaga, Evan Peters and new addition Cuba Gooding Jr., have confirmed themselves in interviews. How does the absence of a cast impact the marketing and publicity — when you have such high-wattage stars, don't they want to promote their show?

The cast was all on board. Usually I shoot the cast and I make sure that I do the abstract and thematic promos, and then I also do a cast spot that teases out that character’s look and feel and potential role. It’s not a full reveal, but it’s a definite tease placed in the landscape. This year, we knew that we would not be using any of the talent so I did not do the talent part. I always did two full key art initiatives, which I didn't do this year. We did shoot gallery and right after the show premieres, we will release the imagery of all the characters. 

The premiere is tomorrow. What do you want the audience to have taken away from this campaign?

“I can’t wait.” That’s hopefully what it achieves. 

American Horror Story returns Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 10 p.m. on FX.

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