How do you market a show about a digital vigilante trying to bring about the end of a hypercapitalist society? A show with a protagonist who sneers at social media and abhors Starbucks, and who — at the end of the first season — brought down the biggest corporation in the world with a cyberattack, leading to complete economic chaos?
Traditional wisdom dictates that marketing efforts for such a show would shy away from anything overtly capitalistic that might come off as being inconsistent with its anticapitalistic spirit. In particular, you would probably avoid opening a store that sells $600 leather jackets and $118 light-up sneakers in the upscale Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
Not so for the marketing team at USA, the NBCUniversal-owned cable network that airs the show we just described, the much-lauded drama "Mr. Robot." In advance of the show’s second season, USA has partnered with Story, a brick-and-mortar store in Manhattan that functions as a sort of gallery for hire, for a special seven-week "Mr. Robot"-themed "retail experience" called Story Disrupt, which opened Monday.
That just means fans of the show (or random passers-by) can enter the store and see the skeeball machine from the protagonist's Coney Island lair, or play around with an ATM that will actually dispense cash if you punch in the right code (clues are hidden around the store). They can buy backpacks with the "Mr. Robot" mask — painted by "Mr. Robot" cast member Carly Chaikin — printed on them, as well as the masks themselves. They can buy piggy banks and literal moneybags.
Story's purpose, according to founder Rachel Shechtman, is to blend the worlds of media and retail. This is the first go-round Shechtman has done with a TV series — other partnerships have been with big companies like General Electric and Target.
The items for sale have all been chosen to reflect the show in some way, from books like Andreas Antonopolous' "Mastering Bitcoin: Unlocking Digital Cryptocurrencies" to a bejeweled Gameboy clutch.
"We're looking at themes extracted from the show and using merchandise to bring that to life," Shechtman said at the installation's opening Monday morning.
"Mr. Robot" won a pile of praise and a Golden Globe for its first season. Hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) falls in with a group of hacktivists called "fsociety," led by the enigmatic Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, who won the Globe for best supporting actor in a drama). Together they set about destroying Evil Corp, one of those horrifying conglomerates that has its tendrils in every aspect of our modern lives, from banking to technology to farming.
Alexandra Shapiro, executive vice president of marketing for NBCUniversal, admits that creating a "retail experience" might on its surface seem a little antithetical to the themes of "Mr. Robot."
"Elliot would have a lot to say about something like this," Shapiro says. "He'd be very snarky and cynical. But Elliot also is someone who understands that the end justifies the means. And he understands that if you're going to do something, you have to do it authentically."
The end, in this case, is to get people talking about the show before its second season begins on July 13, and perhaps give it a bit of an attention boost during the Emmy nomination period — voting begins June 13 and ends June 27, with the nominees announced on July 14.
Even the buzziest cable shows can find themselves knocked out of the public consciousness, thanks to shorter seasons and the sheer volume of TV to watch and talk about — 409 scripted shows in 2015 alone, according to research from FX Networks. "It's hard to break through," Shapiro says.
And if "Mr. Robot" is a show by, for, and about the millennial generation that has been marketed to since birth and has come of age alongside concepts like "native advertising," it makes sense, then, that the series would attempt to have its cake and it eat too, commercializing the anti-commercial.
Or maybe you just really want an Evil Corp-branded cube of Post-Its.
STORY Disrupt is located at 144 10th Ave., New York, NY.