What is Taylor Swift trying to achieve with her #1989SecretSessions?

Last week 24-year-old Taylor Swift invited 80 of her closest friends to her house for a meet and greet.

They came in busloads – no more than 20 at a time – and stayed for a few hours each.

To the fans, it was a grand gesture from their idol that proved how much she appreciates them. But in reality, while this may be partially true, the facts are this: Taylor Swift has a new album coming out. Her team invited fans to her house to listen to her new album, which will result in good publicity and album sales.

One of many #1989SecretSessions
One of many #1989SecretSessions

Gossip website PopShack described the ‘secret sessions’ as this: “In anticipation for the release of her next album, “1989,” Taylor Swift’s been throwing “secret sessions” where she invites fans to her place to listen to her album, enjoy cookies, and take adorable polaroid pictures!”

Now, I’m a self-confessed die-hard Taylor Swift fan. In fact, when I first heard of the 1989 Secret Sessions, my heart skipped a little bit. I was jealous, of course. But I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride. I thought to myself, ‘This is why she’s an exceptional role model.’

Until I looked at it for what it really is: A grand ol’ publicity stunt.

And, if my reaction is anything to go by, it’s working.

Taylor’s team is generating hype for her new album, titled 1989, in a very effective way. By not just travelling the globe on a press tour (yep, she’s doing that, too) Taylor’s team have masterfully latched on to the winning elements of a publicity stunt, according to James L. Horton. Visuals, a celebrity, media attention, and teenage girls.

They’ve got the visuals. These come through the copious amounts of uploads on social media after the event, mostly through polaroid photos – just like Taylor’s album cover! – and some are even uploaded onto Taylor’s Instagram and Twitter accounts.

They’ve got the celebrity. Taylor Swift is seen by the world as dorky, goofy, talented, friendly, down-to-earth and relatable. She’s the teenager’s Jennifer Lawrence, even though J-Law is one year younger.

Fans with Taylor at the event.
Fans with Taylor at the event.

They’ve got the media attention. Everyone from huge media outlets like Billboard, MTV and RadarOnline to personal blogs are writing about the Secret Sessions and promoting them around the world by #1989secretsessions with every post they write.

And they’ve got the most important element of all – teenage girls. Taylor has 45.1 million followers on Twitter, 11.9 million followers on Instagram, and 70.1 million likes on her Facebook page. That’s a lot of people she has influence over. And a lot of people who benefit from this sort of stunt.

Horton says publicity stunts, which he describes as “an effective form of message delivery when integrated with concepts being communicated” fail most often when the focus isn’t on these elements.

Taylor’s team – yes her team, NOT her – have a winning concoction up their sleeve. They’ve got an album to promote. They’ve got a relatable celebrity. So they take the relatable celebrity and improve her brand; the brand that sees Taylor bake all day and dance in her living room and embarrass herself in front of boys. With this, they market her as ‘the perfect celebrity – your best friend’. And god, it’s worked. The headlines scream “Taylor Swift proves once again she is an amazing person” – “Reasons Taylor is the best pop star ever!” – “Why Taylor Swift is everybody’s best friend.”

The sole focus of a publicity stunt is to create hype, to generate buzz and interest.

And while, like Esther Tolkoff writes in Press Agents and Publicity, there’s a huge distinction between ‘buzz’ and ‘hype’, it’s still at the core of what publicists do.
Taylor Swift is not the first brand to utilize publicity stunts, obviously. Madonna and Britney Spears make out sessions at the MTV VMAs, Janet Jackson’s nipplegate and Kim Kardashian’s sex tape – actually, Kim Kardashian’s entire life – were all carefully manufactured by publicity companies to make us sit up and take notice.

A fan with Taylor, posted on her Instagram.
A fan with Taylor, posted on her Instagram.

And we fall for it. Every time.
To be fair to Taylor Swift, this is a good publicity stunt. And maybe she really would like 80 strangers in her living room fawning over her. I probably wouldn’t be too into that, but to each their own.

The age of social media allows fans to feel intimately connected to their favourite celebrities. They see glimpses into what is supposedly their real lives, and it makes us feel like they’re our friends, not something ‘untouchable’.

But the truth hurts. And the truth tells us that we don’t know these people. There have been numerous studies that show people fake their social media accounts to seem more likeable. And there’s no reason to suggest celebrities don’t do this too.

Taylor Swift may be the most relatable celebrity to ever grace the earth. Or she could be completely different. We don’t know, because all we see is ‘Taylor Swift’ the brand, not the person behind the carefully constructed publicity team.

But that’s okay, as long as we call these things what they are. A publicity stunt, orchestrated to promote a brand, not a person.

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