Riot’s Marketing of Seraphine is Dangerous, But It’s Not Too Late
One of my favorite bands is Gorillaz. I love the idea of a virtual band, because I was intrigued by the possibilities. I went to one of their concerts and was blown away by how Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl comic creator Jamie Hewlett created an unique experience with original music.
So when K/DA debuted in 2018, I was intrigued. I had no real interest in League of Legends, but I admit – “Pop/Stars” is a banger. And if they were anything like Gorillaz, they were going to gain another fan.
Then things got a little uncomfortable. A lot of their social media has been a bit disconcerting, with Riot Games not only failing to emphasize that the girl group wasn’t real, but instead doubled down and promoted them as real people with real feelings for no other reason than marketing.
And then there was Seraphine.
For the last five months, the newest League of Legends Champion is arguably the most polarizing figure ever released. An indie pop star who fulfilled her dreams of stardom by joining the virtual pop group K/DA, she is a midlane mage that can also be utilized as a support. Her abilities are mainly based passively by strengthening her allies with her music or charming her enemies to her and her team with her Ultimate ability.
But like me, and so many others, she is known beyond League for not only her music, but because of Riot’s carefully crafted social media campaign. Beginning in June of this year, her Twitter and Instagram accounts are chock full of “relatable” posts, with the primary goal of connecting with her audience in a more visceral way. Many of Seraphine’s critics question why Riot would use what is nothing more than a marketing gimmick to sell her skin in this manner. Especially since her history is questionable – at best – and insensitive – at worst.
What Seraphine Doesn’t Know Won’t Kill Her…Because She Isn’t Alive
Seraphine’s history is nothing short of controversial. Her canon character in League of Legends can hear the souls of a near-extinct race called the Brackern, whose deaths power the very world she hails from via Hextech crystals. She literally communicates with the painful cries of the dead to power up. When fans pointed out how horrifying that was, there was a “rework” of her backstory: by implying that she doesn’t know that her powers come from genocide-so it’s okay. It’s a horrible rendition of “who’s gonna tell her,” which is more of a cop out than providing her with a more complex background. Not to mention our planet’s history of genocide and the current political and socioeconomic unrest around the globe involving the continued persecution and murder of minority groups makes this even harder to swallow.
Furthermore, her Twitter and Instagram accounts take great pains to make her seem real and relatable, an attempt that should be nullified by a major event in her story: her ability to quit her normal day job in order to fulfill her dream of becoming an international pop star. This would normally be acceptable if not for the fact that millions of people lost their jobs this year due to the COVID pandemic. Gita Jackson’s article on VICE provides a perfect summary of how these two major problems with Seraphine’s story should cause people to turn away, but instead Riot’s rather offensive attempts to make her relatable to us causes fans to continue to cheer for her and give up whatever cash we have left to the game in order to support her.
These are all minor issues compared to the main issue with Seraphine that should be painfully obvious to anyone who sees her. She isn’t real. She is a fictional character, brazenly used as a marketing tool to sell skins for a game that is already making millions. There is something unsettling, even sinister, about taking advantage of impressionable fans without making it absolutely clear that she is not a human being. Seraphine cannot breathe, she cannot walk around amongst us, she isn’t real. And yet, Riot, along with the other “members” of K/DA feel the need to continue this charade of updating, developing, and even having actual interviews with the members they’re just like us.
So the fans can’t relate to her privilege. They can’t relate to the fact that she works a nine-to-five and can access resources and be relieved of the stresses we deal with every day in order to become a star. Okay, so if they can’t relate to those things, what else is there?
How about mental illness? Bad idea?
If I Only Had a Brain…
Well, Riot didn’t think so.
There is something severely wrong with using a fictional character to tackle extremely complicated issues such as mental illness.
Chase Wassenar posted an excellent interview with psychotherapist Darrin S. Bronfman that explained the pros and cons of such a relationship, especially with the younger generation:
“Developmentally, teens are struggling to form their identities amidst societal, family, and peer pressures. They are susceptible to the downsides of PSI, because they are looking for any port in the storm amidst their chaos,” Bronfman says. “I often say that chaos is an antidote to depression. Having someone or something to focus on, especially if it’s dramatic, tends to distract the individual in a sometimes positive, healthy way.”
And if Seraphine goes away?
“If there isn’t enough transparency, teens could feel abandoned and left by the closure of an account, and therefore an emotional connection. I have often said in therapy that all that therapists or loved ones can do when a client is suicidal is to strengthen the connection. Abruptly taking away such a connection could have a very negative impact on the mental health of a teen.”
It doesn’t seem as if Riot thought this through when promoting these sorts of connections with a fictional character that will, one day, stop making them money.
Then there’s how she was created.
It can be either a blessing, a curse, or both when your likeness is used for a character, especially depending on the circumstances of the creation. Earlier this month, a woman named Stephanie put out a Medium article explaining how horrified she was regarding the similarities between her and the pop star. Providing rather compelling pictures and interactions with the character’s creator, they very much seem to indicate her relationship with the Riot employee was what resulted in Seraphine’s final design. And while she admits that it took her a long time to come forward, she felt that the parallels were strong enough for her to retain counsel.
Yet the game designer who worked on Seraphine provided the real inspiration: his partner.
After Stephanie’s lawyer issued Riot a legal demand letter, Riot spoke to Inven Global supporting Mr. Sidhu’s tweets regarding the inspiration, along with stating that Seraphine was not based on any one individual, including Stephanie. Yes, despite the designer stating that his partner was indeed the inspiration, Riot insisted that no individual was the inspiration.
Make it make sense, Riot.
Perhaps they wanted to make sure people didn’t remember the last time that Riot found themselves in this predicament.
Former professional footballer Edgar Davis saw that his likeness was used for a new skin for another champion, Lucian. And while he did support it at first, he ended up successfully suing Riot back in 2017 for a percentage of the profits earned from the skin. You can probably see why.
As a result, Riot did not want to have the same issue again. And yet they still pressed on, with Seraphine posting on both Twitter and Instagram like a real, live person when I would like to remind you that she certainly is not.
So what should they do?
The Only Solution
Remove her social media presence.
I’m serious. It’s not too late; the accounts are only a few months old. Nothing about this marketing plan has been healthy to anyone except Riot and their bottom line. And while I am well aware that pointing out the fallacies of a corporation’s marketing plan is tantamount to me screaming into the void to many cynics, it cannot be stressed enough that the way Seraphine was presented is not okay. The double whammy of not only augmenting the influence of a parasocial relationship of a fictional character and having said character simplify the complicated nature of mental illness to “supportive messages” is something that does not help anyone, especially those who are lost and need some guidance of their own.
And the backlash to this can be stressful. I get that many fans, young and old, find solace in accounts such as these, especially when we are currently in a state of near-complete isolation because of a pandemic. But because Riot refused to note that Seraphine was nothing more than a marketing campaign, as they knew they would not get exposure and sales by doing so, since the last thing we want to see is another ad, they instead supported their fans cultivate yet another parasocial relationship with a video game character and had real people try to make this absolutely fake person relatable. That’s damaging. That shows a lack of regard for the health of their fans, and it’s nothing short of reprehensible. There is no excuse for Riot not to come up with a more healthy marketing strategy in 2020, and it seems as if they took full advantage of people’s loneliness and stress to make money.
The last tweet on Seraphine’s account on November 7th stated that she was going away for a while so she could find something to sing about.
And at that point, I would have pulled an Unnus Annus and pressed “delete account.” I would find a way to allow people to cherish the memories Seraphine gave and return her to the virtual world where she belongs.
Because if not, we will continue to head down a very dark road that will have rather unfortunate consequences–online and IRL.