In an era of #newrules, don't overlook the Detroit MC's trailblazing approach to marketing.
Written by Nick Schonberger (@nschon)
"Live TV freaks me out a little bit," Marshall "Eminem" Mathers said this past weekend during his appearance with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit on ESPN's Saturday Night Football. The interview pundits described as "awkward" quickly became a became a viral internet sensation.
Mathers bobbed, with vacant eyes, before Musburger asked his entry question. However, this wasn't a reprisal of Rabbit's stage fright in 8 Mile, or of the frightening episode on 106 and Park in 2006—during which a stupefied pop star faded in and out of coherency—but instead a triumphant return of a boisterous, playful character who has continually punched America's buttons. The halftime show was, much like the promise of the forthcoming The Marshall Mather's LP 2, a vintage performance.
Mather's chat with Musburger and Herstreit (in which he describes, sort of, the process of making a music video, predicts a Lions win over the Vikings, and praises Musberger as one of the all-time great announcers) was so perfectly disjointed, watching it, one almost forgot its purpose—to present a teaser of the brilliant video for his new single "Berzerk." In Mather's inimitable style, it was a marketing moment made human. The short segment, which aired just as Michigan and Notre Dame took the field for the game's second half, only partially registered as a rapper's hawking of a product in midst of one of the great rivalries in college football. Such is Mather's self-deprecating approach. With little fanfare, he's regularly pioneered progressive sales tactics.
Such is Mather's self-deprecating approach. With little fanfare, he's regularly pioneered progressive sales tactics.
Let's run down some highlights: Two Super Bowl commercials in one year (2011), the first video premier on a cable subscriber channel ( "3am" on Cinemax, 2009), and a Willy Wonka-esque golden ticket contest (run with the release of Shady Records artist Obie Trice's debut, Cheers).
Offering an all-expense trip to a Detroit recording session for the next Eminem album, the contest drove interest in Trice via intrigue in Eminem. Three tickets were placed in 500,000 copies. Cheers sold 226,000 copies in the first week. For Mathers, an artist whose tactics had largely hinged on public beefs and baiting conservatives, the golden ticket was a shift to wholesale embrace of alternative brand building.
For Relapse, Eminem's 2009 release, Mathers and the Interscope team went social. Seeding ideas through twitter, a slow roll out revealing nuggets of information appeared online. Em's tweets alternately offered links and off-kilter comments. He alternately offered concrete behind-the-scenes looks at the album—the cover and iPad and iPod games—and oblique suggestions that Mather's might have been in a mental institute, the fictional Pompsomp Hills.
L.A.-based branding agency Omlet created a website for the hospital. The video for "3am," Relapse's third single brought it to life in horrifying color. Debuting on May 2, 2009, the 5-minute affair, directed by Syndrome, was all blood and guts—a shirtless Em stands in the woods reflecting on a murder spree. It's all horror, in the most theatrical sense, and fitting, considering that the clip was designed to lead into Cinemax's first showing of The Strangers. Seamless integration of content, seamless integration of tactic. 
Mathers plays big media better, and more naturally, than any other hip-hop star. The video for 2000's "The Real Slim Shady" was launched through MTV's "Making the Video" show. He released a Marvel Comics one-off (Eminem/Punisher: Kill You) as an XXL supplement in 2009. And co-starred with Stewie from Family Guy to host Fox's weekend block of adult cartoons. He has routinely integrated big stunts into award shows and late night television—for example, bringing laid-off autoworkers to a taping of Jimmy Kimmell. Just as he did last Saturday, Mather's entered each opportunity as a coconspirator rather than an out-and-out Ashley-Shaffer type.
Marshal Mathers is at once your mischievous neighbor—one who might anger you by breaking a window during an elaborate prank, but one you'd almost immediately forgive—and a hard-scrabble, blue-collar hero with undeniable resolve.
This duality shines in the two commercials he starred in during the 2011 Super Bowl. First, in an animated Brisk spot, he's a playful cartoon character. Then, in the longest ad that Chrysler has ever made, he puts Detroit on his back. For over two minutes, he weaves a Chrysler 200 past factories, onto highway 75, and through his hometown's grand downtown. A narrator calls out Detroit's glories and its troubles. Mathers ends in front of the legendary Fox Theater, and walks inside to take stage with a full gospel choir. All seats are empty. But you’re watching. Watching like you've never watched an automotive commercial before. Then he says, "This is the Motor City, and this is what we do." It ends with the familiar notes of "Lose Yourself"—conversely the first rap song awarded an Academy Award—and the reveal of a powerful tagline, "Imported from Detroit." 
Standing in front of Michigan's bold, maize-and-blue logo on Saturday, Mathers wore an almost identical outfit to that which he did in the Chrysler advertisement. It underscores the continuity of his career. The same horror-core aesthetic that helped launch him, served him several albums in. A song released in 2002 retains the same resonance when coupled with big business almost a decade later. In a culture predicated on the ephemeral, Mathers is an outlier. His campaigns and corporate alignments are a lesson in commitment to a singular idea. His mystique is unwavering. We celebrate his unmatched virtuosity. Mathers never reciprocates with any chest beating.
In our current hip-hop climate, marketing has become the event. How the music is disseminated and sold (most) often outweighs its quality. Eminem has never championed his team's undoubted inventiveness. His career is built on challenging convention. Meanwhile, his peers chase opportunities to amplify their stature.
If it is possible to be underexposed as one of the world's biggest stars, Mathers achieves it. For the ubiquity of his music, his face is scarce. Collaborative projects—from his first Nike, an Air Burst in 2003, to the ultra rare Jordan IV "Encore" (getting hands on one of the 50 pairs could run you over seven grand)—are limited in run. Em has performed so irregularly in the last few years, that two consecutive concerts at G-Shock anniversary parties are easily reconciled as gifts to his fans rather than corporate engagements. The rap icon we know as Eminem is remarkably still Marshall, a hungry guy from 8-Mile representing the most idyllic version of the American dream.
The rap icon we know as Eminem is remarkably still Marshall, a hungry guy from 8-Mile representing the most idyllic version of the American dream.
Marketing is about myth building. Nobody in the history of hip-hop has handled it with more consistency than Marshal Mathers. He makes us guess, but never question. By the time Mathers hit ESPN, “Berzerk” had already been teased once—30 seconds during the VMAs—and an integrated campaign with Activision announced. The video game giant will launch its "Call of Duty: Ghost" on November 5, the same day MMLP2 drops. Gamers who purchase the first-person shooter will receive a discount code to download the record. They’ll also be treated to new Eminem music in the soundtrack for the game. Activism CMO Tony Ellis explained the strategy to AdWeek, “You don’t want to feel the money changing hands.”
In hip-hop, the passing of money is too often heralded and mistaken for creativity. Certain guys, dollar signs glimmering in their eyes, become pseudo-creative directors. Others brashly announce intentions to redefine hip-hop’s commercial structure. Meanwhile, from the confines of Warren, Michigan, Marshall Mathers and his team have plotted a quiet path of hip-hop firsts. Eminem’s peers would do well to follow in his humble footsteps. After all, the best sales pitch is the one you don't even realize you're buying.