My understanding of events through the conceptual lens of Spectacle

Virgin Money London Marathon


What is the Virgin Money London Marathon?

26.2miles. 42.2km. 40,000 runners. London Marathon is an iconic long distance running event held in London, every year since 1981. Since 2010 Virgin Money has sponsored the marathon, other companies that use the race for brand identification include Adidas and Lucozade Sport.

Figure 1: Sponsors (Virgin Money London Marathon 2017)

Getz (2008) suggested that events can be split in to the following types; special, community, hallmark, showcase or mega events. London Marathon would fall under mega event however also has elements of community, special and hallmark due to cross over between these event categories. Although around 40,000 people take part in there is applications from roughly 250,000 people, not only this but every year millions of people watch and cheer from the side lines creating London’s 26.2 mile street party!

The conceptual lens of Spectacle?

In terms of early discussion of spectacles, Guy Debord (1967) is key, constructing the idea of ‘Society of Spectacle’. He thought society was being ‘drugged’ by spectacular images, affecting their perceptions of reality, these images included advertising, television, film, and celebrities. Debord (1967) had a negative attitude towards the idea of spectacles, he felt they distort reality for consumers and have a lack of authenticity, which in turn brings down their quality of life. I understand why the representation of London Marathon could be exaggerated due to the media presenting it as going above and beyond other marathons. It is just a marathon, a race, 26.2 miles and therefore the spectacle that is created around it could just be an untruthful representation of reality. However, there has been further discussion since Debord regarding spectacles that give a positive understanding… could there be negatives or disadvantages of an event such as London Marathon?

The Charitable Spectacle

Horne and Manzenreiter (2006) discuss the impacts sports events of large scales can have, the implications of costs compared to the benefits. At London Marathon, the real winners aren’t even the participants, but the charities, London Marathon has raised over £830 million in participant fundraising for a variety of charities since it began (Virgin Money London Marathon 2017). London Marathon is now considered the biggest annual one day fundraising event in the WORLD… Take a look at just a minute of the video below to get an idea of what the day involves from the 2016 highlights.

2016 Virgin Money London Marathon Highlights (YouTube 2017)

The charity and fundraising aspect of London Marathon is huge, I think it makes every step taken and every penny spent making this remarkable day happen, all worth it. This is NOT the same as every other marathon… this is an out of the ordinary, media obsessed, spectacular marathon. I feel as though the purpose behind the spectacle of London Marathon is to increase money raised for charity, the bigger the spectacle created, the more interest in the event, results in larger fundraising efforts.

Frew (2013 p.103) focused on events that are ‘macro and micro, mediated, attention grabbing and seductive spectaculars’, these events could include The Olympics, Rio Carnival or Glastonbury. The emotive aspects of these events allow the capability to initiate fantasy and capture the imagination and therefore make them platforms of spectacle (Frew 2013). London Marathon has huge emotional aspects, below are tweets from different charities encouraging participants to fundraise for their charity. Emotional links with thousands of people and vast amount of charities will be off the scale! It provides the opportunity for participants to get creative with their fundraising by running in all sorts of costumes, again, adding the whole spectacle.

Figure 2: Screenshots of charity tweets (Twitter 2017)

The London Marathon and the media

Is it images and representations of spectacle that centre consumers lives rather than the reality of the event? A spectacle now takes on many more forms than it did when Debord was writing about it, nowadays it’ll be everywhere you look; screens, poster adverts, Facebook pop-ups and more! Debord would have been shocked (and I am sure horrified) by the development of social media and internet, the way they have transformed society’s friendships, emotions and opinions by putting them all online. This could relate to the impacts these have on consumer’s event experiences.

Since London Marathon began BBC have had live broadcast coverage of the day. The development of satellite television and other mass communication platforms have allowed for exceptional volumes of audiences at mega sporting events (Roberts 2004).

Figure 3: London Marathon on BBC iPlayer (BBC 2017)

The event attracts a huge amount of media attention, invests time and money in using media for promotion of the event; including television or Twitter. Check out live twitter feeds of current hashtags, one of which is #ReasonToRun, the theme for 2017, being the biggest annual fundraising event means it is important to maintain the charitable ‘image’, it must be a key aspect of the spectacle.

Figure 4: London Marathon Twitter header (Twitter 2017)

Horne and Manzenreiter (2006) suggested a mega-event or equally a spectacle will have substantial consequences for where they take place and will attract an extensive amount of media coverage. Roberts (2004) talked about sports events in terms of spectacles and says they need to be out of the ordinary and simply have a big configuration. Roberts (2004) also mentions the media involvement, where sports events will convey advertising and messages to billions of people via different medium. Various digital media have such an impact in the modern world that it has been bought to the attention of many event industry researchers (Frew 2013). This does not surprise me due to the impact digital media has on the growth of London Marathon and the sheer volume of fundraising it has achieved. There is a bigger intensification of the relationship between media and events due to the growth of social media interaction (Frew 2013). The expansion of ever-present media platforms has allowed the impact of spectacle to be virtually impossible to outdo (Frew 2013).

Kellner (2003) suggested a spectacle involves the media constructing something out of the ordinary, coming away from consumer’s habitual everyday routines, creating a special media spectacle, involving an aesthetic dimension or being dramatic. The distance and physically challenging side of London Marathon would be extremely different from everyday routines of most participants, however there will be the percentage of people who run a lot (crazy, I know), training and running is such a huge part of their lives, I consider that this could mean they won’t appreciate the spectacle of the event. Media spectacles are usually highly public social events and they can take on a celebratory, ritualistic or competitive form (Kellner 2003). Can those participants come away from the physical challenge and look at the event in terms of fundraising, is this where they would see the spectacle? Look at the fundraising achievements and the celebrations of the what the day has accomplished, something completely over the top and absolutely not something that happens everyday of these people’s lives.

When we use the term media spectacle it is usually referring to the multiple technological platforms creating a constructed media production that will be shown through the so-called mass media; radio, television, social media and more! (Kellner 2003). Technologies are now embedded in society and integrated into consumer’s everyday lives, this has now become the reality, for many a ‘mediated cultural co-created convergence’ (Frew 2013 p.102). Co-created convergence sees the different aspects of life such as personal journeys, relationships and experiences being constantly captured and placed in to a continuous cycle of technological groups including Facebook or Twitter (Frew 2013), but what is the effect of this on an event such as the London Marathon? The whole London Marathon experience (or journey) is now lived through various social media including build up, on the day and post event, Debord (1967) felt as though this was just perceiving people and allowing them to live this experience through something that wasn’t real and therefore wasn’t accurate. I disagree with this (quite a bit) in terms of London Marathon, this event is not just about those running it, the impacts of this event are on millions of people all around the world and the fact they can live this experience through technological groups is fantastic.

The sheer volume of interest in this (amazing!) event creates the vibe it is going to be something spectacular. However, what is it that makes this event a spectacle and why is it so important? Technically it could be several things; Volume of participants? The celebrity involvement? Difficulty of the race? No. I think the extent of which the event has made a difference in terms of medical science, care of sick children or elderly, developing hospitals and hospices (do I need to go on?!) and many more, is the real reason behind the spectacle that is London Marathon.

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