Lesbian Vampires & Kotex: How ‘Carmilla’ Became a Branded Digital Series Sensation

When a brand sponsors a series, it goes without saying that the show’s themes must be compatible with the product it purports to promote. So one can’t help but wonder what the folks at U by Kotex were thinking when they signed on to back “Carmilla.”

The web series — which debuted the second batch of episodes from its third season on the YouTube channel KindaTV this week — tells the story of Laura (Elise Bauman), a journalism student at fictional Silas University in Austria investigating the disappearance of her roommate, who finds herself falling for her edgy new roommate Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis), who just happens to be a vampire.

“Carmilla” executive producer Jay Bennett admits that many have questioned the weird mix of images conjured up by the brand/story combination (tampons, blood and vampires), but not U by Kotex.

“I think if you look at the type of marketing campaigns that U by Kotex was doing at the time, they were not pouring blue dye on to pads, they were having women throw underwear from the balconies of apartment buildings,” said Bennett. “I think the content naturally fit in with their brand attributes, their sense of humor — a bit more irreverent, a bit more edgy.”

Produced by Bennett’s Smokebomb Entertainment and branded entertainment specialists Shift2, “Carmilla” is shot with a single, locked-down camera that Laura addresses, vlog-style, a la the Emmy-winning web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Emma Approved” from Pemberley Digital. Like those series, both of which were inspired by Jane Austen novels, “Carmilla” is based on a piece of fiction in the public domain, the 1872 novella of the same name by Sheridan Le Fanu, which predated Bram Stoker’s vampire classic “Dracula” by 26 years.

“Carmilla” doesn’t broadcast its literary roots, nor its association with U by Kotex: there are no “sponsored by” bumpers or product placements.

“One rule we don’t see others following is we do not put the brand anywhere near the scripted content,” said Bennett. “We’re dealing with female millennials, the most sophisticated consumer group of all time, and they know it’s an ad two seconds in and will move away, so we work very hard to protect the scripted content as the core driver. Once someone has fallen in love with the show and its characters, we then take them outside of the scripted series and create additional content that features the brand more clearly.”

When the series first launched in Aug. 2014, Bennett had the six employees in Smokebomb’s offices hit social media to promote it, with the goal of reaching at least 100 viewers a day. Not wanting to start from zero, they targeted fan bases of like-minded content.

“Our first big breakout was when the ‘Orphan Black’ fan base discovered the series, then more fan communities started discovering it after that, so the dominoes began,” said Bennett, “and that’s where we were able to go and amplify the reach and the social conversation.”

Each season of “Carmilla” consists of 36 episodes of approximately five minutes in length, and the producers have created a wealth of supplemental content to go with it. Following the first season, the story continued via Twitter accounts for the characters Laura, Carmilla and LaFontaine. In between seasons two and three, they released a “season zero,” where, at the end of each of its 12 episodes, viewers are prompted to watch sponsored videos from U by Kotex such as “Code Words & Slang for Periods.” There is also a “Carmilla” podcast” and a just-released spin-off series, “Chinmilla,” in which the characters are portrayed by people’s upside-down chins outfitted with wigs and fake eyes.

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“In our opinion, one-off [branded] videos make very little sense,” said Bennett. “What happens if the audience likes it? I think that’s still a very traditional ad agency technique being applied to scripted branded storytelling. That’s why we’re doing a minimum of 36 scripted episodes per season. That gives you months of a conversation. And we put strong cliffhangers into every episode to drive you to that next episode.”

“Carmilla” has performed well for U by Kotex, racking up more than 50 million unique views and earning AfterEllen Visibility Awards for Favorite Web Series, Favorite Lesbian/Bi TV Character and Favorite Fictional Lesbian Couple.

While the producers have not made the brand association obvious in the series, U by Kotex has celebrated the connection with limited edition “Carmilla” U by Kotex packaging, illustrated with fan art (“the tampon of choice for Carmilla, Silas Students and vampires everywhere,” according to marketing materials).

While the series’ success is gratifying for actress Natasha Negovanlis, the most important thing is how its matter-of-fact portrayal of non-traditional sexual roles has affected its young fans.

“There was a 15-year-old transgender boy who came to an autograph signing [of the “Carmilla” tampon box], and his parents looked me in the face and thanked for what we’re doing, and it was just a really touching emotional moment,” said Negovanlis. “It is such a blessing to be creating content that means something to this community and to be a voice for young people who often feel left out, misunderstood and like they don’t have a voice.”