Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How Important is Authenticity? Just Ask Bear Grylls.

A few weeks ago, my friend, Chris Brogan, who just happens to be a well-knownblogger and president of New Marketing Labs, wrote a paid for post for K-Mart. In spite of Chris' up front disclosures about the relationship, a fire stormerupted in the blogosphere over the ethics of paid for content.

As you can probably imagine, this was a polarizing issue with one camp believing that it was okay for bloggers to get paid to write favorable posts as long as they were up front about their relationship with the company in question and the other insisting that mixing sponsorship and editorial bastardized the process, irrespective of disclosures. From an intellectual standpoint, I certainly can understand and respect the first camp's position although my heart sits squarely in the second. [At at a minimum, you should read Chris' follow up post on the topic and decide for yourself.]

With that as a backdrop, I was surprised at how willing I was to overlook "authenticity" as a critical factor when it came to my television entertainment. In particular, I'm refrencing two shows on the Discovery Channel. The first titled, Man vs. Wild, where ex-British special forces macho man, Bear Grylls demonstrates survival in the most extreme locations. The second, Survivorman, featuring much more mundane and less heralded, Les Stroud, doing approximately the same. My wife and I quickly became addicted to first show last season as Bear demonstrated survival techniques in extreme environments such as the Alps, the Amazon and the Sahara Desert.

If you haven't watched the show before, I've included a video clip below to show you just how captivating Bear can be. His fearless nature and "I'll eat anything" mentality is contagious. I find myself thinking after every show, "I wonder if I could do that?" However, there turned out to be one catch. Not all of Bear's extreme situations were truly "survival" worthy. In fact, the BBC wrote a fairly scathing piece spelling out a number of instances where Bear had either been assisted by his camera crew or even worse, stayed in a hotel vs. roughing it out in the wild.

After reading about some of the less-than-flattering press Bear received, I thought it might be time to check out rival survival guru, Les Stroud, on aptly named, Survivorman. Unlike Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild, Les is hardcore about the authenticity of his treks out in the wild (he's visited many of the same extreme climates as Grylls). In fact, he has chosen to eschew a camera crew and films everything himself. He also is dedicated to actually "surviving" out in the wild at nearly all costs. No hotels. No assistance. Just himself, his cameras and his knife.

That should make for entertaining television right? Unfortunately it doesn't. Not for me anyway. The reason being that not a whole lot goes on during Survivorman other than a constant stream of self-wallowing by Les. I know this because I did a marathon four hour session over the holiday break with my family. At various points in the show, my 10 year old daughter was openly questioning the fact that Les, once again, was coming up empty handed in his attempts to actually catch something to eat. It turns out that Les is a lot better at enduring 5-6 days of no food (while incessantly complaining about light-headed and hungry he is) than he is at foraging for actual food (clip of Les below).

As you can imagine, this leaves me in an awful dilemma. I led off this post with the fact that while I was intellectually okay with the idea of paid for content, I had a hard time truly embracing this notion in my heart. So how is it that I would gravitate toward a guy that I know isn't authentic (at least some of the time) while I do little to hide my disdain for a similar personality who is doing things by the book.

To help shed some light on my dilemma, I thought I might ask my Twitter network of nearly 4,000 to chime in. Surely they might feel the same way I did. The question I posed was, "Doing some research for a blog post I'm writing. It's about authenticity. Any strong feelings either way RE Survivor Man VS Man vs. Wild?"

@Ninenty7: I know it is silly, but I don't watch Bear's show because he isn't really out there in it.

@tallglassofmilk: Don't watch either but overheard others saying one is for real by himself while the other pretends but has a crew. True?

@MikeLangford: This is the only situation ever where I'd say a guy named Les beats a guy named Bear. Survivor Man rules.

@dbcotton: Mixed feelings. Bear has better all around survivor skills, but Survivor Man is more realistic.

@LisaHoffman: Two of my 12 yo's fave shows. He likes Bear better (me too) but says Survivorman is more authentic. M v. W more instructional

@tinycg: Survivorman is authentic and provides useful real tips.. Man v Wild is mostly staged and useful if you are ex-spec ops.

@SusanBratton: google "joe pine authenticity dishymix" for ideas for your blog post. Listen to the Podcast and/or read the transcripts. [Link to Susan's podcast with Joe is here]

@LisaHoffman: Bear is far more interesting because he engages the audience (sound familiar?) Survivorman is actually trying to survive, tho.

@peplau: @MikeLangford @tallglassofmilk Bear is also a bit of a fraud http://snipr.com/9u1dj Afraid it's more than just having a crew.

@tallglassofmilk: Well, authenticity certainly doesn't guarantee entertainment, especially in TV. Probably why so much "reality" is faked.

@jamessumerlin: absolutely survivorman, big fan.

@m750: Bear is entertainment, Les Stroud is the real deal.

@chareich: think survivorman seems a little less contrived. Man v wild - probably eats big macs off camera

@davidkspencer: Survivorman is where it's at. Feels more real, less polished. This clip is what did man v. wild in for me: http://is.gd/25si

@ChrisKeef: missed the earlier tweet. I'm all about Survivorman, not Man vs. Wild. Les is far more genuine, raw and honest.

@ChrisKeef: I will agree that Bear is more 'entertaining', however Survivorman seems more organic. Easier to believe, I guess.

Not surprisingly, nearly everyone that responded validated what I suspected that they would i.e. authenticity was more important than entertainment value by a long shot. @m750 hit the nail on the head when he mentioned that "Bear is entertainment [but] Les Stroud is the real deal."

As a marketer, this tells me that it doesn't matter how slick, exciting or entertaining the content is that our company creates, at the end of the day our customers will want us to be authentic. For their sake though, I promise not to whine about how sore my fingers are after several hours of typing or how much of a caffeine headache I have as a result of my forgoing my morning coffee.

How about you? Are you being authentic in the way you communicate with your customers? Seems to me that there's a reason why Josh Bernoff and Forrester's customer survey shows that only 16% of people trust corporate blogs. Sounds like we all have a lot of work to do. Just ask Bear.

Originally posted on http://theengagedconsumer.powered.com


  1. Aaron - You've picked an interesting analogy, but I think it breaks down because Brogan was being open about his post for KMart and Bear was (or the producers of his show were) being deceptive about whether he was actually enduring the hardship depicted on the show.

    The real issue really seems to be one of editorial integrity - should Chris sell posts on his blog to the highest bidder?

    I'm a free market guy and feel pretty good about Chris making the right decision to nurture his community, his brand. He's in touch with what his community will tolerate and won't violate the trust he's established.

    Whether he should have asked for $5,000 (vs. $500) is a topic for another day.

    Jim | @jstorerj

  2. I have to agree with Jim here. Even though I've been approached to do paid posts and advertising on my blog -- and haven't done either one -- I don't really take exception to people trying out a business model if it works for them, and they're honest about what they're up to.

    Chris didn't even put it up on his main business blog -- he wrote it in a more niche location where the content made sense.

    There was no fakery or hiding what was up... he just chose to take advantage of a revenue source.

    The whole basis of his business is to help people take advantage of opportunities to promote their businesses and grow their communities.

    His choice to try a strategy doesn't take away from the quality of everything else he recommends to people -- after all, we're seeing those techniques work.

    If they didn't work, Chris wouldn't have all the attention he does, and then no one would care what he did on Dadomatic. It's an interesting catch-22.

    I say live and let live. We shouldn't be so fragile.:)

  3. Guess it all comes down to why we turn on the TV. Life can be be a very boring day to day lesson in survival even if you forage for food at the big store down the street. You try being trapped in an aisle with a single Mom with 3 kids under the age of 5 in front of you and a deaf senior couple behind fighting over a list neither can really read. HA go ahead surviverman have fun with THAT. But I digress. My point is we like authentic, but polish it up and make it entertaining and we will be more likely to spend some couch time with it. My hunch would be Survivor man's ratings are higher thanks to Bear's polish.

    As a radio personality I get it. The line can get blurry when you are talking about your views on companies and product. Chris did it right, no shame no foul. He was up front and honest and knows his audience thus was still targeting them. His risk. If he missed the target they will leave and they won't come back and he might not get more opportunities to make money that way. Can the lessons learned from TV transfer to blogs or do we expect more? Guess we are going to find out!

  4. -Jim/Meg

    Thanks for swinging by. Herein lies the downside of cross-posting. I actually agree with your point about Chris. However, that actually wasn't my point (bad on me if it didn't come through that way). To help clarify, I'm going to quote a comment I made over on the original post:

    "One clarifying point in my post that may not have come through clearly — I wasn’t calling out Chris B. as doing anything inauthentic. He disclosed his relationship up front. I was merely pointing out that I don’t think it’s the best way for companies like K-mart to go about creating content. Instead, they should turn to their own product/marketing/customer service people to blog, twitter or podcast. If they wanted to invest in someone like Chris B, they should bring him in to teach them to be good bloggers."

    To see the other comments on the original post, go here: http://theengagedconsumer.powered.com/2009/01/12/how-important-is-authenticity-just-ask-bear-grylls/#comments

    My point here is that even though I like Bear Grylls better than Les Stroud (Survivorman), Twitter validated what I already suspected and that is that authenticity wins every time over glitz (this is Susan's point above). Bear is hands down more exciting but the sniff of his faking it has turned lots of folks off. In the case of bloggers, if you can make money, go for it - as long as you disclose. However, I think you do run a risk as Amanda pointed out in her counterpoint to Chris' Dadomatic post.

    What I don't think is a good idea is companies trading off real, authentic communication for that of pros like Chris (or Meg). I think Chris/Meg/whomever would better serve companies by training them how to be better, more interesting bloggers. Granted, the company may never be as interesting as the pros but they will be eminently more believable. As much as I hate to cite Dell yet again, Lionel Menchaca is the case in point (although he's also a pretty good blogger which doesn't hurt).

    If you all think I'm still missing the point, feel free to tell me! ;)

  5. How do you feel about professional writers penning blogs for executives at major corporations (and not disclosing)? Is it better/worse than having someone like Chris use his platform to blog on behalf of the company (fully disclosed)?

    Do you need to work at a company to be authentic?

  6. Jimbo - I'm not a big fan of that idea.

  7. I agree with Aaron - executives should write their own blogs (although I think it's definitely okay - and even a must - for someone to spell/grammar check).

    Overall, authenticity should be king. Especially if, as I've often heard and am starting to believe, blogging is the new journalism.

    All of this reminds me of the episode of Seinfeld where Teri Hatcher guest stars: "It's like finding out Mickey Mantle corked his bat!" My favorite quote ever about the value of being authentic.

  8. Mary - you are now officially my favorite commenter ever. I had forgotten about that quote/Teri Hatcher episode of Seinfeld. The line that also comes to mind is "they're real... and they're spectacular! ;)