Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

The Inevitability of the Pendulum Effect

In the real world, things never go in straight lines or predictable curves. The things we call trends are actually a saw tooth profile of change, reaction and upheaval. If you trace the path, you’ll see evidence of the Law of the Pendulum.

In the physical world, the Law is defined as: “the movement in one direction that causes an equal movement in a different direction.

In the world of human behavior, it’s defined as: “the theory holding that trends in culture, politics, etc., tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes.

Politically and socially, we’re in the middle of a swing to the right. But this will be countered inevitably with a swing to the left. We could call it Newton’s Third Law of Social Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Except that’s not exactly true. If it were, the swings would cancel each other out and we’d end in the same place we started from. And we know that’s not the case. Let me give you one example that struck me recently.

This past week, I visited a local branch of my bank. The entire staff were wearing Pride T-shirts in support of their employer’s corporate sponsorship of Pride Week. That is not really a cause for surprise in our world of 2019. No one batted an eye. But I couldn’t help thinking that it’s parsecs removed from the world I grew up in, in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

I won’t jump into the debate of the authenticity of corporate political correctness, but there’s no denying that when it comes to sexual preference, the world is a more tolerant place than it was 50 years ago. The pendulum has swung back and forth, but the net effect has been towards – to use Steven Pinker’s term – the better angels of our nature.

When talking about the Pendulum Effect, we also have to keep an eye on Overton’s Window. This was something I talked about in a previous column some time ago. Overton’s window defines the frame of what the majority of us – as a society – find acceptable. As the pendulum swings back and forth between extremes, somewhere in the middle is a collective view that most of us can live with. But Overton’s window is always moving. And I believe that the window today frames a view of a more tolerant, more empathetic world than the world of 50 years ago – or almost any time in our past. That’s true every day. Lately, it might not even be true most days. But this is probably a temporary thing. The pendulum will swing back eventually, and we’ll be in a better place.

My question is: why? Why – when we even out the swings – are we becoming better people? So far, this column has little to do with media, digital or otherwise. But I think the variable here is information. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once said “Information wants to be free.” But I think information also wants to set us free – free from the limitations of our gene bound prejudice and pettiness. Where ever you find the pendulum swinging backwards, you’ll find a dearth of information. We need information to be thoughtful. And we need thoughtfulness to create a more just, more tolerant, more empathetic society.

We – in our industry – deal with information as our stock in trade. It is our job to ensure that information spreads as far as possible. It’s the one thing that will ensure that the pendulum swings in the right direction. Eventually. 

Personal Endeavour in the Age of Instant Judgement

No one likes to be judged — not even gymnasts and figure skaters. But at least in those sports, the judges supposedly know what it is they’re judging. So, in the spirit of instant feedback, let me rephrase: No one likes to be judged by a peanut gallery*. Or, to use a more era appropriate moniker, by a troll’s chorus.

Because of this, I feel sorry for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners of “Game of Thrones.” Those poor bastards couldn’t be any more doomed if they had been invited to a wedding of the red variety.

At least they were aware of their fate. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, they disclosed their plans for the airing of the final episode. “We’ll in an undisclosed location, turning off our phones and opening various bottles,” Weiss admitted. “At some point, if and when it’s safe to come out again, somebody like [HBO’s ‘GOT’ publicist] will give us a breakdown of what was out there without us having to actually experience it.” Added Benioff: “I plan to be very drunk and very far from the internet.”

Like it or not, we now live in an era of instant judgement, from everyone. It’s the evil twin of social virality. It means we have to grow thicker skins than your average full-grown dragon**. And because I’m obsessively fixated on unintended consequences, this got me to thinking. How might all this judgement impact our motivation to do stuff?

First of all, let’s look at the good that comes from this social media froth kicked up by fervent fans. There is a sense of ownership and emotional investment in shows like “Game of Thrones” that’s reached a pitch never seen before — and I truly believe we’re getting better TV because of it.

If you look at any of the lists of the best TV shows of all time, they are decidedly back-end loaded. “Game of Thrones,” even at its worst, is better than almost any television of the ’80s or ’90s. And it’s not only because of the advances in special effects and CGI wizardry. There is a plethora of thoughtful, exquisitely scripted and superbly acted shows that have nary an enchantress, dragon or apocalypse of the walking dead in sight. There is no CGI in “Better Call Saul,” “Master of None” or “Atlanta.”

But what about the dark side of social fandom?

I suspect instant judgement might make it harder for certain people to actually do anything that ends up in the public arena. All types of personal endeavors require failure and subsequent growth as an ingredient for success. And fans are getting less and less tolerant of failure. That makes the entry stakes pretty high for anyone producing output that is going to be out there, available for anyone to pass judgement on.

We might get self-selection bias in arenas like the arts, politics and sports. Those adverse to criticism that cuts too deep will avoid making themselves vulnerable. Or — upon first encountering negative feedback — they may just throw in the towel and opt for something less public.

The contributors to our culture may just become hard-nosed and impervious to outside opinion — kind of like Cersei Lannister. Or, even worse, they may be so worried about what fans think that they oscillate trying to keep all factions happy. That would be the Jon Snows of the world.

Either way, we lose the contributions of those with fragile egos and vulnerable hearts. If we applied that same filter retroactively to our historic collective culture, we’d lose most of what we now treasure.

In the end, perhaps David Benioff got it right. Just be “very drunk and very far from the internet.”

* Irrelevant Fact #1: The term peanut gallery comes from vaudeville, where the least expensive seats were occupied by the rowdiest members of the audience. The cheapest snack was peanuts, which the audience would throw at the performers.

** Irrelevant Fact #2: Dragons have thick skin because they don’t shed their skins. It just keeps getting thicker and more armor-like. The older the dragon, the thicker the skin.

The Gap Between People and Platforms

I read with interest fellow Spinner Dave Morgan’s column about how software is destroying advertising agencies, but not the need for them. I do want to chime in on what’s happening in advertising, but I need a little more time to think about it.

What did catch my eye was a comment at the end by Harvard Business School professor Alvin Silk: “You can eliminate the middleman, but not his/her function.”

I think Dave and Alvin have put their collective thumbs on something that extends beyond our industry: the growing gap between people and platforms. I’ll use my current industry as an example – travel. It’s something we all do so we can all relate to it.

Platforms and software have definitely eaten this industry. In terms of travel destination planning, the 800-pound Gorilla is TripAdvisor. It’s impossible to overstate its importance to operators and business owners.  TripAdvisor almost single-handedly ushered in an era of do-it-yourself travel planning. For any destination in the world, we can now find the restaurants, accommodations, tours and attractions that are the favorites of other travellers. It allows us to both discover and filter while planning our next trip, something that was impossible 20 years ago, before TripAdvisor came along.

But for all its benefits, TripAdvisor also leaves some gaps.

The biggest gap in travel is what I’ve heard called the “Other Five.” I live in Canada’s wine country (yes, there is such a thing). Visitors to our valley – the Okanagan – generally come with 5 wineries they have planned to visit. The chances are very good that those wineries were selected with the help of TripAdvisor. But while they’re visiting, they also visit the “other five” – 5 wineries they discovered once they got to the destination. These discoveries depend on more traditional means – either word of mouth or sheer serendipity. And it’s often one of these “other five” that provide the truly memorable and authentic experiences.

That’s the problem with platforms like TripAdvisor, which are based on general popularity and algorithms. Technically, platforms should help you discover the long tail, but they don’t. Everything automatically defaults to the head of the curve. It’s the Matthew Effect applied to travel – advantage accumulates to those already blessed. We all want to see the same things – up to a point.

But then we want to explore the “other five” and that’s where we find the gap between platforms and people. We have been trained by Google not to look beyond the first page of online results. It’s actually worse than that. We don’t typically scan beyond the top five. But – by the very nature of ratings-based algorithms – that is always where you’ll find the “other five.” They languish in the middle of the results, sometimes taking years to bump up even a few spots. It’s why there’s still a market – and a rapidly expanding one at that – for a tour guided by an actual human. Humans can think beyond an algorithm, asking questions about what you like and pulling from their own experience to make very targeted and empathetic suggestions.

The problem with platforms is their preoccupation with scale. They feel they have to be all things to all people. I’ll call it Unicornitis – the obsession with gaining a massive valuation. They approach every potential market focused on how many users they can capture. By doing so, they have to target the lowest common denominator. The web thrives on scale and popularity; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yes, there are niche players out there, but they’re very hard to find. They are the “other five” of the Internet, sitting on the third page of Google results.

This has almost nothing to do with advertising, but I think it’s the same phenomenon at work. As we rely more on software, we gain a false confidence that it replaces human-powered expertise. It doesn’t. And a lot of things can slip through the gap that’s created.

 

Selfies: A Different Take on Reality

It was a perfect evening in Sydney Harbor. I was there for a conference and the organizers had arranged an event for the speakers at Milsons Point – under the impressive span of the Harbour bridge. It was dusk and the view of downtown Sydney spread out in front of us with awesome breadth and scope. It was one of those moments that literally takes your breath away. That minute seemed eternal.

After some time, I turned around. There was another attendee, who was intently focused on taking a selfie and posting it to social media. His back was turned to the view behind him. At first, I thought I should do the same. Then I changed my mind. I’d rely on my memory and actually try to stay in the moment. My phone stayed in my pocket.

In the age of selfies, it turns out that my mini-existential crisis is getting more common. According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, something called “self-presentational concern” can creep into these lifetime moments and suck the awe right out of them. One of the study authors, Alixandra Barasch, explains, “When people take photos to share, they remember their experience more from a third-person perspective, suggesting that taking photos to share makes people consider how the event (and the photos) would be evaluated by an observer. “

Simply stated, selfies take us “out of the moment”. But this effect depends on why we’re taking the selfie in first place. The experimenters didn’t find the effect when people took selfies with the intent of just remembering the moment. It showed up when the selfie was taken for the express purpose of sharing on social media. Suddenly, we are more worried about how we look than where we are and what we’re doing.

Dr. Terri Apter, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University, has been looking at the emergence of selfies as a form of “self-definition” for some time. “We all like the idea of being sort of in control of our image and getting attention, being noticed, being part of the culture.” But when does this very human urge slip over the edge into a destructive spiral? Dr. Apter explains, “You can get that exaggerated or exacerbated by celebrity culture that says unless you’re being noticed, you’re no one,”

I suspect what we’re seeing now is a sort of selfie arms race. Can we upstage the rest of our social network by posting selfies in increasingly exotic locations, doing exceptional things and looking ever more “Mahvelous”? That’s a lot of pressure to put on something we do when we’re just supposed to be enjoying life.

A 2015 study explored the connection between personality traits and posting of selfies. In particular, the authors of the study looked at narcissism, psychopathy and self-objectification. They found that frequent posting of selfies and being overly concerned with how you look in the selfies can be tied to both self-objectification and narcissism. This is interesting, because those two things are at opposite ends of the self-esteem spectrum. Narcissists love themselves and those that self-objectify tend to suffer from low self-esteem. In both cases, selfies represent a way to advertise their personal brands to a wider audience.

There’s another danger with selfie-preoccupation that goes hand-in-hand with distancing yourselves from the moment you’re in – you can fall victim to bad judgement. It happened to Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony. In a moment when he should have been acting with appropriate gravitas, he decided to take a selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and then British Prime Minister David Cameron. It was a stunningly classless moment from a usually classy guy. If you check a photo taken at the time, you can see that Michelle Obama was not amused. I agree.

Like many things tied to social media, selfies can represent a troubling trend in how we look at ourselves in a social context. These things seem to be pointing in the same direction: we’re spending more time worrying about an artificial reality of our own making and less time noticing reality as it actually exists.

We just have to put the phone down sometimes and admire the view across the harbor.

 

Less Tech = Fewer Regrets

In a tech ubiquitous world, I fear our reality is becoming more “tech” and less “world.”  But how do you fight that? Well, if you’re Kendall Marianacci – a recent college grad – you ditch your phone and move to Nepal. In that process she learned that, “paying attention to the life in front of you opens a new world.”

In a recent post, she reflected on lessons learned by truly getting off the grid:

“Not having any distractions of a phone and being immersed in this different world, I had to pay more attention to my surroundings. I took walks every day just to explore. I went out of my way to meet new people and ask them questions about their lives. When this became the norm, I realized I was living for one of the first times of my life. I was not in my own head distracted by where I was going and what I needed to do. I was just being. I was present and welcoming to the moment. I was compassionate and throwing myself into life with whoever was around me.”

It’s sad and a little shocking that we have to go to such extremes to realize how much of our world can be obscured by a little 5-inch screen. Where did tech that was supposed to make our lives better go off the rails? And was the derailment intentional?

“Absolutely,” says Jesse Weaver, a product designer. In a post on Medium.com, he lays out – in alarming terms – our tech dependency and the trade-off we’re agreeing to:

“The digital world, as we’ve designed it, is draining us. The products and services we use are like needy friends: desperate and demanding. Yet we can’t step away. We’re in a codependent relationship. Our products never seem to have enough, and we’re always willing to give a little more. They need our data, files, photos, posts, friends, cars, and houses. They need every second of our attention.

We’re willing to give these things to our digital products because the products themselves are so useful. Product designers are experts at delivering utility. “

But are they? Yes, there is utility here, but it’s wrapped in a thick layer of addiction. What product designers are really good at is fostering addiction by dangling a carrot of utility. And, as Weaver points out, we often mistake utility for empowerment,

“Empowerment means becoming more confident, especially in controlling our own lives and asserting our rights. That is not technology’s current paradigm. Quite often, our interactions with these useful products leave us feeling depressed, diminished, and frustrated.”

That’s not just Weaver’s opinion. A new study from HumaneTech.com backs it up with empirical evidence. They partnered with Moment, a screen time tracking app, “to ask how much screen time in apps left people feeling happy, and how much time left them in regret.”

According to 200,000 iPhone users, here are the apps that make people happiest:

  1. Calm
  2. Google Calendar
  3. Headspace
  4. Insight Timer
  5. The Weather
  6. MyFitnessPal
  7. Audible
  8. Waze
  9. Amazon Music
  10. Podcasts

That’s three meditative apps, three utilitarian apps, one fitness app, one entertainment app and two apps that help you broaden your intellectual horizons. If you are talking human empowerment – according to Weaver’s definition – you could do a lot worse than this round up.

But here were the apps that left their users with a feeling of regret:

  1. Grindr
  2. Candy Crush Saga
  3. Facebook
  4. WeChat
  5. Candy Crush
  6. Reddit
  7. Tweetbot
  8. Weibo
  9. Tinder
  10. Subway Surf

What is even more interesting is what the average time spent is for these apps. For the first group, the average daily usage was 9 minutes. For the regret group, the average daily time spent was 57 minutes! We feel better about apps that do their job, add something to our lives and then let us get on with living that life. What we hate are time sucks that may offer a kernel of functionality wrapped in an interface that ensnares us like a digital spider web.

This study comes from the Center for Humane Technology, headed by ex-Googler Tristan Harris. The goal of the Center is to encourage designers and developers to create apps that move “away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society.”

That all sounds great, but what does it really mean for you and me and everybody else that hasn’t moved to Nepal? It all depends on what revenue model is driving development of these apps and platforms. If it is anything that depends on advertising – in any form – don’t count on any nobly intentioned shifts in design direction anytime soon. More likely, it will mean some half-hearted placations like Apple’s new Screen Time warning that pops up on your phone every Sunday, giving you the illusion of control over your behaviour.

Why an illusion? Because things like Apple’s Screen Time are great for our pre-frontal cortex, the intent driven part of our rational brain that puts our best intentions forward. They’re not so good for our Lizard brain, which subconsciously drives us to play Candy Crush and swipe our way through Tinder. And when it comes to addiction, the Lizard brain has been on a winning streak for most of the history of mankind. I don’t like our odds.

The developers escape hatch is always the same – they’re giving us control. It’s our own choice, and freedom of choice is always a good thing. But there is an unstated deception here. It’s the same lie that Mark Zuckerberg told last Wednesday when he laid out the privacy-focused future of Facebook. He’s putting us in control. But he’s not. What he’s doing is making us feel better about spending more time on Facebook.  And that’s exactly the problem. The less we worry about the time we spend on Facebook, the less we will think about it at all.  The less we think about it, the more time we will spend. And the more time we spend, the more we will regret it afterwards.

If that doesn’t seem like an addictive cycle, I’m not sure what does.

 

Beijing’s Real-Life Black Mirror Episode

In another example of fact mirroring fiction (and vice versa), the Chinese Government has been experimenting since 2014 with a social credit program that rewards good behavior and punishes bad. Next year, it becomes mandatory. On hearing this news, many drew a parallel to the “Nosedive” episode from the Netflix series Black Mirror. The comparison was understandable. Both feature a universal system where individuals are assigned a behavior-based score has real-life consequences. And it is indeed ominous when a government known for being “Big Brother” is unveiling such a program. But this misses the point of Nosedive. Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker wasn’t worried about Big Brother. He was worried about you and I – and our behavior in the grips of such a program.

In Brooker’s world, there was no overseer of the program. It was an open market of social opinion. If people didn’t like you, you got docked points. If they did, you got extra points. It was like a Yelp for everyone, everywhere. And just like a financial credit score, your social credit score was factored into what kind of house you could buy, what type of car you could rent and what seat you got on an airplane.

If we strip emotion out of it, this doesn’t sound like a totally stupid idea. We like ratings. They work wonderfully as a crowd-sourced reference in an open market. And every day I’m reminded that there are a lot of crappy people out there. It sounds like this might be a plausible solution. It reminds me of a skit the comedian Gallagher used to do in the 80’s about stupid drivers. Everyone would get one of those suction dart guns. If you saw a jerk on the road, you could just shoot a dart at his car. Once he had collected a dozen or so darts, the cops could give him a ticket for being an idiot. This is the same idea, with digital technology applied.

But the genius of Brooker and the Black Mirror is to take an aspect of technology which actually makes sense, factor in human behavior and then take it to the darkest place possible. And that’s what he did in Nosedive. It’s about a character named Lacie – played by Bryce Dallas Howard – who’s idea of living life is trying to make everyone happy.  Her goal is immediately quantified and given teeth by a universal social credit score – a la Yelp – where your every action is given a score out of 5. This gets rolled up into your overall score. At the beginning of the episode, Lacie’s score is respectable but a little shy of the top rung scores enjoyed by the socially elite.

But here’s the Black Mirror twist. It turns out you can’t be elite and still be a normal person. It’s another side of the social influencer column I wrote last week. The only way you can achieve the highest scores is to become obsessed with them. Lacie – who is a pretty good person – finds the harder she tries, the faster her score goes into a nose dive – hence the name of the episode.

As Brooker explains, “Everyone’s a little tightened and false, because everyone’s terrified of being marked down – the consequences of that are unpleasant. So, basically, it’s the world we live in.”

China is taking more of a big brother/big data approach. Rather than relying exclusively on a social thumbs up or thumbs down, they’re crunching data from multiple sources to come up a algorithmically derived score. High scores qualify you for easy loans, better seats on planes, faster check ins at hotels and fast-tracked Visa applications. Bad scores mean you can’t book an airline ticket, get that promotion you’ve been hoping for or leave the country.  Rogier Creemers – an academic from Leiden University who is following China’s implementation of the program – explains, “I think the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme.”

Although participation in the program is still voluntary (until 2020) an article on Wired published in 2017 hinted that Chinese society is already falling down the same social rabbit hole envisioned by Booker. “Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch.”

Personally, the last thing I would want is the government of China tracking my every move and passing judgement on my social worthiness. But even without that, I’m afraid Charlie Brooker would be right. Social credit would become just one more competitive hierarchy. And we’d do whatever it takes – good or bad – to get to the top.