When I heard the news about the suicide of famous TV personality Anthony Bourdain, whose “Parts Unknown” has zoomed in many parts of the World for us, what immediately came to my mind was his unique voice and smile, body language, the way he talked, the way he walked, his poetic narratives, political sarcasm, curiosity, courage, insight, perspectives and his personal way of connecting people and cultures to the viewers. Through savoring his own brand of authenticity, different food he shared with us and interesting people we dined with, albeit virtually, we felt we were traveling and dining with him regularly on his adventures. His style has become his brand, now his legacy, irreplaceable and non-duplicatable.
What should CNN do with “Parts Unknown” now?
I remember in 1998 when my first born was 2 years old, we started to watch “Blue’s Clues”, a popular TV show for preschoolers. The entire show was played by Steve Burns alone with a bunch of animated cartoon characters. In a couple of years my second born joined us as the third fan of Steve’s in our house. However, in 2002 Steve retired from the show and was replaced by Donovan Patton, who played Steve’s brother “Joe”.
To me and my then 5 and 2 year olds, “Joe” was not Steve. “Joe” did not sound, move, look like Steve. Now don’t get me wrong, “Joe” was every bit as sweet, charming, and delightful to kids as Steve, and he too became a fan to many other preschoolers who had not been exposed much to Steve, or were not as die hard fans. To the three of us Blues Clues was not the same without Steve. After we watched “Joe” a few times, we lost interest and stopped watching Blues Clues all together, after being Steve’s fan for four years.
My own personal advice to CNN is to learn from Blues Clues lesson: No one can replace anyone, especially when a TV personality has become a brand’s persona in a profoundly personal way. Let Bourdain be forever in the unique category of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”, just like “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” will be replayed for generations to come. It would defeat the purpose to continue Fred Rogers’ brand with a “Mr. Smith’s Neighborhood.” Start with a new and authentic brand, even within the same genre of food, culture, people and traveling. Generate brand loyalty.
This is what “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Parts Unknown,” “Blues Clues” have in common: What earned viewers’ trust and affection was not just the shows, but the TV personalities in these shows – Fred Roger, Anthony Bourdain, and Steve Burns. Their own authenticity came through and became such congruent part of their stories that we related to THEM as much as to their stories and their worlds, if not more. They each exuded warmth, genuineness, and care, through their unique personalities, even with Bourdain’s occasional zaniness. What we saw in each of them was what we got. We accepted them, trusted them, and enjoyed them THE WAY THEY WERE, not because they did any floury preaching or advocated any agenda. They were just like us: real, original, imperfect. We felt like in the same boat with them, all try to do a good job and be a good person. Their authenticity touched us and we felt connected first to them, then to their stories.
TV and video making has advanced in the last decade from the theatrical atmosphere that gave the viewers the vantage point of sitting in the audience while watching a performance on stage, like in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Blues Clues”, to the intimate experience of participation, as in “Parts Unknown” and in emerging Virtual Reality videos and movies. Bourdain created the feeling for his viewers as if we are on the scene, at the same dining table with him. The viewers no longer just watch a performance on a distant stage, but actually bond with the TV personality, and travel with him trip after trip. We feel like drinking from the glasses on his dining table. Our mouths water when the sizzling and colorful food is cooked and brought to “us” in closeups. We have the illusion that we are chatting with Anthony and his guests while admiring the beautiful food, almost like their friends. On the flip side, after years of sharing his experience, virtually, the shock and the sense of loss upon hearing about Bourdain’s suicide is all the more acute, as if we have lost an actual friend in our lives.
Ironically, if what Bourdain gave his audience was a sense of being there with him, even as an illusion, we the audience could not give him back the same: loneliness and vagabond homelessness were among whatever other demons that he had admitted to be suffering from. This artfully created virtual bonding was a one-way street.
Some may say this is the “dark” side of the art of video marketing, – the manipulation of the senses, the seductive power of art and media.
Art is never per se “dark” or “bright”, “good” or “evil”. Art serves all masters. What makes it good or evil is what master it serves: Is it advancing a world with less fear and more understanding? Is it adding peace, hope, and love to our lives? Does it serve a positive outcome?
Had Anthony Bourdain truly understood his irreplaceable impact on his viewers, would he reconsider his plans?
About the author: Joanne Tan, founder and CEO of 10 Plus Brand, Inc., a full service brand marketing agency. www.10PlusBrand.com Joanne is a brand strategist, marketing advisor, video director & producer. ©Joanne Z. Tan, written on 6.9.2018. All rights reserved.
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