The Greatest TED Talk Riposte Ever Posted

This post was meant to be a regular “Monday Morning Reads” post, but then I found myself writing something a little more in-depth on one piece so I scrapped the rest. Enjoy…

A colleague of mine recently drew my attention to a TED Talk by Morgan Spurlock (you know, the guy behind Super Size Me and a host of other films). The talk is entitled, “The Greatest TED Talk Ever Sold.” If you have a spare 20 minutes, check it out:

So, here’s why I got a little… animated… then scrapped the rest of the Monday Morning Reads post and focused on this video:

  1. On one hand: Spurlock’s talk is entertaining, interesting and, well, funny. There’s a reason we know his name – he’s good at what he does.
  2. On the other hand: The talk is replete with broad, unsubstantiated false assumptions about the subject matter at the heart of the talk, i.e. marketing

Here’s my take…

The “Opportunity”

Spurlock lays out a host of reasons why companies wouldn’t want to get involved in his project, and then attacks them for not wanting to get involved. He even describes his TED Talk, which he invited companies to sponsor, as:

“My TED Talk that you have no idea what the subject is and depending on the content could ultimately blow up in your face especially if I make you or your company look stupid for doing it – that being said, it’s a very good media opportunity.”

He then suggests that the reason companies didn’t want to get involved was “transparency.” Umm… how about because it actually WASN’T a good “opportunity” for the companies? You giving them a bad offer doesn’t make them bad guys for not taking it.

“Reach” doesn’t cut it

The idea that this was a “very good media opportunity” depends on you only considering the reach of the movie, not the tone or content towards the people involved.

To say that this is a “good opportunity” would be like saying that the NRA should sponsor a Michael Moore movie. Sure, they’d be all over the footage, but you can be damn sure no-one would see them in a good light at the end of it.

Spurlock again displays that mis-perception towards the end of his talk, where he talks about the reach of coverage about his movie apparently 900 million impressions at the time. He suggests that that reach shows that agencies were wrong to avoid jumping on-board.

Here’s the thing: how many of those impressions would have benefited the (transparent) sponsors? How many of them would have delivered a benefit to those companies – how many talked about them or showed their products in any kind of way that would encourage purchase?

The “reach” of un-qualified coverage is useless. It’s like saying “guys, every newspaper in the world mentioned us. They all hated everything we do and recommended no-one ever buy our product, but who cares? They talked about us, so let’s pat ourselves on the back.”

Actually, my guess is that it was even less valuable than that. My guess (yes, just a guess) is that most company mentions in that coverage would be in passing, with no substance towards the companies other than to mention that they were involved within the broader context of the film (I’m sure there were exceptions, but suspect they were few).

It’s Paid Media, not Earned

I’ve written before about the transition that people need to understand when they ask for money from companies in return for coverage. When you do that, you move from “earned” media to “paid” media.

Brands don’t (and, in most cases, can’t) control earned media. That gives it greater credibility because the author can write whatever they want. Paid media (you know, when companies pay for inclusion)  is different. If you pay to be part of something, you’re going to want control over how you’re portrayed. Do you think Audi paid to be part of the movie Ronin (an old reference, but a goodie) without knowing the storyline or that their car would be portrayed in a good light?

This isn’t about transparency – I bet that if movies needed a disclaimer about who sponsored them, there wouldn’t be too many concerns – it’s about the value of the offer that’s given to them in return for the commitment. You want to take my money and then have the option of making me look ridiculous? Right. Let me get right on that.


Ok, I’m done. The ironic part here is that I actually enjoyed the talk. However, the broad misperceptions in the presentation just begged to be corrected. I get that Spurlock’s films are out to provoke a reaction – he’s good at achieving that, and I think he’s good at what he does. Still, I thought it worth adding my two cents to this conversation, setting the record straight on a couple of things and doing it… y’know… transparently.

What do you think?

(Oh, BTW, Mr. Spurlock, you can count this post as about 50,000 “impressions” towards that reach number of yours. Just don’t consider the tone.)

Disclaimer: While my employer is mentioned in the talk (although it’s lumped into the “ad agency” descriptor… again, do your homework, please), I had no input into, or knowledge of, this discussion. This is my perception and not that of the people involved at the time.

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.