What is the appeal of the reality TV show Mountain Men, and others in the same genre? If harvesters of nature’s resources, and not least the fur trade, can answer this question, they can apply the lesson learned to their own public relations, and in so doing win over millions of new supporters.
First, some clarification. Yes, Mountain Men is reality TV, but not of the kind that imprisons a bunch of misfits on an island to tear one another’s throats out, with instant celebrity status for the winner. Mountain Men is the other kind.
Mountain Men is about the daily lives of men who have opted to live cheek to jowl with nature, no matter what she may throw at them.
Or in the words of the History Channel, which airs the show: “Using ancient skills and innate ingenuity, these men fend off nature’s ceaseless onslaught, carving out the lives they’ve chosen from a harsh and unforgiving landscape.”
The audience relates at a visceral level to the painful, joyous or scary experiences of these shaggy-bearded, unkempt men with questionable hygiene and (apparently) masochistic tendencies.
Paradoxically though, many in the audience, like me, are city dwellers whose lifestyle is the antithesis of a mountain man’s. Why are we drawn by a lifestyle we go to such pains to avoid?
We have “guys” to change our oil, do our dry cleaning, mow our lawns and deliver our pizzas. We even boast about them as if somehow we deserve credit for their performance. “My mechanic is the best!”
And for sure, not one of us has ever made our own bullets, then shot a squirrel with a firearm that belongs in a museum, then cooked it and chewed on a piece of meat the size of a pinky and declared it good eatin’.
The fact is, though, that millions of us fantasize about doing just that!
Two Poles and a Jar of Worms
If you don’t know where I’m coming from, consider the ubiquitous angler. If you’re not an angler yourself, it’s almost certain your neighbor is.
Angling is one of the most popular pastimes for men (yes, it’s a manly thing) whose working lives are spent pushing papers around a desk, and there’s a good reason why.
It’s a call of nature we cannot resist, an instinctive drive to provide for our families by using our wits. A trip to the supermarket just doesn’t cut it.
And that is why, week in, week out, rain or shine, we populate river banks, catching little or nothing, staring at the water and dreaming. Dreaming how grand life would be if someone would actually pay us to do this.
And when our sons are old enough, they join us willingly (or so we like to believe) to bond over two poles and a jar of worms. If the fates are kind and we bag a couple of minnows, we char them black over a fire and lie to each other about how they taste better than anything Mum prepares with all her fancy recipes. Good times!
For other men, nature’s call is to hunt or trap.
Not Just Mountain Men
So how can the fur trade learn from shows like Mountain Men, and apply what it learns in its public relations?
We start by recognizing how popular this genre is, of folk living from nature, by their wits.
To name just a few shows with much the same formula as Mountain Men, we have: Swamp People (same hairy humans as Mountain Men, but hunting alligators); Outback Hunters (much like Swamp People but with Aussies hunting crocs); Lobster Wars; Lobstermen: Jeopardy at Sea; Wicked Tuna; Swords: Life on the Line, and so on.
Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, Deadliest Catch, the award-winning saga of crab fishermen trying hard not to drown or get minced in machinery. Now in its 10th season, Deadliest Catch has set record ratings in its class across both males and females, in all age brackets.
And we haven’t even touched on the survivalist genre featuring Bear Grylls (Man vs. Wild) et al. eating anything which once had, and sometimes still has, a pulse.
Don’t worry about the ratings. The mere fact that the cable TV powerhouses of History, Discovery and Nat Geo keep churning these shows out is proof enough of their appeal. Just this June, Animal Planet got in on the act with Beaver Brothers.
So Who Are They?
Next we try to identify who the audience are by understanding who they are not.
They are not drawn to shows like Mountain Men in the same way audiences are drawn to, for example, American Chopper or Counting Cars. The latter are unabashedly aimed at the millions of bikers and gearheads out there who lap them up because, well, they’re about them!
No, Mountain Men does not survive on an audience of mountain men, any more than Swamp People relies on swamp people. Even if all the mountain men, swamp people, crab fishermen, lobstermen and croc hunters in the world tuned in to an episode of Deadliest Catch, they’d hardly make a blip in the ratings.
So let’s say the bulk of the audience for this genre represents a cross-section of society, from diverse backgrounds, but with a few things in common that do not include risking their lives on a daily basis to catch dinner. And one of those things is that they support the harvesting of animals for human benefit.
Like most people, they’re probably not vocal in their support of this, and if asked what they think of animal rights activists, will probably reply, “a bunch of wackos”.
But they are nonetheless important allies. They are the people who, when push comes to shove, ensure that the animal rights movement does not have its way at every turn. They vote, they sign ballots, they pay membership dues to hunting and fishing associations that represent their interests, and they pay license fees that fund wildlife management and conservation efforts.
So are we catering to them, nurturing them to become vocal advocates not just of a lifestyle, but more importantly of the larger picture of man’s place in nature? Not much. Are they equipped with the knowledge to become such advocates? Definitely.
How Things Work
To cater to an audience, you have to know what interests it and what puts it to sleep, and most fur trade PR is not going to keep a mountain man wannabe on the edge of his seat.
The fur trade aims its PR primarily at two audiences: fashionistas, and people who are still undecided on whether they favor using animals for human benefit. This second audience, of course, includes a never-ending supply of youngsters who’ve never heard the arguments before.
High fashion is the biggest life force driving the fur trade, with trickle-down effects on everything from high street retail to the prices producers get for their pelts. However, for most people, and certainly our mountain man wannabe, the latest offerings on the catwalks of Paris and Milan are weird and irrelevant.
The fur trade’s other obsession for the last 45 years has been debating animal welfare vs. rights, and the role of sustainable use as a conservation tool. (That’s how long it’s been since the International Fund for Animal Welfare began campaigning to end the Canadian seal hunt.) Everything worth saying has probably already been said, but the messages need to be reinforced again and again because we are trying to influence people’s fundamental views about man’s place in nature.
However, our mountain man wannabe is decidedly not our target audience. He is no more interested in debating the rights of squirrels than he is in how they look, sheared and dyed pink, around the neck of a supermodel.
What he does want is information that’s educational, useful, and makes him go, “Wow! I never knew that!” He may or may not have a hankering to eat squirrel stew, but he is interested in the process, in how to get the squirrel in the pot in the first place. Which means he might also be interested in knowing:
• Why grey wolf and wolverine fur make the best hood ruffs and jacket linings in the Arctic;
• That a deer, raccoon or beaver conveniently has just enough of the oil called lecithin in its brain to tan its own hide; and
• That mink carcasses make great crab bait, and it’s not because crabs love them so. (Squid are better.) It’s because seals and sea lions can’t stand the smell!
All these and more interesting questions are now addressed in great detail on the web by hunters, trappers, tanners and crab fishermen, and reality TV is cashing in on this treasure trove of amazing information. How about we do the same?
How about we complement our efforts targeting traditional audiences, and spend a little more time talking to people who could be powerful allies if only we started speaking their language?
Let’s connect with all the mountain men out there, not just the ones walking the walk, but also the millions of people tuned in to cable TV, dreaming of making their own squirrel stew some day.
I’ll start the ball rolling. In my next post, learn why one of the most desired and expensive of North American furs in the mid-20th century is now just roadkill.