Shart Week: How Shark Week Crapped Its Pants, and What Marketers Can Learn From It

Lisa Bongiovanni

About once a year, the CleverFunnel team gets together and sees what ways we can force metaphors with popular cultural events. This time? It’s the ever-popular Shark Week.

Here’s how it happened: Lisa announced to everyone that it was important that we go home and watch some Shark Week this week, because, as the kid-favorite Santa Jaws says, “Shark Week comes but once each year.”

While there are people who still get plenty hyped for Shark Week, we here at CleverFunnel couldn’t help but collectively roll our eyes. Entering into its 30th year, the Shark Week of yesteryear is long dead, and in its place exists a combination of bullshit, celebrities, and bullshit celebrities.

Like this guy.

But, it’s not all bad. Even though we don’t actively enjoy Shark Week, we sure can learn some lessons from it. So, our list, in no particular order:

1. Mika – Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver

Remember last year, when an Olympic gold medalist risked life and limb to demonstrate the amazing power of the ocean’s greatest predator? No, you don’t, because it didn’t happen. Despite weeks of hype and aggressive advertising, many of us watched the hour-long special only to find out, at the very end, that Michael Phelps did not, in fact, race a shark. The lead up was impressive: lots of shots of scientists gathering data on how sharks swim and their top speeds, lots of shots of Phelps being equipped with special swimming fins and tentatively entering the water. Then, this quote, by Tristian Gutteridge, one of the show’s shark experts:
“Clearly, we can’t put Michael in one lane and a white shark on the far lane. We’re gonna have to do a simulation.”

So, Michael Phelps raced against… nothing. Later, a CGI team added a shark into the footage of Phelps racing swimming. Watchers around the world were disappointed, to say the least.

Pictured: How to piss off your entire viewing audience.

As marketers, the Phelps v Shark scenario represents a great temptation. It’s easy to sensationalize when writing copy and to promise the world. This product will change your life! It’s the best! It hits all the buzzwords: Innovative, Powerful, Revolutionary, AMAZING! Is it though? Clickbaity copy that promises the world results in the same sense of disappointment that we experienced after Phelps v Shark. Sure you might have an amazing click-through rate, and with overblown website content, you might even get them into a sales conversation… but when you promise the world and can’t deliver, your customers’ satisfaction suffers.

You’ve promised something that you can’t deliver, and that’s all we care about. We wanted excitement, we wanted danger, and we got bad computer graphics. When you promise innovation, powerful feature sets, and top-of-the-line function, but deliver the usual, all your prospects see is what isn’t there. Instead, focus on high-quality copy that highlights aspects of the product/service which actually exist. Resist the temptation to glitter things up and embrace the reality of what the product/service brings to your customers. Your copy might not be as exciting, but it will be meaningful to the people who click, and the prospects landing on your site will actually be people who care about your product.

At least they’re on even footing now.

2. Lisa – Celebrities Can’t Replace Substance

It’s Shark week, not Shaq week. That didn’t stop the Discovery channel from enlisting Shaq and an array of other “celebrities” to boost their ratings on the now 30-year-old show since the 450 million-year-old species just wasn’t cutting it to create enough content for their own show.

Rather than show us all the shark-based programming focused around conservation and correcting the misconceptions about sharks, Shaq Week has become more entertainment-oriented, sensationalized, often times fictional programming that is just plain bad. In fact, looking at the line-up we see Monday featured athletes Aaron Rogers, Lindsey Vonn and Rob Gronkowski. Tuesday took a real dive (ha, get it?) and had “Guy Fieri’s Feeding Frenzy”. I don’t even know who’s slated for tonight, but I can already tell you, unless it’s Colossus and Slash (no, not that Slash), I’m not interested.

So, just like in marketing when see celebrities endorsing products or other gimmicks and flashy, buzzwords things intended to trick people, let’s remember that, that it’s all BS. At this point, I’m not even sure if Danica Patrick makes websites for GoDaddy or pretended to drive a race car once. Celebrity endorsements are not a replacement for real actual useful products and good marketing substance and content. Makes sure your marketing has substance or don’t bother.

As for the Shark Week host, personally, I think the host of Shark Week should be, well, a shark.

3. Luke – When you get rid of the science, everything goes to shit.

I used to love Shark Week. Every summer growing up, right around the time that the novelty of being on break from school started to wear off, I’d enjoy a lazy week of shark documentaries and frozen pizzas. It was entertaining, but you also felt like you were learning something. The Discovery Channel did a great job of mixing action-packed shark footage with real research and content that would genuinely spark scientific curiosity. I even respected it when they brought in the Mythbusters guys to debunk the myths from “Jaws”. Sensational? A bit. Overhyped? Probably. But Adam and Jamie are pretty keen on doing real research.

I hate you.

Then “Megalodon” happened and everything went to shit. This 2014 pseudo-documentary was stuffed in the middle of Shark Week between less shitty programming to make it seem like it might offer some legitimate, fact-based sharky content. It featured actors playing researchers, doctored footage, and suggested that a 40ft prehistoric shark was lurking somewhere off the coast of who-the-fuck-cares. It was blatantly misleading at best. And it was the first time I remember The Discovery Channel saying, “Fuck it, let’s just make shit up”.

After that initial compromise of Shark Week’s scientific integrity, it wasn’t long before they were literally lying to scientists about interviews and then editing footage to appear as if an actual shark researcher was hunting for a magical voodoo shark. Ya, that really happened. Which brings us to today where, in order to avoid too much backlash from broadcasting fiction posing as science, they’ve decided to all but do away with science and instead rely on random celebrity appearances.

Right, so I suppose I should talk about marketing too. The point of this long-winded analogy is that if you get rid of the scientific, fact-based backbone of your marketing efforts (or your Shark Week), you’re going to need to rely on more and more gimmicky bullshit to keep your audience engaged. You don’t want your next campaign to be the marketing equivalent of “Megalodon”. Maybe I’m still just mad that I thought it was real for the first 30 minutes.

Me, every year during Shark Week anymore.

4. Max – Anything Can Be Scary If The Media Deems It So.

Let’s face it: no one gave a shit about sharks until Jaws scared the everloving crap out of everyone in 1975. After the film’s release, the hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere were dominated by the fear that any tiptoe into the ocean will result in missing limbs, red water, and a haggard police chief pontificating on the value of a larger boat.

The truth is, out of 500 different species of sharks, only around a dozen of them are potentially dangerous to humans. Another way to look at it: according to Juliet Eilperin, a reporter for The Guardian, more Americans were killed by collapsing sinkholes (16) than sharks (11) between 1990 and 2006.

Media has a powerful way of influencing the way that we think, feel, and believe, and, unfortunately, the world of digital marketing is not immune to this phenomenon. You’ll see trends in marketing blogs, where all of a sudden, some tool or technique is the end all, be all to solve every company’s marketing woes. You know, if our industry had a silver bullet scenario, we’d probably all be out of jobs. Unfortunately, just because a tool or technique has a lot of media buzz does not mean that this will solve your marketing puzzle, no matter how big your boat is.

5. Mr. Ivan – Don’t Lose Sight of Your Goals

Shark Week has officially become a meme of itself. Actually, it has been for the last couple of years, ever since it shifted the focus of the series from sharks, science, and learning to fiction, celebrities, and Sharknado-like spectacle (*cough* Phelps vs. Shark *cough*). At least Sharknado knows what it is and doesn’t hide it, which gets my respect.

Shark memes? We got em.

I write this because I’ve seen this kind of thing happen to more companies than I care to name. They start out wanting to help people, show them something new and interesting only to devolve into lowest common denominator clickbait garbage while still trying to pass themselves off as the authority they once were. It’s very much like what has happened to the news industry — it’s all about views and clicks, no substance.

This seems to happen to companies once they become popular. They lose sight of their original goal and instead go for the quick click. During this transformation, their entire premise/product becomes transient, in that they no longer create or offer anything of value. At this point, any perceived growth is just that: perceived. It’s not true growth which comes from producing good products or services. It all goes back to never losing sight of your original goals. Unless you’re sleazy like a certain television network.

For marketers, it’s also important to keep sight of the metrics that matter. There’s a tendency in the marketing world to present clients with the best metrics, not the most meaningful ones. For example: if we know that ROI and revenue give us our greatest understanding into what campaigns are the best, we shouldn’t just start reporting on impression share, total clicks, or anything else, just because those numbers are trending upward. Yes, a good enough presenter can get any client excited about click-through rate, but this doesn’t actually help the client more than telling a very, very small part of the story.

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