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Advertising on Reality TV: The Legend of The Deadliest Catch

by Glen Emerson Morris
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On Tuesday, July 13, 2010, Captain Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie made his final appearance on the hit reality TV series Deadliest Catch. In the end, it was his addiction to cigarettes, and not the deadly Bering Sea, that brought an early end to his life. Millions mourned his loss. Phil Harris was more than a national hero. He was a national friend.

The story of how a previously obscure Bering Sea crab fisherman became a national hero is almost as interesting as the series itself, and it's certainly one of the advertising industry's finest hours. The Deadliest Catch is one of those rare shows that an advertiser can actually be proud to sponsor. Coors hit a goldmine with the show, and the show could go on for years.

The Deadliest Catch has become a permanent part of the American cultural consciousness, like Star Trek or Ken Burn's Civil War, it's part of who we are. So far The Deadliest Catch has spawned four books, one video game, a brand of coffee and a brand of crab meat, and there are Websites for the ships and their crews selling T-shirts and coffee mugs with the ship's logos on them. Even the Geico Caveman has appeared in commercials featuring the Time Bandit and Captains Jonathan and Andy Hillstrand.

No doubt the advertising opportunities of the Deadliest Catch will increase over the next few years as agencies figure out how to become identified with the show. A good start would be to explore why the Deadliest Catch became such a hit, and why the show's captains have developed such following.

The premise of the deadliest Catch is very simple. The show documents the activities of six ships through the King and Opilio crab fishing seasons, which unfortunately happen to coincide with the worst sea conditions the Bering Sea has to offer. Over 2,500 vessels liter its depths, and God only knows how many men have died fishing its waters. Not surprisingly, the fatality rate of the opilio crab season is about twice that for common fishermen, or around 300 per 100,000, but it varies. Six crab fishermen died in the first 24 hours of the 2005 opilio crab season. One of the boats on the first season, The Big Valley, didn't even make it through the first season. The Big Valley sank leaving only one survivor of her six man crew.

There's an edge to watching the Deadliest Catch, an underlying tension, that no other show offers. No other reality TV show has covered a set of people so intimately that were in such risk. Sports shows capture some of the risk, but they don't begin to capture the personalities of the sports stars. The show's viewers, especially those who have been watching the show for six years, have a serious emotional investment in the captains and their crews. Deadliest Catch viewers know that any captain or crew member can be killed at any time, and that any of the six boats may be sunk.

In one episode a large wave crashes over the ship's bow, slamming several men, including the captain's brother, into a stack of 800 pound crab pots. The captain knows that the wave has caused casualties, the only question is how many and how bad. Gordon Lightfoot's lyrics “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” come to mind as the captain waits for the wave to slowly pass and the uninjured can begin to help the injured. It's a fantastic sequence, but just one of many that goes to the heart of what men who work together will do to save each other.

The “L” word is not the first word that would come to most people's minds to describe crab fishing in the Bering Sea, but love is a key element in this show on scale that's simply never happened on broadcast or cable TV before. The Deadliest Catch has captured some of humanity's finest moments on video. Perhaps it's not surprising. The French writer and philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupery commented “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction”. Being on a 120 foot boat in gale force winds, 20 foot seas and an air temperature of 30 below zero makes survival so difficult men have no choice but to work together in a way most of us will never experience.

The episode that news of Phil Harris' stroke spread through the fleet has to be one of the most heartbreaking episodes in the history of TV. The reactions of each captain to the news is recorded. Captain Sig Hansen throws a cigarette package against the wall and then turns the light off so the camera can't record what he does next. Captain Keith Column, fighting back tears says in wavering voice “Cut him some slack Big Guy. Cut him some slack.” It took me a minute to realize Big Guy was God. Another captain gets on the radiotelephone to arrange for his brother to meet Phil's son in Anchorage, who consoles Phil's son with the words, “millions of people are praying for your father.” A writer for Entertainment Weekly commented that she had never heard men say the words “I love you,” to other men so many times in a single TV episode before.

Captain Phil Harris brought that out in people. Another captain described him as a combination of grizzly bear and teddy bear. His passing reduced some of the toughest men who ever lived to tears.

Stories involving sex, scandal and conflict have always sold well, so it's not surprising that many reality shows stress these themes. While The Deadliest Catch may not have sex or scandal, the men vs. ocean conflict it covers is truly on an epic scale, and it stresses values that are good for our country; courage and love.

Advertisers sometimes forget how much they can affect the national consciousness. The shows that advertisers sponsor, and the advertising they provide, in part tell us who we are as a nation. The Deadliest Catch has provided some of the most iconic role models ever seen on video. Sure, scandal sells, but if the ratings of The Deadliest Catch are any indication, the American public would prefer something they can be proud of, and advertisers ignore this at their own risk.




Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.





Copyright 1994 - 2009 by Glen Emerson Morris
All Rights Reserved


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