Shills and ambassadors

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Seek Outside BT2.  Didn’t pay for the mid, and Seek Outside fast-tracked a prototype nest so we didn’t get munched by sandflies last winter.  Such treatment is both a privilege and a burden.

Getting free stuff is awesome.  And not primarily because you don’t have to buy it yourself, though as someone who went down a not especially lucrative career path my gear closet(s) would be far more modest than they are today if I had to pay, or pay full retail, for all of it.  Getting free stuff from companies is great because it’s a potent act of personal validation.  I’ve yet to meet anyone deep into the outdoor adventure world who does not have a profound level of emotional investment.  From folks who make a living as full time guides or competitive athletes to weekend warriors from the midwest, this stuff gets deep into your head.  Outdoor adventure is also, rightfully, a poorly understood and necessarily modest endeavor.  Unless someone was on the trip with you, or has climbed or skied the same route under comparable conditions, recognition from friends, family, and the social medias ends up being both shallow and hollow.

There is no question that being a “product ambassador” makes you biased, though the nature of that bias will vary widely.  And being an ambassador is not the same as getting free stuff.  Smaller companies send free stuff out to folks directly, usually not expecting it back, and with a tacit or explicit understanding that they’ll get some press in exchange.  Some times this works out well for everyone involved, including the reader.  Some times it does not. On a few occasions it is purely transparent bullshit.  The passionate, educated section of the internet will separate the wheat from the chaff, and the casual, majority section of the market will drive hasty reviews by folks who don’t bother to understand the product (or set it up properly).  Companies will understand where their investment is best cultivated, especially the bigger ones who disperse their free stuff through marketing agencies, and traffic and influence will continue to drive publicity.  Some folks will bend their integrity for publicity, and some will not.

Being an ambassador will make you biased, or at least has made me biased, because you’ll hopefully come to like and respect the people behind the company you’re representing.  Over the past two years of many emails and texts, and one face to face meeting over the greasiest breakfast in Kalispell, Kevin Timm at Seek Outside has become my friend.  When he gives me something I don’t think about using it well and providing concise feedback and incisive online exposure because I want to keep the gravy train coming my way, I do it because when a friend does something nice for me I want to return the favor as best I can.  It’s a more extensive, and more intimate, relationship than most people have with companies, though in the Instagram age that may no longer be the case.

Seek Outside is an exception here, in that they don’t plan internet identity politics particularly hard or well.  In that respect I like to think that they and I are well suited to each other.  Companies select ambassadors to get product feedback, but also to make a lifestyle statement.  These selections are carefully made, and while the more curated online ambassador content distorts reality and is inherently dishonest, quite a lot of it serves to celebrate the great things more “average” folks get up to.  Favoring B list athletes who are more articulate over the reverse can only be a good thing, even if a contributing factor is all too often the way certain physical attributes fit cultural archetypes, especially for women.

No HMG hashtag on this one.

There is nothing overtly sinister about ambassador programs, if anything native advertising on the internet makes more overt that which has always been present.  It’s fairly rare that raw lies and nonsense gets pedaled in the realm of outdoor equipment promotion.  Rather, the sort of distortions and laziness which happen just about everyday compound, multiply, and over time become part of received wisdom.  Is cuben fiber a good pack fabric? Yes.  Is it revolutionary?  No.  Do most people need a four-season or even three-season tent? No. Do you sleep better with a bit of overkill overhead?  Yep.  Was that powder turn in the photo as rad as it looks?  Indeed.  Was it one of only half a dozen such turns during a ten hour day?  Rather.  Reality has often not been great for selling things, and that has not changed.  What has become more in evidence is just how far lifestyle promotion and brand identification programs go towards making money.  Whether the more moral dimensions of how a given company chooses to deploy capitalism will influence your purchase is up to you.

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6 thoughts on “Shills and ambassadors

  1. Kind of curious, what of your ‘physical attributes’ fit what ‘cultural archetype’? Please note that I am not being particularly serious here.

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