Every February the Banff Festival of Mountain Films World Tour comes to Ellsworth, Maine, near where I live; it’s a highlight of the winter for us. We love watching the best films of the several hundred submissions in Mountain Sports and Mountain Culture, and without fail, unless I am traveling for work, I attend all the nights of the tour. As I did this year.
As usual, there were amazing films, showcasing incredible athletes and powerful stories. But this year there was a new, unexpected, and dismaying shift toward commercialism. The festival is sponsored by many companies. Common among them are National Geographic, along with companies that produce outdoor gear and clothing, trail bars and other foods, etc. The sponsors receive a good deal of publicity. They’re featured in the program and on the visually stunning and powerful opening festival film that introduces the tour. If you attend the festival, you can’t possibly miss the sponsors.
This year, however, there were more product placements than I’d ever seen before. One athlete – a trail runner – was filmed repeatedly talking to the camera in one outfit or another with Salamon plastered all over it. Another – a snowboarder/base jumper – was filmed numerous times driving her Nissan, with Nissan painted on the hood in huge letters; Nissan painted across her snowboard; Nissan on her helmet. Her friend and fellow adventurer wore a Red Bull helmet. In another film, we watched an athlete packing his trail bag with Clif Bars and regularly saw him in his hat sporting a Clif Bar patch.
As if this weren’t enough, the festival hit its commercial rock bottom with the showing of the film “Petzl Roc Trip China,” a beautifully choreographed film of rock climbers coming to a remote area of China to climb its gorgeous walls and arches. The film was produced by the rock and ice climbing gear company Petzl. Petzl’s name was everywhere, including – shockingly – in the music. A Chinese man appeared several times in the film singing “Petzl, Petzl, Petzl.” Had Petzl funded this gorgeous film and left itself out of the title and singing, including its name only on the opening and closing credits, I would find myself feeling quite positive about this company. Instead I left planning to avoid Petzl products from now on.
It bothered me that Banff was willing to bring such films on tour, and in so doing seemingly embrace the encroaching commercialism of their otherwise amazing festival. I understand that athletes, especially those in sports that are not lucrative, may need sponsorships; but Banff could limit the commercialization in their own festival. There were almost 400 submissions in this year’s festival. Twenty-eight films were chosen to go on tour. It’s hard for me to imagine there weren’t films just as worthy of airing that weren’t advertisements for companies and their products. If Banff doesn’t say no, then the commercialization will not only continue but likely increase.
What’s the Harm?
Every time I go to a national theater chain and pay for my $8-10 ticket and then have to sit through photo advertisements and commercials, I am stunned by our willingness as citizens to accept this. Every year it gets worse. Now it has spread to a festival like Banff.
Some may wonder what’s the harm? Petzl created a beautiful, creative film about climbing in China. Petzl makes climbing equipment. No big deal. So what if Red Bull is being advertised on a climbing helmet or hat? Who cares if Nissan has its name front and center in scene after scene of a mountain sports film?
This is why it’s a big deal: We’re all being branded, and it’s happening younger and younger. We are losing the ability to discern our needs from our desires and base our desires on our deepest beliefs and values, rather than on others’ manipulations and influence.
They’ve Come for Our Brains (and Our Money)
Recently I taught a week-long course at a middle school in rural Maine. Half the kids in that class live in homes without television in a state without billboards. Every single one of them lives in a home that composts. Almost half raise chickens. This is not your typical class of American children. Yet when I tested their commercial knowledge, asking them if they could recognize companies by their logo or the first letter in their brand, they were experts, just like kids across the U.S. Most would have gotten an A+ had they been tested on their brand knowledge. (Feel free to test yourself in my TEDx talk, Educating for Freedom.)
They also thought that they were unaffected by advertising; but this simply isn’t true. Companies don’t spend millions and sometimes billions of dollars for ineffective marketing strategies. We are all affected. Advertising insidiously shapes our desires and habits, often without our consent.
Speak Out to Change the World
It’s one thing to submit to commercials when, in exchange, you are receiving free programming (as with much of television and radio), but If you don’t want to be subjected to endless commercial messages when you pay money for your entertainment, speak out.
Your voice matters.
Only we citizens can stop this tide and, in the process, protect our children’s ability to choose based on their true desires, not their manufactured ones.