Thursday, March 26, 2015

Following a Well-Worn Formula For Success: Manufacturing Snake Oil With A Poison Pen

I've been watching the uproar that has ensued following Clay Travis's outrageous post on his sports website/blog Outkick The Coverage in which he claims that the Kentucky-West Virginia Sweet Sixteen basketball game tonight will pit the "two dumbest fan bases" in college sports. I'd post the link, but he's already made enough money off of clicks on that stupid 'article'. Let's not help him increase his bank account if we can help it. Do me a favor and don't run off to his site to look. Let me give you a sample:

It's an upside down world when it comes to Kentucky and West Virginia -- fans in single wides cheering for coaches in mansions, basketball fans without teeth cheering for basketball players with teeth, fans who have no hope of being admitted to academic powerhouse universities like Kentucky and West Virginia living or dying to the beat of a basketball's dribble. Like canaries in a coal mine without oxygen, these two states are where intelligence goes to die.   
They should give out a trophy to whoever wins this game.
It should be a gold basketball with a chin strap beard on it.
And this inscription: "Your number one!"  

Aside from the use of egregious generalizations for shock value, a time-honored tactic of zealots and bigots, as a sports fan I have to ask myself: what's Travis's angle here?  

Travis isn't really all that original. He's agitating with purpose. He has an agenda. His purpose is singular: he's manipulating the vast pool of sports fans in order to drive hits to his website by using the lowest common denominator he can envision--in this case, an absurdly arbitrary list of the "stupidest" and the "smartest" fan bases in college sports that he wrote about a year ago. So he uses that list as a reference and restirs the pot. In the process, he riles up the fans, who all immediately rush off to click on the darn website to read his bile for themselves, makes some appearances on sports talk shows--I heard him on the Paul Finebaum show this afternoon--which riles up more fans who click on the website and make him more money, then goes onto social media to talk about how awesome he was in insulting the fans of these two respected institutions, which, of course, makes him even more money. Rinse and repeat. Millions and millions of hits at a per-click payment rate, and every infuriated Kentucky or West Virginia fan is ringing Travis's cha-ching bill today. 

I know what Clay Travis is. I know where the Clay Travises of the world are coming from. Especially, when they come from Tennessee. 

Clay Travis is a pseudo-intellectual who feeds his voracious ego by belittling others. He makes himself feel smarter by stepping on others.  Although it's hard to believe that anyone who'd go on a 'pudding strike' to try and force Direct TV to add the Sunday Ticket to the US Virgin Islands available channel package is any sort of intellectual, bear with me for a moment and think about this. 

We have some things in common. Clay Travis, like me, grew up in the state of Tennessee. Clay Travis, like me, knows the sports world, and especially the fervor that fans of the Southeastern Conference have for their teams. Clay Travis, like me, understands the power of the written word. 

But here's where things start to get different. 

I am a product of the public school system in Clarksville, Tennessee--a town that Travis insulted specifically when the wife of a retired US veteran who lives there called the Finebaum show this afternoon. That education enables me to insult the Clay Travises of the world in three languages, including Latin. Caligas mater tua in legis gerit. (That's Latin for "Yo' mama wears combat boots in bed" in case you wondered.) I attended a small liberal arts college in Tennessee, where I paid for my education thanks to scholarships from the university forensics team. (Forensics meaning public speaking and debate, not CSI.)  

Unlike me, Travis attended the Martin Luther King magnet school in Nashville, and after a bachelor's degree from George Washington University, came back to Tennessee to get his law degree from Vanderbilt University. 

I married an IT security guy; he married a Tennessee Titans cheerleader. 

I am the author of 16 novels and novellas; he is the author of 2 nonfiction books about sports (I don't count his misogynistic Man: A Book as a real book, to be honest. Amazon lists it as 'humor', but it's only funny to the random Neanderthal or poison-penned sports columnist.), But those books are well-written and engaging, and--this is the important part--about sports in the south. 

There is no quicker way to garner the attention of any SEC fan than to call them stupid. Travis knows that. He comes from SEC stock. He was a sports radio talk show host in Nashville. He's made a fortune off the backs of SEC fans. He makes a living off of what he pretends to despise. He looks down on his roots and the people who represent those roots. 

And right now, he's sitting in his office, furnished with money he made from the American sports fan, tweeting about his brilliance, seeing the posts that come up on his search engine feed, and counting his money as the click count rolls up and up and up. 

And just to make it MORE fun, by referring to last year's stupidest fan base list, he got DOUBLE the clicks because, of course, anyone who read his Kentucky-West Virginia article had to click on that post to see which schools were named. If they cruise around the site and check out other articles, he could be looking at 5-10 clicks per unique viewer. That's bank.

Clay Travis isn't a snake oil salesman. Clay Travis is the man who makes the snake oil out of toxic waste and various unidentified substances and then writes blog posts in which he blasts his own product just to create interest in it. He knows that the more people who google "snake oil", the greater the likelihood that he can peddle his poisonous wares to the unwary. 

Ever hear this old saw? "Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it." Apparently Clay Travis lives by this motto. It's made him millions of dollars, and today made him even more. The formula is simple: take a stereotype, like the ones today where he personified Kentucky or West Virginia sports fans as toothless, homophobic, uneducated bigots. Repeat said stereotype frequently from your platform. Travis has made a living stomping out that tired old generalization. For example, in July of 2014, Travis said in an interview with Nate Rau for The Tennesseean :

I take pride in ridiculing stupid people for being stupid regardless of what their beliefs are...My bigger issue is there are a lot of stupid people. And I feel like in our culture today we coddle stupidity quite a bit. And so I don't particularly care what your opinion is, but if it's a stupid opinion I think you deserve to be lit up for it.

Full transcript for the interview is here

So here's the question: who made Clay Travis the arbiter for what is stupid and what is not?

Realize, too, that in this context, Clay Travis's definition of 'stupid' is actually 'different than mine'. 

Every time we click on his site, read his articles, buy from his advertisers, buy his books, and patronize Fox Sports, we empower Clay Travis and other snake oil manufacturers to keep on twitching their poison pens. This isn't a big secret--master manipulators have been doing this crap for years, and we let them. Why? It's entertainment. It's funny to call the fans from your team's arch-rival names. We've all done it. God knows I've heard more about Michigan in the last twenty years than I thought possible. Thousands of people walk around Ohio with "Ann Arbor is a whore" t-shirt.  Sports figures egg that on, like Steve Spurrier's infamous "You can't spell Citrus (as in Citrus Bowl) without UT." Clay Travis is just that little bit smarter than Spurrier, though. Spurrier gives out those quotes for free. Travis charges us for them, one click at a time.  

It doesn't matter what Clay Travis believes. Frankly, some of what you find on his website is entertaining, and he has broken legitimately important sports stories over the years. In the end, though, what matters are Clay Travis's motives. His motives in this case are clear. 

It's the first day of Sweet Sixteen games in the NCAA basketball tournament. Kentucky is riding an unprecedented wave of success, undefeated and, if they make it through the tournament, a shot of being the greatest college basketball team of all time with 40 wins. The situation is unparalleled. There's a lot of excitement around the tourney this year as a result--more interest than usual in March Madness, which is a mainstay of American sports--and which makes a lot of money for everyone involved except the fans. So if you're a snake oil manufacturer, and you want to capitalize on the situation--if you want to get your share of the March Madness pie, what do you do? 

You insult every single person with a vested interest in the game. You belittle them. You make them feel stupid. You make them angry. And then you watch as they self-fulfill your prophecy and run off to leave comments on your blog, not knowing that every time they do they are putting money in your pocket. You make those fan bases so angry, that on the day of this huge basketball game you divert focus away from the game and onto your site. You go on sports talk shows, where you insult fans who call in because they disagree with you, knowing that every single person who expresses their outrage online about your post affects hundreds or thousands of people who didn't know about your article--and they run off to look and the clicks keep on coming. 

Snake oil. 

And the dollars he makes off this snake oil enables him to keep doing what he's doing, something he freely admits. 

Two girls get in a fight at Steeplechase, a cat fight, I think it's the best. It's awesome. The butt-chugging press conference at UT – almost all of our most popular stuff is not really technically sports. Our top-10 dumbest fan bases, millions of people read that stuff. It's entertainment and most people get it. I would equate it is running a site is a lot like on a tiny level being a movie studio. If you're going to do 'Shakespeare In Love,' what gives you the opportunity to do that is that 'Godzilla' is going to do $4 billion in revenue. It's not like 'Godzilla' is redefining what is possible with cinematic art, but it makes so much money it gives you the opportunity to do whatever you want.

But the real tell in his interview with Nate Rau can be found in this comment: 

It doesn't matter what it (content) is. If it's something I would want to read. It could be anything. We do a weekly "Bachelorette" column. I do a "Game of Thrones" review every week. It's just something I think people want to be entertained by. There's a higher quality to it hopefully. How big can it get? That's the question.

How big can it get--that's the question. Well, Travis knew the answer in advance. He was counting on it. 

Pretty damn big. 

It would be interesting to see exactly how much money Clay Travis has made just today from those click rates before he salts it away in some offshore account. Probably more than I could even imagine. But there's a benefit to today, a silver lining in the snake oil smog. Proof that some formulas for money or power still work, proof that Adolf Hitler was right when he said the maxim I quoted above. 

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.

The only way to end media manipulations like this stunt Clay Travis pulled is to hit him where it hurts. He can't be fired, since he owns his own site. He has just as much right to say what he did as I do to call it snake oil. First amendment and all that. I will steadfastly defend his right to be an asshat, because I, too, am a writer. His right. 

No, where you hit a snake oil manufacturer is his wallet. That would be his licensing with Fox Sports and his advertisers. As I said and Clay Travis gloats--he can't be fired from Outkick The Coverage because he's the boss. 

I just have to wonder, though, whether his opinions would change if he wasn't making any money off them. If, for example, people actively campaigned within the sports fandom to not patronize his site, to not patronize Fox Sports, to not purchase products from his advertisers and to publicize why that is, how long do you think Clay Travis would have the time and energy to devote to his elitist shenanigans? Because I don't think that his crusade against the stupid really needs to go much further than his own desk, his own laptop, his own behavior.  Anyone would can produce this jewel in an interview: 

It did well for a sports book. It was a regional best-seller in the south. It was a direct-to-paperback. It was a work of literary genius or anything. It sold well.

 Bolding mine. Lord help him, those Tennessee genes are starting to bring him down. As Forrest's mother used to say, "Stupid is as stupid does..."

Hope there's a cure.