As the year 2017 was winding down, the host of a TV hunting show posted pictures of himself with a cougar he hunted and shot in Alberta. Hang on; here we go again. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…kaboom. Another social media hunting fiasco erupts. The pictures of the TV host with his cougar went viral. By early January 2018, the story was being picked up and amplified across North America with the all too familiar slant; “trophy hunters are psychotic killers.” The social media coverage elicited the predictable suite of toxic comments and death threats which were mostly levied against the TV host but once again felt by every hunter in North America.
We have seen this “hunter kills animal – promotes self on social media – public goes ape shit on all hunters” story over and over and over. In this post Cecil-the-Lion era, I can’t help but ask, “What did the TV host expect was going to happen?” We heard the standard rebuttals. It was a legal hunt, cougar populations need to be controlled, and hunting is a management tool. Shockingly, none of these responses pacified angry followers on social media. The TV personalty is likely contractually obligated to his sponsors to post pictures after every hunt. As a result of this fiasco, there is major anti-hunting campaign to stop cougar trophy hunting in Alberta now. Geesh, poor Alberta. I don’t think they have even gotten the “No hunting bears with spears” law enacted, and now they have to deal with figuring out what to do with trophy hunters hunting cougars to make stir fry.
The frequency of these hunting social media fiascos is too predictable as are the reactions on both sides of the fence. If the impact of hunter’s promoting themselves on social media is driving North American hunters and our hunting heritage into the ground, why does it continue to happen?
Once Upon a Time
In the “olden days,” hunters would return home after a successful hunt with their deer or moose tied to the hood or roof of their cars. Hunters in that era would drive through town, and everyone in the community would see who got what during hunting season. This ritual was a reenactment of how ancient hunters would return to their camps with their game. A successful hunt meant the people in the camp would not starve to death. A successful hunt was a time for everyone to celebrate. The hunters were celebrated, the animal was celebrated and people were thankful for the gift of wild protein. Modern hunters who returned home with their animal tied to the outside of their cars did it as a matter of necessity because most folks back in those days never owned trucks. But they also did it because it represented one of the last social rituals of hunting that harken back to the ways of our early hunter ancestors.
But times changed. People changed. Communities changed. Society changed. More and more people in communities were becoming upset with seeing dead animals tied to vehicles. Rather than give society the proverbial finger or revert to calling their neighbours “libtards” or “snowflakes,” hunters in the old days did the honourable thing. They changed and began to transport their animals home in less flamboyant ways. Hunters changed not out of shame for being a hunter. They changed out of respect for others in their community who were bothered by the sight of a dead animal or who saw this way of transporting a dead wild animal as disrespectful and indignant. Hunters of the older generation honoured the institution of hunting more than their egos. Being respectful, humble and honourable folk, they made a collective choice to behave differently in light of the community around them that was changing.
Unfortunately, we have come full circle complete with a few modernization updates. The hood of a car has been replaced by social media, and the onlookers are not a just few hundred people in town but a global community of millions. Some hunters today have not honoured the traditions established by our forefathers. Hunters are not using social media to transport their game home. Social media is not a necessity to bring home the meat. Some hunters today don’t limit their use of social media to just close friends and family. As in many other areas of society today, social media use in hunting is far too often used as a means to promote a personal brand or simply provoke a reaction from other people. I can’t even blame millennials on this one because the obsession of hunters promoting themselves on social media includes more generations than just the millennials. As much as hunters claim that we are different than the rest of society, that we are more down to earth, more time honoured, more traditional and more grounded, some hunters sure like this shiny thing society calls social media. There is so much more to hunting than a grip-n-grin photo or a hunting video. Hunters are losing control of the hunting narrative, and the way social media is being used is contributing to our demise.
Beauty and the Beast
For today’s hunter conservationists, the deeper meaning of hunting comes from the activities, traditions and rituals of the hunt. In his book Meditations on Hunting written in 1942, Spanish philosopher and hunter Josè Ortega y Gasset said, “Hunting is hard work that requires effort and skill yet it is not essential that the hunt always be successful for it to have taken place.” Hunters have returned to the woods generation after generation to pursue their own personal traditions and rituals. Hunting is natural, organic and deeply personal. This is the beauty of hunting.
When I was young, hunting magazines, books and actually going outdoors were the main stay of hunting entertainment. It was a simpler time and those employed in the hunting industry at the time were mostly writers. There were the “how-to-where-to” articles and the escapism adventure stories. Through time spent reading, hunters improved and expanded their skills by learning from the writers. A hunter who made his/her living from hunting did so because he/she was well educated on a subject and a great story teller. Some writers could take you on a hunting adventure using only their words. They could paint a vivid picture of the “hunt” that we could all identify with. We didn’t need to see their game animals being shot, we didn’t need to see logos and brand names stenciled across their hunting gear, and we didn’t need to see blood to experience the true meaning of the hunt. It was a time when hunters had control of the hunting narrative. Storytelling was king.
Enter the Beast – American Capitalism
Americans are and have always been in the forefront of wildlife conservation in North America. Canada has always followed their lead albeit far too often we are decades behind the times. The great conservationists, philosophers, wildlife science thinkers and political leaders who made a difference for wildlife in the 19th and 20th centuries were dominated by Americans who cared deeply about wildlife and wild places. Wildlife conservation movements always tended to start in the United States, and when Americans did something, they did it big. That included over exploitation as well as recovering wildlife populations, using science for wildlife management, and funding conservation. The United States of America is the leader in wildlife management in North America.
On the flip side, I’ve always joked that if you can put an engine on it and race it, make a TV show about it or turn a hobby or pastime into a billionaire dollar industry, Americans will be the first to do it. Somewhere along the way American business folk saw a big opportunity with the hunter’s affinity for “stuff,” and there was an explosion in the hunting industry. Today the North American hunting industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. The top U.S. hunting retail giants have annual gross revenues that are more than what some countries generate from their entire economies. The hunting industry is a collective term, and it is more than just the retail hunting gear and clothing sectors. It includes guide-outfitting, books, podcasts, magazines, public speakers, education and training programs, game farming, hunting-conservation organizations and, of course, entertainment.
The rise of hunting TV shows is a more recent phenomenon in the hunting industry. It’s only been in the last few decades that hunting moved into our living rooms and the number of shows and their popularity skyrocketed. Hunting shows quickly made the leap from cable network TV to the internet where the freedom to show anything is pretty much untethered. Hunter’s gobbled it up, and the pay-for-view hunting shows support a massive entertainment industry. I’ve wondered why this was even possible. If hunters are the segment of society most closely in tune with and connected to nature, why are they spending so much time glued to the computer and TV? It’s simple. We are human. We are not immune to being manipulated by sophisticated marketing techniques any more or any less than any other consumer. Hunting is a commodity.
The bottom line is that the hunting industry is about making profits. Money from hunters is as green as the money that every other consumer spends. The people that run the hunting industry are first and foremost business people. Business is about making a return on investment, differentiating the market, increasing market share, generating shareholder returns, and making a profit. The hunting industry may differ from a lot of other sectors because it does help to pay for conservation. Excise taxes paid for by the manufactures of firearms, ammunition, boating and fishing gear generate about $1 billion a year for conservation. The only problem with this part of the hunting industry is that it has nothing to do with conservation in Canada. These conservation excise taxes constructed under the user-pay benefit model only exist in the U.S. It’s mostly fish and wildlife in the U.S. that benefit from hunter’s investing in the billion dollar hunting industry. Most of the bucks from Canadian hunting retail sales will find their way back to the pockets of American business people.
The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Marketing is an entire discipline within business that people are specially trained and educated in. Marketing is about understanding how the consumer thinks and how they can be encouraged to spend more money. Marketing professionals study everything from how the human brain works to how the average person goes about their day-to-day living. Marketing puts products in front of consumers that need it; however, marketing is often used to manipulate the consumer into believing they need to buy more stuff.
One of the strategies that marketing campaigns use to push a manufacturer’s product is to use a real person that consumers can fall in love with. Product ambassador, spokesperson, poster child or model. They all mean the same thing; a likeable and believable person who convinces you that you need the product they are endorsing. For some models the product and company has to be something they believe in and actually use before they are willing to personally stand behind it. For other models, product endorsement is means to an end. It’s a job and it pays the bills.
In the hunting industry, they don’t call these people models. They are sponsored hunters, professional hunters, pro staffers or, my personal favorite, hunter athletes. Hunting TV shows are most often where the “pros” are seen by the hunter-consumer. The most typical way that marketers use this strategy is first to make the pros appear like they are just one of us. Next, it is to make them live these amazing extraordinary lives hunting 12 months of the year. Isn’t that the dream of every hunter? Quit your job and get paid to hunt. The pros are made to appear to be living your dream; a dream that you cannot realize so instead you are compelled to live your fantasy vicariously through them. Living vicariously through these TV pro hunters is meant to lead you down the path to buy stuff from their sponsors. It’s not a marketing strategy that is unique to just the hunting industry, but it is a strategy that is highly effective none the less.
Branded hunting gear and clothing nowadays is starting to make us all look more and more like NASCAR drivers. At minimum, it makes us all look like conformists and behave the way the industry wants us to. Far too many hunters have aligned themselves with a corporate brand instead of the institution of hunting, conservation or fair chase. Hunting retail companies commonly have their sponsored hunters hosting their own TV shows as a way to market products and a brand. For most of these paid pro hunters, they need to build a social media following and promote their personal brand and their sponsor’s products. Posting grip-n-grins from their sponsored hunts is one way they do this. This is where the hunter-consumer vicariously lives the dream. But this is also where we are most easily manipulated. Do you ever read what the average hunter posts on many of these sponsored hunter’s social media sites? “Great buck,” “Congrats, way to go,” “What make and caliber is your rifle,” “What brand of binos did you use,” “Where can I buy one of those packs,” “You are so lucky,” “Please take me on a hunt with you,” “I wish I were you.” It’s sad really. Maybe more like pathetic.
On a MeatEater podcast last year, guest speaker Greg Blascovich, a researcher in the United States with a PhD in political communication and President of the Keep it Public campaign, shared the results of a research study he completed on non-hunters reactions to hunters’ arguments. Blascovich’s study looked at how non-hunters attitudes towards hunting changed by accessing their reactions to 5 common arguments hunters use to justify hunting. The study assessed whether non-hunters attitudes toward hunting became more positive or remained unchanged depending on the particular argument provided to them. An interesting aspect of this study was that Blascovich found that the arguments:
- hunting needs to continue because it’s a tradition, and
- hunting is needed to control animal populations,
did not resonate with non-hunters who participated in the study, but they resonated very strongly with hunters. In fact they resonate so strongly with hunters that Blacovitch indicated that the hunting industry specifically uses these themes when it promotes products and brands to hunters.
The institution of hunting, the time-honoured traditions of our hunting heritage, and the unique and personal connections we each have with hunting has been commodified. In a reversal of the laws of nature, hunters are now the prey in the postmodern capitalist society.
Hunting TV – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I’ve been railing on some bad stuff, but don’t get me wrong; the hunting industry does have its good aspects. For decades the hunting industry and its outputs (magazines, etc) have been the forums where hunters learned new things and have simply been entertained. Nothing wrong with that. Teaching hunters new ways to improve their skills, challenging paradigms and educating each other about the challenges facing wildlife conservation are aspects of the hunting industry that are worth preserving and promoting to wider audiences. Social media and TV are just the newest communication tools being used. Social media and TV are actually one of the most efficient and effective communications tools if used constructively by hunters and the industry.
I can’t argue that the new products that the hunting industry has created and improved upon are not worth their weight in gold. At 50+ years of age, the new, lighter clothing, footwear and packs are examples of products that I appreciate immensely. Benefiting from this technology was only been made possible because the hunting industry has become large enough that manufacturers can invest in extensive R&D for their products.
The most important aspect of a growing hunting industry may be the increasing contribution hunting makes to the overall economy. The fact that hunting supports so many jobs in North America and that a handful of hunters can make a living from promoting products or themselves or by inspiring hunters to stay involved in hunting or to get involved in conservation is important if hunting is to persist in today’s society. While the average hunter is mostly concerned about protecting his/her way of life, the dollars hunters spend on their pursuits does legitimize hunting to politicians and economists who will ultimately decide the fate of hunting. Sadly, things in this world today that have economic value rather than intrinsic value are the ones law makers tend to value and protect the most. The challenge in Canada is to increase the economic value of hunting and catch up to the U.S. in terms of using those dollars to fund conservation and support more jobs.
I think some hunters and TV hunting show hosts must feel that TV and social media somehow legitimizes hunting or that hunting will be relevant to or accepted by society because it’s in main stream media. The hunting industry and its constant sophisticated targeted marketing strategies, or lack thereof, have created a type of pornography in hunting. Consequently, this has also created its fair share of associated addictions, wants, desires and humongous egos in the hunting community which has led to actions and behaviors unacceptable to society.
One of the consequences of hunting TV shows is that non-hunters can watch too. Some will argue that if you don’t like it, no one is making you watch. That’s not the point. The worst thing a hunter can do is to turn a non-hunter into an anti-hunter. Frankly, some of the TV celebrities and hunting shows do a pretty good job at arming anti-hunters’ campaigns. I can’t really blame non-hunters for getting the wrong impression of hunters if their opinions of hunting are formed just by watching a couple of hunting TV shows. Not many of us travel the world and shoot baboons and ant eaters or promote that we hunt so we can feed the local villagers on other continents all while capturing our hunt on film with a professional production and film crew.
Hunting shows and pro hunters using social media might also be creating unrealistic expectations for the average everyday hunter. Like pornography, humans can be conditioned through visual media to the point where the line between reality and fantasy becomes too blurred to know how to act appropriately or what to expect in the real world. The fact that so many hunting shows show a successful hunt in 22 minutes, show after show and week after week is simply not real. For so many new hunters who have not grown up in hunting families, I feel they might be getting a distorted perception of what is supposed to be happening when they go hunting. I feel too many hunters might have unrealistic expectations because of what they see on TV. Either they expect to see more game than really exists on a given unit of land or they imagine that hunting should be easier. They get frustrated when the real world doesn’t fit what they see on TV. The danger in all of this occurs when this gap between reality and fantasy causes new hunters to give up hunting.
Killing is part of hunting; that’s a fact. But TV’s infatuation with sensationalizing killing has pushed hunting TV into a realm that is simply not rooted in what hunting means to most of us. TV producers and hunting show hosts’ obsession with getting the “kill shot” on film has got to be the most detrimental part of TV hunting shows that is undermining the hunting narrative. Sadly though, this is also what sells.
Last year, hunters across North America got another black eye when a TV hunting host was convicted of poaching in order to make his TV show for a network. We all got painted with that brush. I still can’t believe that in this day and age, the hunting industry endorses old white-haired men hosting these reality TV huntress competition shows. Is it just me or is there something really wrong with this idea? Is this the message we need to be sending to our daughters let alone the general non-hunting public? What next? The Hunting Wives of Dallas? Come on producers; it’s 2018!
The hunting TV world has grown immensely. TV personalities are often even referred to now as “hunting celebrities.” They have fans; fans who want autographs and selfies at event appearances. I see some of these celebrities with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, yet the young wildlife scientists and biologists on social media who are driving the leading edge of wildlife and habitat conservation are lucky to have a few hundred followers of which only a few are hunters. In their desire to promote themselves and their brands, these hunter TV celebrities have even created Hollywood-style award ceremonies for their TV shows. I wonder how that must look from the perspective of a non-hunter. I think I’m in the same camp as comedian Jerry Seinfeld on this one.
By far the most detrimental aspect of this self-promotion culture we see in the pro hunters on social media is the monkey-see monkey-do phenomena. While a few of these professionally produced hunting shows are made by people that know what they are doing, when it comes to telling a story using film media, the hype and advancement in personal technology has spawned a generation of amateur hunting film makers. It’s great that hunters can capture their hunts on film for their own lasting memories. But the ones that feel they should share their [poorly] edited films and photos with the world may be the biggest hammer driving nails in the coffin of the North American Hunting Heritage. There is more than one type of home made film that should just stay in the privacy of the home, and amateur hunting films certainly qualify.
The Power of the Consumer
In Canadian conservationist Shane Mahoney’s Keynote Address at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s 2017 National Convention, he said,
“We have given them [the public] enough fodder in our television shows that we think of them [wild animals] as targets. So maybe after 25 years of that experiment we ought to start telling them [the public] we love them [wild animals]. Because deep down everyone does. We [hunters] have something in common with society.”
Is the current way hunting TV shows and these pro sponsored hunters are portraying hunting and hunters the best way to show society we care and that we really do have something in common with them? Do we have control of our own future when the hunting industry is the one telling our story on TV and social media? Is capturing the kill shot really what hunters need in order to keep society’s support for hunting?
The way the hunting industry represents hunting and hunters in North America persists because of one reason. Hunters allow it to. If you want to change how hunting is portrayed on TV or in social media, the power to change is in your, the consumer’s, control. If you don’t like what you see on hunting TV shows, write the producer and write the network. If you don’t like the articles, photos or advertisements in magazines, write the editors. If you don’t like a pro hunter’s social media style, write them and tell them to ratchet it down. Ultimately the companies whose brands you choose not to purchase will speak the loudest. If you don’t like how your peers are representing the institution of hunting, then tell them they need to reel it in. If you see hunters getting bullied on social media for standing up for the image of hunting, then support them. If you are okay with hunters hammering nails into our collective coffin, then there is no need to get off the couch.
Many hunter folk find it difficult to put their feelings into words when they want to react to something on social media. Far too often when a hunter does challenge or speak out against the status quo with a different perspective, other hunters simply attack him or her. This type of bullying, I suspect, is keeping many hunters from getting involved in the discussion. So I’ve created these two graphics you can copy and paste to your desktop. Use them when you can’t figure out what to say but want to send a message to your fellow hunters who are using social media. They are simple, honest and to the point. That’s good social media marketing.