How Not To Burn: Commodifying Burning Man

Some people just don’t get it. It is sad and upsetting for Burners when brands ignore our cultural expectations and try to pull marketing stunts on the playa, and worse yet when they pretend it’s not happening.  Due to diligent staffers and volunteers, we usually find and stop these marketing stunts, and protect our community, before the commodifiers make it into the city.

The scene. Photo by Peg Ortner.

But some slip through.  This year, one company tried literally to bottle up the Burning Man experience, and turned it into a product shoot. They amplified their marketing efforts by co-opting some major publications to publish articles with photographs that violate our core principles and media policies.  They knew what they were doing, but they did it anyway.   We are sharing this story in explicit detail in order to keep the community alert to these transgressions, and to deter others who are eyeing our event as a place to launch or promote products or companies.  Let us be clear: this is not the kind of marketing activity that raises brand value. Our culture just won’t tolerate it, and it often backfires. (Burners, remember this brand, and perhaps you’ll want to weigh this as you choose your next bottle of champagne.)

In this instance, Krug, a centuries-old luxury champagne house, and its publicity machine, staged and hosted an elaborate dinner party at the trash fence on Friday night of the 2011 event. Pre-event, Krug’s PR agency pitched members of the media to photograph and report on the staged dinner for publications such as Town & Country and W Magazine. They invited society bloggers to the “exclusive” champagne dinner with the expectation of getting even more coverage, and pro photogs to shoot it. And it worked.  The organizers of this event brought paid photographers to the playa and had them falsely register with Media Mecca saying they were there to cover general art and playa happenings, instead of telling the truth;  that they were there to act as representatives of Krug – obviously knowing that if they had told the truth, they would not have been allowed to photograph.   They then pulled the dinner off entirely under the radar, had the dinner covered both by their captive media and the general media, and managed to get product placement articles published.

My friends and I came across the scene of the dinner on our art car, The Slug, en route to explore the deep playa late on Friday night. We slowed down to check out the remains of what appeared to have been a fantastically fancy party staged on a long constructed dinner table, lit by large hurricane lanterns. The stained tables had empty water bottles and other party residue strewn about.  And it was right along the trash fence. What a great place for such a dinner, we marveled. But was anyone going to clean it all up? Not a soul was around.  Krug just took their commodified photos and left the mess for us.

After Burning Man, a few attendees at the dinner came forward to share their experience with this event. They told BMHQ that the organizers lured them there by saying that it was a “birthday party,” and that it took them until about halfway through the dinner to realize that they were being photographed drinking the Krug for fashion magazines.  Once they caught on, they left in disgust.

We later found evidence of who was behind this, and why.  First, the brand boasted of the event right on their Facebook page.

 

Ew. Just ew.

For the brand, this was just another fancy promotional dinner held in an exotic place. They provided cases of the champagne. Their representatives hired caterers and executed a bi-coastal PR effort to promote and obtain coverage for the event. Town & Country magazine took the bait and published a photo spread replete with product placement in the print version.

It’s hard to measure what’s worst about this situation, as the many clear boundaries that were blatantly ignored makes a pretty long list. Ironically, the reporter for Town & Country even cited the 10 Principles in his story – but if you know the 10 Principles, it’s obvious that Krug and its marketing minions cared not one iota about our values:

–       Radical inclusion-  perhaps some curious passersby were invited to join the dinner, but from the looks of it this was a VIP party held for people who are on the Krug VIP email list and participants of Zoo Camp who hosted the catering company and the “Krug Art Bus” (Yuck! A branded art car?)

–       Decommodification- It is made clear to the media that registers with Media Mecca, and indeed to every participant, that “commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising” are not welcome at Burning Man. The photographer and writer sent from Town & Country obviously knew this, which explains why they failed to mention upon registration that they had been pitched by a PR agency to cover this blatantly commercial dinner event.

–       Leaving No Trace- the original ePlaya thread on this topic was posted by a random participant wondering who was behind the big “party mess on deep playa” – the same messy scene I saw that night. That the scene of the crime was left unattended and messy shows further disregard for this practical main principle on the playa.

–       Radical Self-Reliance- These people were provided with animal costumes, shuttled from Zoo Camp in the “Krug Art Bus” to the dinner, fed, offered expensive branded champagnes and shuttled back. It’s notable that there were several Ranger interactions regarding noise complaints about this same vehicle.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not a strategic slam against “the 1%” coming out to party on the playa. In fact, it’s awesome that all 100% of us can come together at the Burn and live it up, side by side; an extreme level of beautiful decadence is constantly being created and shared at Burning Man, whether involving $150 dollar bottles of champagne or not. I support that. This isn’t a rant against an upper crust scene at the event – radical inclusion, and all.  The problem is that the Burning Man experience was co-opted by a luxury brand for marketing purposes.  And I think they deserve to be called out.

Krug, its marketing team and the PR agency they retained for this project treated Burning Man as a backdrop, throwing just another exclusive party for their brand loyalists who were personally invited to attend, in order to create marketing material commodifying Burning Man.

The attitude here is easily summed up by a direct quote from the brand director at Krug who oversaw the dinner. When interviewed by the The New York Times and asked about Burning Man, Krug’s Carl Heline says, “It’s not that different than Fashion Week.” If Burning Man is no different than Fashion Week, Carl, you’re doing it wrong.

Burning Man allows media members to publish photographs in the weeks around the event, so long as they are published only for editorial purposes.  Branded articles and product placement do not fit within that permission.  After the event, we found that W Magazine had published a photo essay of the dinner.  We approached W Magazine about this transgression, and it had the good sense to take their photo essay on the dinner down.  But not before a whole rash of fashion and foodie blogs picked up the story (now all links to it are dead). And this was the story that was retweeted by the catering company and Krug’s corporate Twitter accounts. C’mon:

Krug Champagne @KrugChampagneUS: Beautifully captured thnx2 @heartforaneye RT: @TarynCoxTheWifeThe dinner I attended at Burning Man! AMAZING!wmagazine.com/parties/2011/0…

Town & Country Magazine contacted us post-event for photo review and permission.  By that time, we had found out that this was not a real Burning Man event, but a product placement story, and we refused permission for Town & Country to publish any photographs from the event. Sadly, they sent the story to press anyway, very much in violation of the photographer’s agreement with Burning Man which prohibited any such publication.  Unfortunately, the timing was too short for us to file a lawsuit against them enjoining the publication.  That’s what BMHQ does to prevent this type of commodification.

So this tactic has made Burning Man even more alert.  Town & Country is no longer welcome at the event, for their part in this subterfuge, and for their violation of the user agreement signed by their photographer.   If Burning Man participants refuse to buy Krug champagne because of this, there will be an economic cost to them, and others who try the same shehanigans.  Thanks to Krug and its merry band of lotus-eaters, Burning Man will crack down harder on any branded cars or camps it sees.

And all of you are necessary to protect our event.  My call to action: If you see suspicious marketing activities like this going on at the event, subtle or not, every participant should feel empowered to contact a Black Rock Ranger or any organizer to report the activity for investigation. Media Mecca is also here to help follow up on these occurrences, and you can report it if you see it post-event via press here: press (at) burningman.com . The organizers work hard to keep Burning Man from turning into another commercialized, sponsored event, and we’re grateful that most participants are willing to help keep eyes out for this unwanted activity.

 

Holding the line,

Evil Pippi
Evil Pippi, aka Candace Locklear, helped form the current Burning Man media team known on playa as Media Mecca in 1997 and remains a loyal participant.

 

 

About the author: Evil Pippi

Evil Pippi, aka Candace Locklear, found out about Burning Man from her cab driver upon moving to San Francisco from South Carolina in 1996. She ended up joining the then tiny media team to help form and grow Media Mecca and now owns a boutique tech PR firm. She loves Clowns and Santas, but not equally.

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