The uproar over “Duck Dynasty” should be studied forever in the business schools as a priceless teaching exercise in marketing quackery. Television executives are so highly paid because they’re supposed to be so smart. Rarely have so many smart guys been so out to lunch.
The noisy row over the A&E cable network suspending Phil Robertson, the head duck, was mostly not about free speech — the network had a right to suspend him, depending on what was in the contract — but about how low the network wanted to kowtow to the lavender lobby, disrespect for religious belief, and whether it wanted to put at risk its No. 1 show. This is where the A&E suits made their incredible miscalculation, based on gross ignorance of who and what they were dealing with. An office boy would have known better.
“A&E,” says Lisa de Moraes, the influential television critic for the Deadline/Hollywood website, “has been dazedly dog-paddling since the interview [in GQ magazine] and its hit show suddenly stopped quacking like all those other homespun reality series on TV and began Bible-thumping like the religious parable [the controversy] actually is.”
The network was asking for trouble because no one at the office knows anything about Christians, evangelical and otherwise, or the people they thought they were doing business with. The network was accustomed to dealing with people willing if not eager to slice a little off this point of view, cut a little off principle there, keep quiet about this belief and surrender a little bit of control there, take the money and run to the bank with it. The executives at A&E had never run across anyone like Phil Robertson or his family, the personification of the people Hank Williams Jr. sang about in his country classic “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
“You can’t stomp us out, and you can’t make us run/’Cause we’re them good ol’ boys raised on the gun/We say grace, and we say ma’am/And if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.”
“Duck Dynasty” and the hunting constituency that made the Robertsons rich — $400 million and counting — were in fact a people apart, if the network had wanted to find out who they were. They’re largely Scots-Irish, that oft-overlooked segment of the American ethnic mix who arrived early and challenged the progeny of the English aristocrats, the proper Bostonians and the Virginia cavaliers, to cast the prevailing American character.
The Scots-Irish, more Scots than Irish and who took their name from their exile in Ireland, were exiled again to America and brought their populist instincts and fierce Calvinism with them. Jim Webb, the decorated Marine hero, novelist and former U.S. senator from Virginia, describes well his own ancestors and the prevailing culture in northern Louisiana and the South in his book “Born Fighting.”
“These are intensely religious people,” writes Mr. Webb. “Indeed they comprise the very heart of the Christian evangelical movement — and yet they are unapologetically and even devilishly hedonistic. They are probably the most anti-authoritarian culture in America, conditioned from birth to resist any pressure from above, and yet they are known as the most intensely patriotic segment of the country as well. They are naturally rebellious, often impossible to control, and yet their strong military tradition produces generation after generation of perhaps the finest soldiers the world has ever seen. They are filled with wanderlust and are ethnically assimilative, but their love of their own heritage can move them to tears when they hear the bagpipes play, and no matter how far they roam, their passion for family travels with them.”
The executives at A&E could have known this if they were at least as interested in their talent as in the simpering drivel of the professional whiners of GLAAD, GBLTQ and other pressure groups. Now A&E is said to be looking for a way to climb down from the gay hobby horse. Phil Robertson and his duck family are not likely to give an inch because, by their lights, they cannot. Threats of suspension or firing, empty though the threats no doubt are, invite only an ever more stubborn defense of the way they are and what they believe. Threats and intimidation do not move them.
This could be the ultimate teaching moment for the business professors. Marketing has its limits, particularly when the marketing men are dumb and clueless. A country storekeeper, who can’t imagine going to college to learn how to sell tea, turnips or long-handled underwear, could teach them the first and fundamental rule of selling: “You’ve got to know the territory.”