How ‘Tiger King’ Conquers Advertising



How ‘Tiger King’ Conquers Advertising

An imposing lion’s head facade devours the entrance to the Tregembo Animal Park off of U.S. Route 421 toward Wilmington, North Carolina. I remember riding past that zoo in the car with my mom every summer as a kid, and joking, each time we drove by, how this would be the year we’d visit.

Credit: Vince Winkel, WHQR Public Radio

Since social distancing began, I’ve surely felt like a caged animal myself.

But what’s a better way to spend a stay-at-home Saturday than watching the five-hour absurdity that is Netflix‘s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a seven-part docuseries directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin.

Before you come at me

I know there’s a lot of messed up stuff in the show. Every fiber of my being told me I would hate it.

Within a few minutes, I was hooked.

The whole business of advertising depends upon grabbing and holding one’s attention, and sometimes, on unpleasant things, doesn’t it?

Regardless of how the characters misbehave, I figured there had to be some shred of wisdom tucked behind that animal-print-only closet.

Before the Walmart meat truck rolls up, here are my takeaways on how big cat contemporaries took over the world.

A killer personal brand

In The Branding of Me, we often talk about unintentional passions, or interests that result from drastic life changes. Exotic recounts his story of coming out as gay and subsequently driving off a bridge. This left him seriously injured. While incapacitated, he came into his love for cats.

Say what you will about Joe Exotic, but he knew how to finesse a personal brand. At one point, he even says about the zoo, “People don’t come for the cats, they come for me,” a statement which rings true for the show as well.

And if you don’t believe me, just watch this:

I think there’s something admirable about unapologetic acceptance of oneself. In this respect, I wish I were a little more like Exotic.

Even his most unsettling characteristics lend themselves to keeping the show interesting.

Capitalizing on conflict

The advertising bible, Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, has a section dedicated to why conflict is essential for good storytelling.

I’m pulling from literary theory here, but that’s the poet in me, so bear with it.

The big cat market feeds off two fundamental human conflicts: “man versus nature,” the way humans engage with the natural world around them; and “man versus man,” two people pitted against one another.

People love a good man versus nature conflict, think Moby Dick or Godzilla. In the show, people keeping the big cats in captivity fuels this tension.

The man versus man conflict plays out between Exotic and Carole Baskin, his Floridian big cat rival. I believe the reason Exotic despises her so much is because she reminds him of himself, an uncanny double, if you will.

Powerful positioning

The way I see it, the only real difference between Baskin’s business, Big Cat Rescue, and Exotic’s, is positioning. Baskin describes her park as a safe place for animals to stay until they die, but she still keeps lions and tigers trapped in cages, just like he does.

Credit: Netflix

The perception of Exotic’s zoo is shrouded in more distaste, because he’s engaged in much riskier endeavors than she, even bringing the animals onstage as part of a touring magic show.

Credit: Joe Exotic

Despite both companies being equally unsavory at their basic levels, Big Cat Rescue manages to transform its image from that of a private zoo into an animal “sanctuary.”

Carole’s content

Baskin achieves this desired perception through Big Cat Rescue’s content, primarily on social media. The zoo’s Facebook account, alone, has 2,673,055 followers.

Baskin posts daily livestreams from her bike ride to work, beginning all of them with a shrill, yet endearing, “Hey all you cool cats and kittens.”

If you’re wondering whether or not she’s taken advantage of TikTok, she has.

Even Exotic commends Baskin’s exceptional use of social media.

“She’s a master marketer,” he remarks. Though his content is not unpopular either, with 141,848 followers on Facebook. He attributes its success to novelty, saying “no one gets this content unless it comes from us.”

With an indigestible media glut available, posting about your pack of tigers is a good way to stand out.

Word of (tiger’s) mouth

I was compelled to watch this show because I could not escape seeing it on my timeline, illustrating, once again, that the best advertising you can get is word of mouth. And, if you have an original enough product, or can craft an outrageous enough story, you’ll be successful.


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