About Me

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I am a consultant and general counsel to International Ride Training LLC as well as a practicing attorney in Avon, Connecticut. A particular focus of mine is the legal needs of the amusement and tourism industry. My focus on the amusement industry derives from my pre-law career as an operations manager with Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Universal Orlando. Having started my career as a ride operator at Cedar Point in 1992, I progressed through the seasonal ranks and ultimately became the Manager of Ride Operations and Park Services at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I also worked in Universal's operations department during the construction and development of Islands of Adventure. Today, I am an active member of the New England Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions and the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. I have been invited to speak at amusement industry meetings and seminars and have worked on a variety of matters relating to this industry.

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Monday, April 22, 2019

Is The Industry Overreacting to AT&T’s Carnival Commercial?

Recently, an AT&T commercial has caused quite a stir in the amusement industry.  The commercial, which I’ve embedded below, depicts a carnival operator loading guests into a scrambler-type ride.  The guest’s ask the operator whether the ride is safe and what will happen if something “bad” happens during the ride.  The operator’s answers –  “I assembled it myself last night … think I did an OK job,” and “We just move to the next town,” indicate an obviously apathetic attitude toward guest safety.  The tag line for this commercial – “just OK is not OK” – is given as the guest’s let themselves out of the ride.  This commercial is the latest in a string of ads for AT&T that poke fun at a number of industries and professions – doctors, car mechanics, tattoo artists – all to drive home the point that consumers should expect better than just “OK” and, of course, AT&T provides just that “better than OK” experience for its customers.  Check it out for yourself:



This ad has really rankled a large segment of the amusement industry.  Both the Outdoor Amusement Business Association and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions have issued formal letters to AT&T protesting the ad's depiction of amusement ride safety and demanding the discontinuance of this commercial.  At least one carnival owner has posted a video protesting the commercial.  The tenor of these, and other, objections essentially boils down to the fact that the commercial portrays a carnival ride operator in ways that do not accurately represent safety in our industry.

On the other hand, there are those in the industry who argue that expressed outrage is misplaced. These folks argue that the commercial is obviously satirical, just like the similar ads targeting other professions, and that we, as an industry, should be able to take the joke.  Matt Heller and Josh Liebman even devoted an entire episode of their AttractionPros podcast to a detailed discussion of this issue after which, SPOILER ALERT, they both concluded that the commercial should not be pulled from the airwaves.  

So who is right?  Is the industry’s outrage over this commercial justified or are we being too sensitive about an obvious attempt at advertising humor?   I’ve really been thinking this over and, while I don’t think we should necessarily demand that the ad be withdrawn entirely, I do think that this ad is qualitatively different than the ads that came before it in a way that AT&T should consider as it rolls out additional spots in this ad campaign.

At the outset, I think it is worth noting what is actually GOOD about this ad.  The overall message, that “just OK is not OK" when it comes to ride safety should be viewed as a positive.  In fact, by total coincidence, a few weeks before this ad debuted, I actually used the AT&T car mechanic “just OK is not OK” commercial to kick off a class I was teaching at the iROC Ride Camp.  The point of the class was that ride operators certified under the International Ride Operator Certification program cannot be “just OK.”  And, to that extent, I think the message of the AT&T carnival commercial – and its predecessors – is spot on.

But there is a difference between this ad and the others that came before it.  Prior ads focused on professions about which the stereotype, to the extent there is one, is generally positive or, at least, neutral. Doctors are well trained and instill confidence.  A car mechanic actually knows how to fix brakes well.  Tattoo artists are just that – artists – who take pride in their creative expression.  The portrayal of a doctor proclaiming his uncertainty about performing surgery right after being reinstated, or a car mechanic who espouses the saying “If the brakes don’t stop you, something will,” or the tattoo artist who openly recognizes his mediocre skill, thus works against the public stereotype of these professions.  The humor comes from the fact that the person featured in the ad is the polar opposite of what anyone generally expects to encounter in those scenarios.  The contrast between the positive stereotype and the obviously substandard individual portrayed in the commercial drives home the point that, as consumers, we cannot accept “just OK.”  

But the AT&T carnival commercial is different because rather than contrasting a substandard example against a positive societal stereotype, the commercial feeds into a negative stereotype and furthers it. I’ve written, years ago, about the stereotype that our industry is full of “carnies” that are “toothless, uneducated, and frequently intoxicated ‘rednecks’ who have no concern for the safety of our guests.”  This stereotype is particularly strong when it comes to mobile operators.  Notwithstanding the fact that the mobile operators I know are uniformly dedicated to guest safety just as much as their fixed-site counterparts, the public stereotype is that these rides are not as safe and their operators are not as attentive. This commercial thus establishes its message not by contrasting reality with a ridiculous example of the opposite, but by capitalizing on an existing negative stereotype that our industry has worked hard, for decades, to overcome.  The message is not, “most doctors are of a very high caliber and thus you would never accept this example of a substandard doctor.”  Instead, it is, “this is what carnival ride operators are and you should demand better.”  That is what distinguishes the AT&T carnival commercial from its predecessors and that is why, to an extent, the industry has a legitimate gripe about the message this commercial sends.  

Even still, I have to agree with Matt and Josh (and others) that I don’t think the ad should be discontinued.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, I tend to think that the distinction I’m making here, while true, is one that is missed by the vast majority of the viewing public.  Most people will see this commercial as just another “Just OK is not OK” commercial without any positive or negative consideration of stereotype being reinforced.  Some may even see the positive message discussed above – that ride safety is serious business and no one would ever accept this kind of apathy toward it.  Second, I think that too much public protestation over this ad risks the industry appearing defensive about ride safety when we have no basis for such defensiveness.  As we all know, the industry is extraordinarily safe largely because of, not in spite of, the operators we employ.  The vast majority of our operators are responsible, well-trained, attentive, and truly care about our guest’s experience.  The numbers prove it.  The more we vociferously demand the removal of this ad, the more we risk unintentionally sending a message that it might have hit too close to home.  This is not to say that IAAPA or OABA should not have protested – they absolutely should have come to the defense of their members.  That is precisely why trade associations exist.  I just think continued protestations, beyond what is already out there, might actually undermine our message - a message we have every right to be extremely proud of.   

3 comments:

  1. The out door amusement industry already has a bad rep and many men and woman have strived to change this but this commercial has made our work far harder than necessary especially as we deal with people and have no rights as workers to defend ourselves from attacks made by the public. Persobally im all for knocking out a mouthy prick but im forced to hold my tongue as i hear more and more slurs due to these bullshit commercials. So thanks for your input but the industry doesnt need any more fun poked at it as we are under enough pressure due to a generation that is no longer even alive.

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