Op-Ed: Is the Feud Between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen a Calculated Marketing Maneuver? Author Perry Perkins Weighs In

March 7, 2012

It's no secret that Paula Deen's diabetes diagnosis, its PR aftermath and especially the ongoing feud it fueled between she and Anthony Bourdain have divided Foodista readers. Some feel that Bourdain and the blogosphere are vilifying Deen and that we should be responsible for our own choices. Others side with Bourdain, arguing that Deen should have shared her diagnosis and scaled back her high-fat recipes in the three years between her diagnosis and public announcement.

Author Perry Perkins has an alternate perspective, one he shared in a comment on last week's post and in two separate posts on his blog: the whole feud was manufactured, or at least egged on, to drum up buzz for Bourdain and the Travel Channel.

"This isn't really about Bourdain vs. Deen, it's about Travel Channel vs. Food Network," he wrote. As Perkins has a substantial marketing background, my curiosity was piqued, and I contacted him to learn more. Read on for excerpts from our email exchange. 

MB: You hypothesize that the feud between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen is not authentic, and that it's a ploy for ratings. In your expert opinion, why do you think this is so?

PP: First and foremost, it's just too convenient. There are plenty of other (and less potentially volatile) targets for Tony's angst, people whom he would consider serious threats to the noble pirate-ship of professional chefs. His follow-up to Kitchen Confidential(the book that launched him into the public eye), "Medium Raw," is basically a who's-who of food and restaurant professionals who have earned his scorn over the years. He's made his (somewhat hypocritical) judgment and dismissal of food television "personalities" clear, and Paula Deen shouldn't even be a blip on his radar.

The second reason is that, in our litigious-crazed society, there is some lawyer, somewhere, who would be able to spin a "defamation of character and fiscal injury" claim by now on Paula's behalf… Tony would know this, as would his agent.

Lastly, I believe that this whole Hatfield & McCoy show was at least approved of, and more likely orchestrated (cue Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer") by someone high above Bourdain's pay grade. [If so], one of those "someones" would have tugged on his leash by now. Especially given the fact that Food Network and Travel Channel are both majority-owned by Scripps Networks Interactive (HGTV, The Cooking Channel and DIY Network also share that particular featherbed). What possible value, other than a ratings round-up, would SNI have for allowing two of their best-known personalities to continue snipping at each other?

Answer: none.

To quote another iconic company-man, "It's not personal…it's just business."

MB: Why might the channels' marketing departments want to enable/fuel such a feud?

PP: Money. That's a marketing department's only reason for doing anything (I should know, I spent 10 years in a marketing-department cubicle). There is one god, and one god only: ROI, and in this particular venue, money means ratings. Let's take a look at the situation from the two separate viewpoints:

Channel X has Snarky Badboy, the world-weary, tough-as-nails, embittered anti-hero of the 99 percent. Problem is, Snarky's popularity may be waning -- if not now, then in the next season or two. There are whispers among the underground faithful that the swaggering antiestablishmentist is starting to sell out to The Man. Plus, sending him and his film crew all over the world is expensive (the bar bill alone must be staggering) and, let's face it, we're running out of high-profile locations. (Note that even Zimmern is hangin' out in the States this year.)

What can Channel X do to kick some new life into this old dog?

Now Channel Y has an equally troubling dilemma. It's dealing with the breaking of "Buttergate." Its golden girl, Sweet Southern Mama -- who is pretty much the antithesis of ol' Snarky and the surrogate grandma for millions of hungry viewers, on whom she has lavished love, affection and buttery comfort foods -- has, unfortunately, a skeleton in her pantry. After ladling fat and sugar to her loyal followers for years, she's about to reveal that she's diabetic, and has been for some time. While those viewers with any sense of personal responsibility are going to be nonplussed by this revelation, a large contingent of finger-pointers are likely to be storming the gates with pitchforks and torches, soon.

So Channel Y has a couple of options: Either wash their hands of Sweet Southern Mama's insulin-poor blood, or find some way to drum up a groundswell of sympathy that will drown out -- or even better, demonize -- the voices of her detractors.

But wait: In a Lucas-esque twist, both Channel X and Channel Y actually have the same father, Conglomerate Z, at which a couple of marketing wonks have sat down over bad coffee and stale donuts and come up with a plan. What if we could whip Badboy's fellow snarkies into a blood-in-the-water feeding-frenzy, and enrage Southern Mama's loyal grandbabies into a roaring defense, all with a few well-aimed barbs from one to the other? The old fat-and-sugar horse had been ridden pretty hard, but there's a fresh mare in the barn: the diabetic angle.

Now we're not just pickin' on everyone's favorite grandma, we're pickin' on everyone's favorite sick grandma. The media will come uncorked!

So we whisper a few suggestions in Badboy's ear, maybe even slip him a script or two, just before he appears somewhere nice and public, like our own gustatory cash-cow: the food, wine and paparazzi festival. We forewarn Southern Mama, so she can look appropriately downtrodden, without unleashing the legal Dobermans that protect her food empire, and we then sit back and watch the camps divide, and the ratings soar, and we all get our Christmas bonus.

That's a successful marketing campaign that didn't cost us a penny more than we're already spending, right there.

MB: Do companies/brands/celebrities manufacture feuds? What goes on behind closed doors while these plots are being hatched? (e.g. "Publicist of Celebrity X, tell him to go after Celebrity Y in his upcoming interview.")

As far as what's being talked about behind closed doors, I'd guess that the two biggest questions are: "How far can we go without being too obvious?" and "How can we keep from getting caught?"

PP: While this is my own speculation, of course, I would say, absolutely, that companies/brands/celebrities manufacture feuds, and mainstream media even more so. Controversy sells, no question about it, and the more outrageous the controversy, the more money is at stake. What would our beloved reality shows be without a little sub-plot infighting? How would National Enquirer maintain a circulation of just 2.7 million? Heck, you can't even run an interesting political campaign in this country without a little creative mud-slinging!

We all want to cheer for either the Christians or the Lions, depending on where in the coliseum we're sitting, and marketers know this. They're paid to know this. And our public figures know, to an extent, there's truth in the old adage "no publicity is bad publicity," and either play along or even outright collude. To what extent, if any, Tony and Paula are directing their own spectacle, I have no idea (nor am I going to speculate, without my own legal Dobermans), but there's certainly some food for thought.

And, let's face it: Much like those ancient Romans, we want to be entertained, we want our bread and circuses, we want to be outraged, and so we don't peek too hard to see if there's a man behind the curtain.

Ed. note: Thanks for your insight, Perry! Readers, where do you stand on the issue?

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Kay's picture

Frankly- I think Bourdain is capable of about anything, so I share Mr. Perkins skepticism.

dan mcm's picture

I can't imagine networks creating controversy to draw viewers.... NOT!

Now, if this were a Chuck Barris production, I'd know for sure that we were being had.....