Reshaping the Media Landscape

Increasingly, brands are using their marketing dollars to speak to the issues and causes that matter to us—and the potential positive impacts are enormous.

Photo by Stept Studios

By Max Owens

Max is a writer, filmmaker/photographer, and 2019 ROAM Awards Essay Winner

Speaking to the camera, Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International cautions, “This is a really difficult video to watch.” On-screen, the video cuts to footage of an emaciated mother polar bear and her two cubs. With the camera capturing every heartbreaking moment, one of those cubs begins convulsing: It is literally starving to death. In another scene, a mother bear carries off the carcass of one of her offspring, which had been killed and eaten by starving male bears.

Bare Existence, a recent documentary from Stept Studios and director Max Lowe, follows scientists from nonprofit Polar Bears International (PBI) in order to get an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground in northern Manitoba with regard to the threats that polar bears face as the climate changes. The hard-hitting and hard-to-watch visuals underscore a harsh reality. It’s one thing to understand that warmer temperatures means that sea ice melts earlier, making it more challenging for polar bears to hunt; It’s another to see, on a visceral level, the direct results of those changes.

In other words, Bare Existence takes the abstract and makes it concrete, with zero sugarcoating of the truth. That may not seem particularly notable, until one considers that the film is a branded documentary: It was made possible with the financial backing of luxury apparel maker Canada Goose (they make really nice and warm winter jackets). And from a brand’s perspective, it’s much easier to avoid content that’s sensitive, or controversial. The result is that the lion’s share of marketing media sticks to easy, feel-good content.

Lindsey Hagen, the executive producer of the doc, shed some light on the film’s brand partnership: “Canada Goose understood the importance of keeping these scenes in the film, she said, “And they chose not to sugarcoat the truth and took on a topic that demanded transparency, even if it would be hard to watch for the general consumer.”

Lindsey Hagen, executive producer at Stept Studios, specializes in cause-related storytelling. Says Lindsey, “Shared experiences and our ability to storytell elevate the human race.” Bare Existence is one of her recent projects. Photo by Stept Studios

I believe that Bare Existence is indicative of a trend that’s slowly changing the content of  marketing media. While many companies are still spending their marketing dollars on glossy, superficial ads, others, like Canada Goose, are putting their money behind cause- and value-driven campaigns—and that’s a really good thing.

I chatted with Lindsey about the intersection of story and purpose. After leaving a job in PR and sales, she built her production career at Stept by finding and sharing human-centered stories that are meaningful and authentic, and her work, I believe, is a model for how brand marketing and purposeful storytelling can coexist, and build each other up.

Lindsey walked me through the world of storytelling in branded content, and for her, that world stands upon a foundation of vulnerability, mutual respect and genuine connection—words I hadn’t ever thought to associate with marketing or advertising. As someone who often feels rather cynical about today’s rapid-paced and inundated media landscape, I came away from my conversation with Lindsey feeling very optimistic about the social and environmental impacts that brands and other businesses—fueled by consumer demand—will be able to achieve through authentic storytelling in their marketing campaigns.

Cinematographer Chris Naum on location in Oaxaca, Mexico during the shoot for Ride of the Dead, a film by Stept for Red Bull. The film follows Oaxacan mountain biker and trail builder Yefra Ram as he honors deceased loved ones during Dia de los Muertos, which coincides with the Trans-Sierra Norte, an enduro mountain bike race. Says EP Lindsey, “This is not a mountain bike film. This is a moment in time captured through the lens of Yefra Ram. This piece is meant to connect our audience to a culture and experience outside their own through the common thread of mountain biking. Photo by Stept Studios

Authenticity in today’s media landscape

Authenticity is a big buzzword in media these days, and the reason for that, I think, is that we are surrounded by an incredible amount of inauthenticity. The digital age has made it increasingly hard to ascertain what is real and what is not, a problem that runs far deeper than the proliferation of fake news. We’re exposed to an endless stream of empty words and promises from corporations and people in power, and to a deluge of flashy social media influencers whose success depends on encouraging the chasing of a lifestyle that is, for most of us, unattainable (Lindsey described this as “placing the audience on the exterior”). And guess what? We’re tired of it. Where are the real people, we ask? Where are the real stories, the ones we might actually be able to relate to?

Amidst a vast sea filled with largely empty, meaningless media, the frustrated cries of consumers—the audience—may seem totally drowned out. But that’s not the case. Lindsey suggests that brands are responding to those cries, albeit slowly. “The viewer dictates the demand,” she said, “And the brands will pay for the outcome. As consumers, it’s our duty to demand more of what it is we want to see in the world, and to hold brands and advertisers accountable.”

Evidence that the status quo is changing is beginning to pile up. We can look to Bare Existence and the emergence of more branded docs like it, but there are also much larger, more mainstream instances. Take, for example, the ads played during this year’s Super Bowl: While there were still plenty of the typical humorous spots, we saw a lot more ads that invoked deep emotional appeals. Rather than locking the audience out, the people that have the money to put media in front of us are increasingly creating content that “brings the audience in”—focusing on subjects and characters we can identify with, and, importantly, issues that really matter to us.

More evidence lies in the value that marketers are placing on storytelling. “Storytelling” is at the heart of how we relate to each other. It played an important role in the evolution of our species, and listening to others’ stories (and sharing stories of our own) helps us to build trusting relationships. We respond positively to stories we recognize as authentic, and are very good at sniffing out stories that are not. We’ve been telling stories from time immemorial, but only recently have marketers caught on to the idea that “storytelling” is an effective way to connect authentically to their audiences. Data from LinkedIn shows that prior to 2012, the number of marketers listing “storytelling” as a skill was zero. Fast-forward to recent years, when consumer demand for authenticity is higher than ever, and the landscape has shifted entirely: In 2017, over half a million listed it as a skill.

When it comes to content that viewers can comfortably deem authentic, Lindsey said, “Story should come first, rather than being curated or shaped to meet a brand’s marketing strategy.” Bare Existence, for example, came out of a personal relationship with Polar Bears International. “Our duty in sharing the story,” she said, “Was to represent their work accurately and to the best of our ability.” But that’s only the first piece of the puzzle. Telling the story the right way and getting it in front of the right audience is contingent on funding, which, often, means finding a brand that believes in the story enough to put their marketing dollars behind it. For Bare Existence, that brand was Canada Goose. The company, who already had an existing partnership with PBI, saw the value in supporting the story—the whole story—in its truest form, said Lindsey.

Without Canada Goose, there is no Bare Existence. That simple fact underlies the reality that at the end of the day, as Lindsey explained, “Brands are made up of individuals. I think sometimes in advertisement media we forget that behind brands like Nike, or Adidas, or Red Bull, those are people; people that feel deeply. And we actually can all very much relate on emotional connections that go so much deeper than our job descriptions or our marketing objectives.”

Creating a future in which vulnerability is celebrated

For Lindsey, authentic storytelling cannot exist without the elements of trust and vulnerability. “When I take someone’s story into my hands it is my duty to see it through intentionally and in accordance to how they want to be represented and portrayed to the world,” she said. “If I’m to ask for their vulnerability I need to be able to promise that they can trust me to represent them truthfully.”

The portrayal of vulnerability is a theme that runs through Hagen’s work. In Adventure Not War (another Max Lowe-directed documentary), Iraq war veterans confront deeply buried pain and seek to reframe it by returning to Iraq for a ski expedition. La Cumbre, one of Hagen’s early projects, tells the story of Kathy Pico and her journey to face down her doubts as an amputee in order to become a mountaineer. Dalia: Cambiando el Futuro a recent spot for Nike, follows a Latina teenager in East Los Angeles as she breaks down stereotypes and her family’s expectations to become the first girl to make the varsity football team at her high school.

In Adventure Not War (2017), three U.S. Army captains return to Iraq to in an entirely different context: On a healing journey into the mountains of Iraq, they rewrite their histories, discovering joy where before there was only loss and sorrow. EP Lindsey Hagen says that vulnerability—a theme that runs through the film—can and should be an empowering trait, rather than something we are hiding. Photo by Max Lowe
In July of 2017, a team 22 climbers—10 of them amputees—attempted to summit Cayambe, Ecuador’s third-highest volcano at 18,996’. The expedition was organized by the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), a nonprofit that provides much-needed prosthetic care in the developing world. Lindsey and a filmmaking team joined the expedition. In La Cumbre, Lindsey and her team followed one of the team members, Ecuadorian Kathy Pico (who lost her leg to cancer at 38) in her journey to reach the top. Photo by Sept Studios

Many of us (perhaps most of us) walk through the world with defensive armor, to protect against uncomfortable or painful realities. “A lot of us are struggling and suffering every single day, but no one knows,” Lindsey said. Her vision for the future, though, is a world in which vulnerability is not something to keep locked away inside, but rather is an empowering trait, and even a leadership trait. “[Vulnerability] helps promote compassion and understanding,” she said. “I think we can be leaders by sharing stories of vulnerability, which lead to empowerment and change.”

Meeting subjects where they are and acknowledging their vulnerability is paramount. That’s why Lindsey strives to build the best possible team to tell a given story, finding people who are ingrained in the subject matter and can make subjects feel comfortable. For example, with Dalia, Lindsey brought on Jazmin Garcia (a Mexican-Guatemalen-American filmmaker) to direct, and she made sure the majority of the crew was also Spanish-speaking.

Vulnerability is a two-way street, and Lindsey is clear that as a producer, she must open up as well. “When you ask someone to let you into their life,” she said, “There’s a barrier of vulnerability, and when they are letting you in, it’s expected that you do the same in return.” She described how subjects of her films have helped her to unpeel layers within herself. “I have closer, deeper relationships with some of the subjects of our films than some of my closest friends,” she said, “And it’s because you very quickly break down boundaries.”

Media has the power to shift our engagement with reality

Although Bare Existence portrays a bleak reality, it ends on a message of hope from Dr. Amstrup: “Every time you step out the door of your house,” he said, “You have some ability to influence the world.”

I share Lindsey’s hope that our future is one where we are able to open ourselves more freely to each other, share our imperfections and vulnerabilities, and ultimately be more compassionate and understanding. And I’m very happy that we’re beginning to see more and more of that authenticity in the branded space, where potential impacts can be seriously amplified.

I find enormous parallels between Amstrup’s closing words in Bare Existence and Lindsey’s mentality. As someone who’s frequently producing media that will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, she’s conscious of using her influence for good. If her audience is able to step outside their zone of familiarity and view the world through someone else’s lens, she has done her job. But importantly, she has the exact same goal for herself. She said, “I am always learning. Every person I’ve met through filmmaking has taught me something invaluable and those are lessons I can take with me and build into my knowledge of the world while shifting how I interpret and engage with reality… just as film does to the masses.”

You can find more of Lindsey’s work here. True to form, she’s continuing her journey of  learning by taking on a new role: She just directed her first film—the trailer can be found here. Her role in media, as she sees it, is to “Imagine, ignite, and inspire.”