WWE vs. Glenn Beck: Potshots to Publicity, Controversy to Cash
WWE recently debuted a new character named Zeb Colter, a Vietnam veteran with a particularly negative view of the current direction of “his country,” complete with racist undertones and far-right political views. Thrust into the spotlight as the manager of wrestler Jack Swagger, the duo quickly gained infamy and raised the ire of Tea Party conservatives who believed they were being villainized, eventually finding their way into the crosshairs of conservative uber-pundit Glenn Beck. Suddenly, the fighting spilled outside the ring and became a major news story for both sides, covered by The Hollywood Reporter, ABC News, and CNN.
While the issue is ostensibly about the negative portrayal of a certain politically-minded group in this country, Glenn Beck and especially WWE have taken advantage of the situation not for political gains, but for the oldest reason in media: publicity. While WWE is no stranger to complaints for its sometimes controversial, violent, and objectifying content, they rarely provide a direct response. More often, they skirt the issue by touting their various positive outreach outside their television programs, with efforts like the anti-bullying Be A Star Campaign, their WrestleMania Reading Challenge, and Superstar John Cena’s 300 plus Make-A-Wish wishes. But in this particular instance, WWE saw a perfect window to not only respond to this criticism, but gain more attention at the same time. They did so with the following video, released on their official YouTube page:
WWE’s response is, like most of their work, over-the-top, direct, and begging for attention. The video begins with a standard WWE-style ‘promo’ where Zeb and Jack run down illegal immigrants, non-English speakers, and World Heavyweight Champion Alberto Del Rio for his Mexican heritage. About one and a half minutes in, however, the characters break the fourth wall, revealing they are standing in front of a green screen with professional lighting and cameras surrounding them. Even more out of character, literally, both men reveal their true names (Wayne Keown and Jake Hager) while emphasizing their nature as entertainers and their role as antagonists in the current story WWE is telling.
What is phenomenal about this presentation from WWE is a complete break in standard operating procedure for the company. For years, WWE has generally insisted upon its performers staying in character during media appearances, sometimes extending into their personal lives as well, as was the case when Serena Deeb was released in 2010 for (allegedly) drinking in public while the character she was portraying was meant to be living a ‘straight-edge,’ alcohol-free lifestyle. What would make WWE change this policy in such a sharp direction, not only allowing performers to break character but officially having them do so?
The answer is, you guessed it, publicity. As I mentioned before, when Breitbart and Glenn Beck originally reacted to the storyline and characters, WWE suddenly saw more mainstream media attention than usual. It didn’t matter what people were saying about the WWE, it only mattered people were suddenly looking in their direction. And with their flagship show WrestleMania just one month away, the extra eyes could not come at a more opportune time. Even before this fight broke out, WWE had been positioning itself strategically to bring in more casual and unconverted fans, resigning Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and making him the new WWE Champion as well as announcing a partnership with Paramount to help promote two of their upcoming releases, both of which, of course, star The Rock. And just this past Monday, they announced Donald Trump as the newest ‘celebrity member’ of their WWE Hall of Fame.
Clearly, WWE saw the increased attention as another opportunity to build buzz during the most crucial time of their year. This is made clear in the video, as Wayne and Jake (now out of character) take the opportunity to promote WWE’s success and PG nature. Although responding to Glenn Beck, they find a way to slip in nuggets of information that sound meant for an investor’s meeting: 14 million US fans, broadcasting in 145 countries, a desirably audience that’s 20% Hispanic, 22% African-American, 35% female, and covers a variety of age groups, oh, and the #1 show on USA Network. Phew. But that’s not all! After comparing themselves to hit shows like Glee and NCIS, WWE takes a shot at primetime television, touting their PG rating by mentioning they do not depict murder, rape, or gun violence.
In the end, WWE extends a challenge to Glenn Beck, offering him five minutes of unedited time on Monday Night Raw to offer a rebuttal. Beck’s response: “Unfortunately, I am currently booked doing anything else.” While seemingly ending the grudge, WWE wouldn’t let a “no” from Beck stop them from keeping the feud going, mocking Beck on this past Monday’s Raw to yet more media coverage, even posting a video of their own Michael Cole trying to get an interview with Beck at Glenn Beck Studios.
For WWE, the extremely rare moment of ‘truth’ and peek behind the curtain offered in these videos were well worth it. The larger controversy they’ve generated with the Tea Party is exactly what they wished for, and the video gave them a chance to not only fend off attacks from a powerful political segment, but gain more mainstream publicity and an outlet for corporate promotional content. As the title of wrestling promoter and former WWE rival Eric Bischoff’s best-selling autobiography says: controversy creates cash.