Photo (R): Laura A. Oda/AP Photo
If you need a quick lesson in the awesome might of Silicon Valley's arrogant and often unprincipled culture of "disruption," just watch Sunday's Super Bowl. At one point during the broadcast, you'll see a 30-second spot from the Northern California start-up GoldieBlox, which makes and sells toys aimed at empowering girls to build and create rather than simply fantasize about one day being a princess. (The company's initial marketing strategy was summed up in its mission statement: "Disrupt the Pink Aisle.") Certainly, the goal of GoldieBlox and its founder, Debbie Sterling, is a noble one, but how they went about getting the attention of the public so that they could accomplish that goal was breathtakingly underhanded. Basically, they stole from the Beastie Boys by violating their intellectual property rights and then, just for good measure, turned around and attacked them publicly and in court.
If you need a refresher, mid-2013 GoldieBlox produced a YouTube ad that featured the Beastie Boys' classic track Girls, with new lyrics that preached the company's message. The problem is Sterling did this without getting the permission of the Beasties first; she just took the song without asking and produced an entire commercial around it. Then, she and her company preemptively and aggressively sued them for the right to use the music. GoldieBlox even issued a press release calling Girls "highly sexist" and claiming that this made it okay to just swipe wholesale for the sake of reverse engineering and re-messaging it. The Beastie Boys applauded the company's aim of teaching little girls to be creative and assertive, but being that Adam Yauch, before his death, had specifically willed that his music never be used for commercial purposes, they refused to settle quietly and set out to rightly pummel GoldieBlox in court. The case is still moving forward.
Everything GoldieBlox and Sterling did -- every shameless move they made in this saga -- was with a very specific purpose. Sterling had been making deliberately controversial videos of questionable taste, using music without permission, and from a place of arguable privilege for years and, like many Silicon Valley startups, her company’s philosophy followed what Felix Salmon of Reuters calls “The Cult of Disruption” to a tee.
His take on the GoldieBlox/Beasties fight from late November was scathing, but appropriately so:
The strategy here is to maximize ill-will: don’t ask permission, make no attempt to negotiate in good faith, antagonize the other party as much as possible…
If all GoldieBlox wanted to do was get out a viral message about empowering girls, they could easily have done that without gratuitously antagonizing the Beastie Boys, or putting the Beasties in their current impossible situation.
Instead, however, GoldieBlox did exactly what you’d expect an entitled and well-lawyered Silicon Valley startup to do, which is pick a fight. It’s the way of the Valley — you can’t be winning unless some household-name dinosaur is losing. (The Beasties are actually the second big name to find themselves in the GoldieBlox crosshairs; the first was Toys R Us.) The real target of the GoldieBlox lawsuit, I’m quite sure, is not the Beastie Boys. Instead, it’s the set of investors who are currently being pitched to put money into a fast-growing, Stanford-incubated, web-native, viral, aggressive, disruptive company with massive room for future growth — a company which isn’t afraid to pick fights with any big name you care to mention.
Here's the thing, though: What Sterling did worked. The Beastie Boys found out their music was being used against their wishes by GoldieBlox when the company initially submitted the ad to Intuit, which was running a contest to place the ad of a small business into 2014's Super Bowl coverage. Let me say that again: Even though a new commercial would likely be shot, GoldieBlox submitted an ad made up entirely of ripped-off material that would potentially go out to 100-million people. Even Shia LaBeouf would think that was fucking insane. But even after GoldieBlox pulled the commercial and scrubbed it from YouTube, they remained in the contest; that never went away. And guess what happened next: they won. Intuit just announced that GoldieBlox and Debbie Sterling are the winners of their Super Bowl ad contest. Their ad will appear in the third quarter of the game on Sunday.
Sterling says about the victory, "It’s a huge win for our social mission." Uh-huh. It's also a huge win for GoldieBlox's meticulous marketing strategy, given that in the final phase of the contest, the winner was determined by public vote. And who's got better name-recognition when it comes down to something like that: an Idaho dairy company called "POOP" that sells natural compost, or one that drew national headlines for a month when it got into a fight with a legendary hip-hop act? GoldieBlox won because for it, the end always justified the means, all's fair, and everything is fair use. The culture of disruption prevails and the Valley can high-five itself to sleep once again.
When I wrote about this a couple of months ago, I said that it would be interesting to see whether the free publicity Debbie Sterling cleverly brought on herself would make up for the potential loss of money in court and the loss of respect for her company among a decent portion of the public.
Turns out it did. There's a lesson for your little girls.