Will Gadd
Credit: Redbull Photofiles

We all love visual stimulation. And by the grace of the Internet Gods, there is now more—and more varied—visual stimulation than at any time in history.

A recent study by the data research firm SINTEF claims that 90 per cent of all the data in history was created during the last two years. While a large quantity of this data must involve the Kardashians, there is still a lot leftover for outdoor adventure imagery. It doesn’t matter what you’re into—ski porn to elk-hunting porn, Instagram to Tumblr—there is an unlimited supply of great images and video. For free! Or is it? What—besides potential viral fame for sick crashes or other mayhem—is behind this truly mind-twisting buffet of content?

Twenty years ago, when I started as a sponsored athlete, I proposed that I (and a couple of friends) would fly motorized paragliders across America. It seemed like a great idea, even though I’d never flown the para-motors we were going to use. Red Bull agreed. Nobody had done it before, it was a new sport and we all thought it was a cool idea. Adhering to the traditional “sponsorship for media exposure” relationship of the time, we would rely on network TV and print media to pick up the story and to show trip-imagery that featured the sponsor’s logo. 

However, Red Bull was one of the first companies to figure out they could also either shoot the story themselves or fund the shoot, then share the finished product with traditional media—rather than simply relying on media to cover it. And that’s what they did, and continue to do. 

When I climbed Niagara Falls earlier this year, there just happened to be some amazing footage available—shot by my friends at Reel Water Productions—to share globally. The footage appeared on more than 500 TV stations and for millions of people on the web, yet there wasn’t one TV reporter on scene at Niagara (as part of the strict permitting process we followed). In both cases, I was fortunate to have help realizing a dream, and Red Bull was right there in the mix. And the public got to watch something I hope was entertaining.

But it wasn’t free. Your eyeballs paid for the filming and trip by watching the production. With traditional TV, it used to be relatively simple to determine where ads began and ended, but today this is often blurred. Because the other neat thing Red Bull figured out was to mix the message and the ad, rather than insert ads into the programming. 

I have more than 25 Red Bull-branded helmets on my wall; each has been used in dozens of TV, film and photography productions, some financed by my sponsors, others by traditional productions, but all featuring these Red Bull helmets. In this way, Red Bull jumped out of the confines of the 30-second TV advertising slot and took over an hour of TV, plus the Internet and print. And I was able to do the coolest trips of my life, and share those with a public who often had no idea my sports even existed. The data explosion started.

The same murky mixing of editorial and advertising has also happened in print. When I took journalism courses, “editorial” and “advertising” had to be in separate rooms and kept as far apart as possible, sort of like matter and anti-matter; one whiff of association with advertising revenue and our journalistic credibility would be toast. But when companies started supplying free product shots and literate press releases that could be used almost verbatim in the print they were co-opting, that ethic died faster than ice cream on a hot day.  

Both GoPro and Red Bull have openly proclaimed their desire to become “media companies,” not just a camera and energy drink company, respectively. Both companies mastered the art of producing compelling images in order to sell their products. In an odd twist, the imagery they use to sell their products has become as or more valuable than the products themselves. In marketing speak—each production is not just a selfie or a home video, but “content.” And high-quality content that people will voluntarily look at, not the traditional paying customer, is now king. If that wasn’t revolution enough, social media has just changed all the rules, and even more dramatically.

As a “brand ambassador” for several companies, I’ve attended many propaganda sessions—I mean, “brand and media training events”—over the last two decades. In the past, we were often trained on how to respond to media, but today it’s all about our own “media/content/brand” creation. We don’t have to wait for the media or even trained professionals to come to us; we are the media, from writing or shooting, to distribution and marketing. As athletes, we’re judged not only by what we do as athletes, but how we share the results. Not if we share our stories—it’s a given we will—but how good of a job we do attracting eyeballs to those stories. This is the second big re-invention of the sponsor/media/athlete/viewer relationship.

I remember my first visit to the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah, more than 20 years ago. I, along with all the other wannabe sponsored athletes, wandered the red-carpeted aisles, visiting booth-after-booth with a giant leather portfolio full of articles about our accomplishments. Today at Outdoor Retailer, the big question is not, “What have you climbed?” but “What’s your Instagram and Snapchat handle?” Your followers directly equal your worth to a potential sponsor. There are athletes getting serious sponsorship dollars based not on their performance, but simply on their social media clout. Social media isn’t about chronicling performance for sponsors; it is, itself, performance. It’s now not necessarily what you have done as an athlete, but how many people care enough about what you’re doing to follow you. Which brings up some interesting questions about what we put into our feeds, and what the public and sponsors ultimately want to see.

Several popular “climber feeds” on Instagram are from sponsored young women who tend to post a lot of pictures of themselves climbing with very little clothing on. Beyond the fact that there is usually a rock in the picture (often it’s just some plastic holds), there is little to differentiate these shots from the Kim Kardashian butt-shot that recently “broke the Internet.” In an age where we’re all selling ourselves, putting skin in the pic short-circuits selling our accomplishments and distils it down to literally selling our image. Is this the brand image their sponsors want? In a visual age, where the visuals may be more important than actually accomplishing anything, the answer sponsors have given with their dollars—and us with our following eyes—seems to be, “Yes.”

I may have to start shaving my legs in order to compete, although I suspect I won’t ever be able to compete with a climber-girl in a tank top on a summer day. And while I initially felt as guilty as my dog with his head in the garbage bin for following the Climberella Instagram accounts, I soon realized that women followed these accounts too, just as Cosmopolitan has pictures of boobs straining the sides of every cover. If women are doing it too, then it must be OK, right? Ski porn, to climbing porn, to just plain porn—it’s a spectrum of creative funding and media juggling. The good news is that the media world is now totally wide open to anyone creating content. The bad news is the same.

The final twist in all of this that I find interesting is how few people even see a conflict of interest. Very occasionally, when shooting for an upper-crust BBC production, for example, I have to wear a covert Red Bull helmet or hide the Arc’teryx logos on my jacket. It was novel the first time I ran into this on a shoot; the producer explained in a full-pucker English accent, “It just wouldn’t do to have a commercial interest in our program, you see… no, not at all.” 

Everyone else just gets it, goes along and has fun with it. As an aging sponsored athlete, I simultaneously see the benefits of the new paradigm, and wonder about the results. There is more to look at about less than ever before. Which reminds me, would you please follow me on Instagram? I’ll return the eyeballs, you may have sponsors you’re working on too. 

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2015 issue.