This year’s build to Wrestlemania, the biggest wrestling event – ahem, sorry, sports entertainment event – has thrown the fans – er, sorry, the WWE Universe – a new corporate phrase that seems to pepper the speech of every commentator and wrestler -ah, sorry again, WWE superstar – every time he or she opens their mouth. Wrestlemania this year, in case you haven’t heard over and over and over and over again is “The Ultimate Thrill Ride.” Presumably, this phrase is about making the product feel exciting as if viewers were on a rollercoaster, and in a way, they have been with how inconsistent the programming has been in the past few months.
In years past, many fans might remember Wrestlemania being called “The Granddaddy of Them All.” That was yesterday’s weathered phrase though as Vince decided in 2015 that it “makes Wrestlemania feel old” as evidenced in these leaked documents. This mandate coincides with the decision to stop numbering Wrestlemanias as well. It’s completely understandable a company doesn’t want their product to “feel old” or look outdated and would strike any language that might suggest such a notion; to deny that the company ignore that would be to deny the power of implication and the power of viewer interpretation. However, in this case, Vince seems to be ignoring that a phrase such as “The Granddaddy of Them All” could also imply heritage, prestige, and even power. Age does not necessarily connote weak or outmoded, so one must wonder if this is one of Vince’s peccadilloes about his own insecurities that he’s now forcing on his product.
Beyond having to hear the phrase, “The Ultimate Thrill Ride,” every ten minutes on broadcasts, the larger and deeper problem is that it is being used indiscriminately. Two weeks ago, AJ Styles violently attacked Shane McMahon, the commissioner of the Smackdown brand, because he felt slighted and underappreciated. He jumped him in a parking garage and only stopped once he had thrown his boss’s head through a car window. This past week, he came out on the opening of Smackdown and accepted Shane McMahon’s challenge. He even exclaimed about attacking Shane, “I’m not sorry about anything I did last week!” His rationale for accepting the challenge, however, was, “I want to be apart of the Ultimate Thrill Ride – Wrestlemania” and he even capped it off with pointing to the gigantic sign overhead.
The problem with this is that it’s promoting brand for brand’s sake in the most nonsensical way imaginable. Consider the story being told here for a moment. AJ Styles, the former WWE World Champion feels he was “screwed over” multiple times by not receiving a singles rematch for the title belt. He blames the commissioner, Shane McMahon for this and feels McMahon cost him a chance not only at the title but to main event the biggest, most prestigious event in the history of professional wrestling – Wrestlemania. He becomes so obsessed and agitated that he attacks McMahon, who despite having wrestled many times before is not a wrestler, and violently throws him through a car window. This is a man who is over the edge, railing against the perceived injustices perpetrated by a corporate figure. In what world would that man care about using the new corporate slogan, “The Ultimate Thrill Ride,” when explaining this vitriol and hatred for a corporate figure? He should be arrogant, unapologetic, and still angry, not peppering his language with corporate terminology. By doing so, it undercuts the story and takes viewers out of the moment because it feels inauthentic and forced.
The McMahons have for decades now interjected their love of corporate culture onto the product. In 1997, the authority figure of Mr. McMahon was revolutionary and fresh, and it created, arguably, the greatest heel in the history of the business. But as with anything, the second time, or twentieth time, that the same angle is repeated in succession, the effect is lost. Yet authority figures persist to this day: they are a staple now. These authority figures give “performance evaluations” and hire “free agents” and fire others for “underperforming” or to “cut budget.” This is not what fans want to see. For many, this is their daily lives – the mundane reality of shitty bosses and performance reviews and penny-pinching. While some measure of realism must be present in art and entertainment, certainly, viewers tune into a show to escape ultimately, not be reminded of their every day. Stephanie McMahon’s love of charity, a notion that, on the surface, is the most commendable, has also found a grating and disingenuous way to sneak into the product as well. Nearly every month, RAW features segments on giving needed attention to a specific disease, most notably their Connor’s Cure segments, or segments dedicated to honoring minorities in sports and entertainment – last month, African-Americans and this month, women. However, in March 2015, Stephanie oddly tweeted out, “Philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands r going 2 win,” a statement roundly criticized to this day, and rightfully so, by Wade Keller at the PWTorch. Much how the corporate jargon in AJ’s promo makes it feel inauthentic, this tweet makes any and all charity work, any and all segments honoring minorities, any and all Warrior’s Award recipients and their causes inauthentic and suspect, even if the intention is pure. This might be the most vile example due to its real world implications, but this type of corporate vanity is strewn throughout the broadcasts in various obvious and subtle ways.
Consistent branding is not what is needed; consistent storytelling and consistent characters are what is needed. Strong characters, characters with interesting backstories and motivations, characters with understandable desires and codes, those are what will sell the product. The wrestlers’ promos are where the selling of the match, the pay-per-view, the house show – er, sorry, live event – is done, so to force corporatisms into the mouths of professional wrestlers that create inconsistency in character and diminish the excitement and passion in storylines will not help the business flourish or increase revenue. Sell the characters, sell the stories, and sell the matches as those are what get eyes of the product and keep viewers invested, not predilections for corporate speak.