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The nihilism behind Nathan Fielder’s real-world marketing success

Fake it so you can make it

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Comedy Central

Recently you may have seen a Nathan For You ad that features a series of familiar magazine covers — Rolling Stone, GQ, Time, Wired — all featuring Nathan Fielder, the Canadian comic and star of the show. His name is plastered across the covers and he assumes a different brand-appropriate look for each one, snapshots from an alternate media universe in which he is the biggest — and only — star. It’s a clever summary of the program's philosophy: for Fielder, the intersection between marketing, consumption, and American culture is only as organic as we pretend it is. Peel back the layers and everything is revealed to be kind of bullshit.

At least, that’s the ethos the show relies on to sell everything from Dumb Starbucks coffee to fake self-help books. Nathan For You, now in its third season on Comedy Central, follows Fielder — who graduated from "one of Canada’s top business schools" — helping small businesses by coming up with outrageous marketing stunts. In the debut episode of season three, Fielder tries to help a small electronics store triumph over Best Buy. The solution? Use Best Buy’s price match policy to buy up TVs for $1 and resell them for massive profit. The show is entertaining both for the awkward situations Fielder creates with his deadpan character and the wondrous ways his ideas crash and burn.

Fielder's ideas are succeeding because of their outright phoniness

But something strange is beginning to happen on Nathan For You. Fielder’s ideas are beginning to succeed — not in spite of, but because of their outright phoniness. When trying to help out a moving company owner whose largest labor cost is his employees, Fielder fashions an older workout buff as a lifestyle guru who preaches that moving boxes and furniture will help you stay fit. Fielder hired a random Craigslister to ghostwrite his guru’s life story, and the book is now an Amazon bestseller, ballooned by fake five-star reviews. You can find it featured in the top 10 list for books in the Motivational and Self-Help categories.

In another season three episode, Fielder discovers that a jacket company he fancies recently published a tribute to a notable Holocaust denier in its catalog. So he decides to start his own clothing line, Summit Ice, with the seemingly incongruous purpose of promoting Holocaust awareness. Not only has Fielder been tweeting out photos of famous celebrities wearing a $110 Summit Ice jacket, but sales have surpassed $45,000, with the proceeds going to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.

The New York Times aptly said last month that Fielder’s show "mixes absurdity and economics," highlighting the nonsensical relationship between what we consume and why we consume it. But Fielder has moved from underlining the sickness and onto selling it. The question now is why we’re buying.

In one way, Fielder is reversing the laws of internet virality, which assert that something only deserves our attention and our money if it’s genuine. It’s no coincidence that his first brush with internet fame on Nathan For You was a fake viral video. The clip featured a pig saving a goat in a ploy to help a petting zoo by giving it a "hero animal" for foreigners to come visit. In reality, Fielder hired dozens of people to pull the video off, creating a PVC track for the pig to swim through with scuba divers nearby to assist. He uploaded it to YouTube under a fake name with a deadpan, one-sentence description. It appeared on the NBC Nightly News and caught the attention of Anderson Cooper. The video now has nearly 9.5 million views.

Nathan For You reverses the laws of internet virality

By that logic, buying a Summit Ice jacket or a copy of The Movement: How I Got This Body By Never Going To The Gym In My Life signals that you’re in on such an elaborate joke. But Fielder’s pranks go further, not simply because they’re adding money into the equation. In the same vein that a fake US presidential candidate called Deez Nuts could illuminate our broken political system by polling at 9 percent in three major political battlegrounds, purchasing a Fielder product over a sincere competitor is recognizing and embracing that any sense of fairness in our economy doesn’t exist.

By pretending hard enough that something is legitimate, Fielder makes it so. It’s appealing because every seemingly earnest social share or every fake Amazon review is contributing to the success of something that, on the surface, shouldn’t deserve it. But maybe buying a Summit Ice jacket is no more or less genuine than purchasing a North Face.

The show wouldn’t be in this position if not for the season two episode, "Dumb Starbucks." Fielder’s idea to exploit parody law to allow him to open a copyright infringing coffee shop was already entertaining on paper. Yet almost overnight, the store had lines around the block, international news coverage, and its coffee cups selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars. People read into the stunt so deeply that a rumor began percolating that British street artist Banksy was behind it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Fielder the comedy world’s Banksy. But Fielder’s satire of taste-making and economic success is rooted in the shared idea that advertising resembles brainwashing, marketing is a polished lie, and popularity is manufactured. Dumb Starbucks opened the door for Fielder to explore a number of pranks that expertly ride viral waves until they overtake news cycles. If something so benign as tacking the word "dumb" in front of a corporate logo can be mistaken for high-concept art, you can imagine the lengths at which Fielder might go to say something more substantive.

Of course, Nathan For You isn’t for everyone, and there’s often a hint of maliciousness, intentional or not, in the way Fielder pushes his interactions way past the point of discomfort. His unfazed reaction when people are shocked or repulsed by his shiver-inducing awkwardness is part of the act. (The comedian cut his chops writing for Demetri Martin’s short-lived Comedy Central show.) But he also walks dangerously close to making both his willing and unwilling participants the punchline of a joke they may never understand, in ways similar to the humor of Sacha Baron Cohen. Fielder’s manipulative nature can turn off viewers to the show’s absurdist end result, even if the real target is more often than not the system he’s exploiting.

But the genius of Nathan For You lies in forcing viewers to ask whether the corporations and brands we subscribe to are really all that different from the borderline-criminal character he assumes. We already maneuver the internet with a deep-set suspicion that anything vaguely organic or surprising may in fact just be a stunt — like a secretive Samsung plot to get Ellen DeGeneres to take an Oscar selfie or another stupid hoverboard hoax to promote a car company. Fielder is aware of this and its effects on how we treat every subtle act of brand awareness or viral marketing stunt.

Tapping into the nihilist consumer in all of us

It’s not farfetched to imagine his terrible and unethical advice becoming real-world marketing tactics. The Onion once refashioned an anti-foodie Applebee's ad campaign as a ploy to get millennials to visit its restaurants. The trick was to ask them to do so ironically, with the tagline "wouldn’t it be funny to go to Applebee’s?" and fake menu items like "Fajita Cordon Bleu!" It was one of the rare Onion pranks that fooled even the most cynical of internet natives. And three years later it now feels like something Fielder would suggest to a Denny’s or perhaps Burger King. Think of the creepy "Sneak King" mascot luring urban diners away from Chipotle with the promise of purposefully poorly sourced ingredients, for those times when you just don’t want to know where your food comes from.

Much in the same way HBO host John Oliver has learned to manipulate and direct the firehose of social media outrage at, say, Philip Morris or the opponents of net neutrality, Fielder has been able to tap into the viral-loving, nihilist consumer in all of us. Instead of riling us up on Facebook, Fielder has us buying jackets for charity. And for viewers of the show, it’s become clear they’re purchasing something else as well: the acknowledgment that there is something profoundly phony and shameless about the state of American commerce. And we’re all complicit in it.