What Pepsi and Shea Moisture's Flops Can Teach Creators About the King Kong Effect and Selling Out

There’s an iconic scene in The Nutty Professor where the main character, Sherman (a.k.a Eddie Murphy) falls asleep on his couch into a nightmare about his ballooning weight. The dream opens with Sherman on an operating table, a staff of medics looking down and judging his condition. His body begins to swell, first breaking the emergency table. His belly then proceeds to expand, bursting the glass windows in his hospital room and swallowing up a medical assistant in the process. His growth is rapid, with the next scene showing Sherman stomping through his hometown as a Godzilla sized beast, while terrified onlookers dart away in horror. A young Dave Chappelle, playing a comic in the film, screams up from the terrified crowd, “Damn, everyone run for the hills!!...He looks like King Kong with titties!”

The King Kong Effect

So many creators and businesses want to be that King Kong With Titties. Striving to be the biggest, most obnoxious, most “you-don’t-know-the-answers-sway” leader of the pack, killing the competition and dominating their fields to the point of no return, smashing everything and anything in their way, with little regard for the repercussions in the process. This is what I’ve deemed the King Kong Effect.

Pepsi’s ad fiasco and Shea Moisture’s media flub are the exact results of this King Kong Effect: pursuing brand expansion to the detriment and bewilderment of their target demographics. In their race for market and business growth, they’ve flubbed up their messaging, infuriated and isolated their customers, and drank deeply from the well of tone-deafness about cultural awareness (there are plenty of think pieces about that here, here, and here).

Both companies are a few of many cases in the media demonstrating how we desperately need to redefine our understandings of creative and business success.

The Infinite Growth Conundrum

Conventional ideas about a creator’s success all typically boil down to this infinite, Nutty- Professor-Style growth: Get bigger, get richer, kill the competition at all costs -- with no end in sight.

Three problems spring from this ideology:

  1. A constantly moving goal is uninspiring. Studies show individuals must find a goal important and must believe they can achieve it to accept it. With a goal that’s always moving, acceptance becomes futile because it’s never achievable.

  2. Profit above all else in business can encourage questionable decisions that have long term negative effects, motivating people to justify the means of attaining a goal (like dumping company waste in a river to cut costs, in-turn destroying the drinking water of a town) for the ends (gaining profit).

  3. These types of growth-only driven work environments struggle for inspired, engaged, and happy employees, and with 70% of the workforce disillusioned with their jobs, this isn’t something to take lightly.

Wanting to make a profit or grow a business isn’t an inherently bad thing, and can be a good if tied to a bigger goal of impact or using the profits for building better services or products, but there is a limit on these two factors when it comes to building a brand, company, or body of work.

Success and Selling Out

Let’s talk about selling out.

Not to be confused with ratting out, stepping out, or any other idiom.

It’s a term riddled with negative connotations -- no one wants to admit pursuing or building things for icky reasons, or for giving up their beliefs in exchange for dollars.

Selling out is the process of losing your identity and values in exchange for personal gain. Many creators deal with this challenge -- do you give up a tenant of what you believe about what you’ve built to gain profit, power, recognition, or visibility? Shea Moisture’s recent fiasco lead to accusations of abandoning their original customer -- black women -- not only in their messaging, but also in the formulas of their products, to gain a broader fan base, while the company claims they are creating new products to solve the needs they identify for new communities.

Selling out is a long standing dilemma for creators, who have to make tough decisions and assessments of their personal ethics and goals on a constant basis. Holding onto the root of who you are in a storm of King Kongers is tough. Rappers rap about this, singers sing about this, business executives I imagine write aggressive Keynotes and PowerPoints about it. Success, if defined as pursuing profit solely, isn't a great fit for most, if not all businesses in this day and age. If this type of success were underwear, it would be too tight, full of holes, and in need of a good wash. It's uninspiring, has negative social and economic impacts, and leads to short-sighted decisions in business. 

There is a fine line between selling out and growth, and that line is determined by personal values.

Your Values Should Define Your Success

On a deeper, psychological level, we set personal and business goals because we hope they bring us some sense of positive emotion -- happiness, power, even confidence. 

Danielle Laporte has a great theory about goal setting - that understanding our deeper desires behind our goals will ultimately make us happier. If we know our own motivations, we can set and pursue the right goals.

I challenge you to determine what your motivations, and ultimately your values, are behind your goals. Begin by asking yourself:

  • What do I want my work to stand for?
  • What problems and curiosities am I most obsessed with thinking about and generating solutions for?
  • What’s my theory of change? (a.k.a. the beliefs and approaches you think will solve a problem?)
  • What impact do I want my work to have on myself, on others, on the planet?

As we begin to define success by our deeper values and impacts outside of just profit, we can begin to have a more complex and satisfactory relationship with our work and the journey on the way to our goals.

As James Baldwin says, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” Creators should continue to challenge and question the norm, further improving on how we build things and how we manage society.

King Konging and smashing through life can be fun, until everything is destroyed in its path.

Let the King Kong effect and pursuit of infinite growth die.