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'Duck Dynasty''s Success Is Entirely Based on Selling a Fantasy

The enduring, commercial fallacy of the "authentic" man


A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” premiered only two short years ago, and in that time has spawned a merchandising empire: “Duck Dynasty” video games, “Duck Dynasty” office supplies, “Duck Dynasty” bedding, “Duck Dynasty” nail polishes (shades include “Orange Safety Vest” and “Fancy Denim Overalls”), “Duck Dynasty” first aid supplies, “Duck Dynasty” cake decorating kits, a library of “Duck Dynasty” books (including The Duck Commander Devotional), and enough “Duck Dynasty”-brand camouflage gear to win a ground war. By the end of 2013, scarcely more than a year after the show’s premiere, “Duck Dynasty” merchandise had raked in $400 million. The show itself earned the family a reported $200,000 per episode (in addition to the $40 million in revenue that their duck call business earned).

And now: A musical, which will premiere in Las Vegas this February under the direction of a Broadway team. Some may wonder whether the “Duck Dynasty” juggernaut will ever stop—and if a brand founded on a particular idea of authenticity can survive such endless dissemination. Broadway is, after all, a very long way from the Bayou. Yet answering this question means first asking another: How did it start?

Projecting authenticity has always been a quintessentially American gift. When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France in 1776, he showed the world—and his countrymen—just how striking a figure a “simple” American could cut. Clad in a fur cap, Franklin soon found his own image “everywhere,” as he wrote to his daughter: It was “on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings, busts.” (Thomas Jefferson grew so weary of Franklin’s ubiquity that he gifted a porcelain chamber pot with Franklin’s likeness on the inside to the Comtesse de Polignac.) Yet even for those who had not read or could not read a word of his writing, Franklin’s image was legible: He was the rugged, unassuming, authentic American, a wise fool whose untutored mind saw democratic truths that those corrupted by decadent monarchy might miss.

Ben Franklin

No matter what Franklin said to the most powerful people in France, the face on the snuffbox had just as much influence as the—educated, astute, and highly self-conscious—politician did. One could argue that Franklin’s ability to bewitch the French people and ensure their support of the American Revolution was a direct result of his image as a “simple” frontiersman—an image he could produce so consistently because it was, in the end, a performance.

Since Franklin’s time, Americans have remained uniquely enamored of the simple man who speaks homely truths and sees what his more sophisticated brethren cannot. He doesn’t come from money and he was never fond of school, but in his world, life is simple and men are men. Though he may be too blunt or crass at times, he will also never lie—which is perhaps why he remains a standard in American politics to this day, spanning the centuries from Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Geroge W. Bush, the millionaire Yale graduate who donned a pair of cowboy boots to clear brush from his Texas ranch. Outside of politics, he can still give the public what they most crave: a figure they can trust completely.

The power and riches this trust brings can be staggering, as Elia Kazan presciently explored in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith played “Demagogue in Denim” Lonesome Rhodes, whose “spontaneous” ranting and resulting fame anticipated Glenn Beck’s career to an almost eerie degree. Kazan’s vision ended with his demagogue showing the world his true colors—as a profit-thirsty narcissist who loathed his public almost as much as he did himself—and losing everything as a result. In real life, however, America’s notoriously fickle viewers seem oddly steadfast in their love of “authentic” heroes. If the public needs to put their trust in someone, it takes very little to win their love, and then their spending power. Something as small as a furry hat or a pair of cowboy boots or an acoustic guitar will do—or, in the case of “Duck Dynasty,” some ZZ Top-length beards.

Elia Kazan's 'A Face in the Crowd'
Warner Brothers

The relationship between authenticity and commercialization has been at the forefront of “Duck Dynasty” since its inaugural episode aired. When “Duck Dynasty” first rose to popularity, it seemed an anomaly in the reality TV landscape: In a genre full of slapfights, weave-pulling, betrayals, infidelities, and minor misunderstandings amplified into relationship-destroying battles, “Duck Dynasty” depicted a world where nothing much happened at all. The men went fishing, frogging, and hunting on the bayou, and the women cooked and kissed their husband’s cheeks. “Nobody drives us crazy like our own family,” eldest son Willie Robertson told viewers in one of his contemplative voice-overs. “They’re odd, they push our buttons, they’re the source of our biggest frustrations—but also, our greatest joy.” Anger could always be ironed out by the family’s fierce love, and by Phil Robertson’s catchphrase: “Happy, happy, happy.” It was what everyone wanted, and it was what the Robertson family seemed to have.

The show also came along at a time when American viewers needed to believe that immensely profitable companies might be run by men who ate dinner off paper plates and wore dirty hunting boots to work. The Robertson men didn’t seem particularly business-savvy, or even all that competent. They and their company, it seemed, had succeeded due to faith and sweat alone. If viewers could believe in this image of the mom and pop business making good, then maybe they could find hope for the business world as a whole. This was exactly the kind of magical thinking that the recession had destroyed, and that viewers so fervently wished to find again—so much the better if they could locate it in a show that claimed to represent a “real” family business. American consumers needed “Duck Dynasty” even more than “Duck Dynasty” needed its consumers.

The amount of merchandising "Duck Dynasty" has churned out is astonishing partly because it dwarfs that of even similarly gargantuan media franchises. In recent years, Americans have also fallen under the thrall of Marvel’s Avengers films, but few adults would purchase Avengers bedding or stationary or manicure sets. The difference, it seems, is that "Duck Dynasty" is not just a form of entertainment but a lifestyle, with each purchase offering a tangible reminder that people like the Robertsons are out there living the American dream, proving that it is still attainable. What has made "Duck Dynasty" so amazingly profitable is the scale of consumers’ anxiety and the love they have for the figures who assuage it.

This need has also made the Robertson family profoundly durable, even in the face of significant controversy. The greatest test yet of the show’s staying power came last December, when Phil Robertson came under fire for making homophobic comments in a GQ interview: asked what he defined as sinful, he replied, “start with homosexuality.” A media outcry ensued, and A&E suspended Robertson from the show—for nine days.

After fans protested and corporate sponsors and merchandise outlets continued their support, A&E returned him to the program, and continued to churn out new episodes. For his part, Robertson remained unapologetic about his statements, and apparently unimpressed by public’s response to them. “The news media didn’t even know it was a verse!” he said in a public sermon the following year. No matter his own entanglement with “the news media,” Phil Robertson was firmly allied with the people—and, by extension, his network could lay claim to a voice not of authority, but of authenticity and truth.

Those who have already bought their share of Duck Dynasty stocking stuffers might begin to wonder what 2015 will bring to both the Robertson family and their audiences. Will Las Vegas’ The Duck Commander Family Musical prove a hit with audiences, and perhaps even make it to Broadway? Will the musical present a facet of the Robertsons’ lives that audiences have not already seen?

The answer to the last question is difficult to conjure—but perhaps more to the point is the fact that it does not matter. Any fictional depiction of the Robertson clan will fail to bring viewers the pleasure they feel from seeing the Robertson’s be their “authentic” selves—no matter how heavily this image is mediated by editors, producers, network executives, and merchandisers. The real question is not whether viewers will ever grow exhausted with the Robertson family, because, at least in the country’s brief history, Americans have not grown tired of figures they can point to as authentic and good, and keep around as reminders of the true American spirit in action.

Rather, we have to wonder whether more details will emerge that contrast the fantasy of the Robertson family just a little too sharply with their lived reality. Will one of its members ever voice an opinion or become involved in a scandal so unsavory that it will shatter their images as backwoods oracles? Or will “Duck Dynasty”’s adoring public hide any revelations, no matter how incongruent, in order to keep believing in the fantasy it provides?