Cedar Fair’s “Thrills Connect” Advertising Campaign and White Male Superiority
On January 3, 2012, Dick Kinzel stepped down as CEO of Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, a publicly traded corporation headquartered in Sandusky, Ohio.2 In Kinzel’s 25 years as CEO, Cedar Fair grew from owning two amusement parks—Cedar Point in Sandusky and Valleyfair! in Shakopee, Minnesota—to owning 11 parks3 from the mid-Atlantic to California.4 Kinzel’s successor, Matt Ouimet, was hired in June 2011 after of industry experience years with Disney, including serving as the president of Disney’s California resort from 2003 to 2006. Ouimet’s priority with Cedar Fair has been to change the chain’s brand from being geared primarily thrill-seekers, with coasters such as Cedar Point’s 420’ tall, 120 mph Top Thrill,5 to being more aimed at families.
To change its brand in this way, Cedar Fair launched the Thrills Connect advertising campaign in 2012, designed by Cramer Krasselt of Chicago.6 The concept behind Thrills Connect, Ouimet told the Toledo Blade, is “to remind people that time with family, time with friends is precious. This is the place to spend it.”7 In another interview, with industry magazine Funworld, Ouimet said that the campaign was to let people know that “you can still have fun [at a Cedar Fair park], even if you’re not brave enough to get on [an extreme coaster].”8
The two television spots produced for the campaign in 2012, “Embrace” and “Language Barrier,” contradict Ouimet’s claims. Both spots are based around the concept that people who experience a thrilling ride such as a roller coaster can become closer. In Ouimet’s words, “I don’t care if you’ve never met the guy sitting next to you, when you go over the top of Top Thrill Dragster at  feet, by the time you get done the two of you are smiling at each other and there’s a connection there.”9 Beyond Ouimet’s anecdotal claim, research conducted by Dr. Paul Zak, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate University, shows that “activities that are moderately stressful and done with one or more other people” raise levels of oxytocin,10 a chemical messenger which has been dubbed “the trust molecule.”11
Though there is nothing inherently contradictory about selling amusement parks based on the release of oxytocin caused by thrill rides, the spots themselves are more focused on selling the dominant hegemonic ideology of white male superiority than they are focused on selling family, friends or fun. Both “Language Barrier” and “Embrace” star white men who appear to be visiting the park on their own. “Language Barrier” ignores family completely. While “Embrace” shows a family, it focuses more on women’s need to cling to the nearest man when they experience a scary ride like a roller coaster than on the value of the time the family spends at the park.
“Language Barrier,” as the title suggests, centers around a language barrier. The spot opens with four people sitting in the front row of a steel inverted coaster,12 nervously getting ready for dispatch. They are, from left to right, a white girl, a black man, a white man and an Asian man. The white girl, black man and white man look like friends. At any rate, they’re talking up the ride they’re about to face: “I’m pumped for this.” “Let’s do it!” The Asian man sits silently to the side until the white man turns to him and asks if this is his first roller coaster ride. Hilarity ensues when the Asian man, capable of speaking Mandarin but not a lick of English, fails to respond properly, leading the white man to pantomime a roller coaster. The Asian man nods, flashes a thumbs-up. His white companion responds, “That works.” The coaster sets off. We see the white man and the Asian man screaming and laughing as the coaster roars through the course. By the end of the ride, the language barrier is gone: while his black and female companions look on flabbergasted, the white man converses with his Asian seat partner in fluent Mandarin about how thrilling the ride was. As a male announcer reminds us that “sometimes finding common ground happens ten stories above it,” we cut to the standard closing shot for a Thrills Connect spot: park logo, park website and the “Thrills Connect” slogan on top of the vertical loop of Dominator at Kings Dominion.13
“Language Barrier” is not about the roller coaster, which we see running for less than three seconds—just long enough to get an impression of speed. “Language Barrier” is also not about the positive experience of a Cedar Fair park. The spot never travels beyond Silver Bullet. We see the coaster’s station, a rather generic functional space with a concrete floor and a set of empty lockers off to the side. We see a brief glimpse of roller coaster supports. That’s it. There is no mention of any of the other fun things one might encounter at a Cedar Fair park—no mention of the food, no mention of other rides, no mention of anything. In short, “Language Barrier” shows the experience of the park as nothing but riding a big coaster, making Ouimet’s claim that the campaign tries to show that you can have fun at a Cedar Fair park without going on the big coasters rather dubious.14
In fact, the main narrative of the spot has nothing to do with having fun at the park without riding a coaster. It has nothing to do with experiencing the park with friends—assuming the three Americans are friends in the beginning of the spot and not just strangers getting pumped up for a thrilling experience, rather than strengthening their bonds of friendship, the roller coaster puts a language barrier between them. Instead, “Language Barrier” is about how the coaster builds up the white male protagonist.
As stated earlier, the spot features a white male, a black male, a white female and an Asian male. It seems like “Language Barrier” does pretty with racial and gendered diversity. But while the spot may show a wide range of people, it has a strong pro-white bias, as revealed by a semiotic analysis of the clothing worn by the actors in the spot.15 Of the four leads, all except for the black male are wearing slacks which would be appropriate the workplace. The black male is in jeans, which are not as appropriate for work. Of the three male leads, two have on collared shirts. The black has on a t-shirt, continuing the pattern we saw in the actors’ pants. Second, the three Americans are wearing fairly unremarkable shoes. Both American males, white and black, have on lace-up shoes (the black has on black lace-ups); the girl wears slip-ons. The Asian man has on that classic combination of socks and sandals, a signifier of ultimate ignorance. After all, a 2013 poll by British retailer Debenhams labeled socks and sandals as the worst fashion faux pas of all time.16
Beyond the prejudices encoded in the model’s clothing, the spot’s physical placement of racial minorities on the screen is problematic. There are three blacks visible in the spot—the aforementioned man in the front row and a man and woman in the second row, very obscured by the front row seats. The man in the front row has a much lighter skin tone than the barely-visible second row presences, perhaps to make him more palatable to white audiences.17 The barely-visible people waiting in line throughout the station are all white.
Furthermore, the spot’s construction of the Asian man is racist and xenophobic. First, there is no good reason for the white male to assume that he has never ridden a roller coaster before. Remember, at this point in the spot, the Asian man has yet to speak and there is no indication that he does not know English; in short, there is no reason to assume that he is not American other than his skin tone. With this much information, it is impossible to make any reasonable determination as to his roller coaster experience. He could have been to multiple American parks prior to the spot. He could have been in the park for hours before getting on Silver Bullet. Even if he wasn’t American, he could have ridden a coaster at home—Asia is the world’s fastest-growing theme park market, with an estimated 290 million admissions in 2012.18 That the white man’s assumption turns out be correct is a strong indication that, to borrow semiotic terms, the dominant code in “Language Barrier” is that of American white patriarchal society. Secondly, there is no particularly good reason that he does not speak English. Assuming he is from China based on his speaking Mandarin, he could still feasibly speak English: an estimated 200-350 million Chinese are familiar with English,19 a sizeable 15-27% of China’s 1.3 billion.20 Also, just because the man has a skin color and facial features consistent with those from Asia, there is no reason he has to be from Asia, as opposed to being Asian-American. That the only person of Asian descent in the spots cannot communicate with the white male protagonists is certainly eyebrow-raising.
From everything we have discussed thus far, there is no doubt that this spot caters to a white American audience. Therefore, it makes sense that the spot positions the white male as the protagonist: every shot, save for the one in which the black and the woman are astonished by our white male’s newfound Mandarin abilities, features the white male, placing him near the center of medium shots and giving him at least a fourth of the frame in close ups. The story of “Language Barrier” is his story. It is not the story of how thrills connect—though “thrills connect” sure does sound good—but the story of how thrills elevate the white male.
Consider: at the beginning of the spot, the white male is the black male and the white woman’s equal. They are all Americans getting ready to enjoy a roller coaster. At the end of the spot, he has learned Mandarin because he is connected to the foreigner sitting next to him by the thrills they just experienced together (the framing of the shot with Silver Bullet in action carefully excludes both the black man and the white woman). It isn’t that the Asian male can now speak English and communicate with the three people he’s sitting with. It isn’t that the Asian male’s linguistic abilities are at the level of the Americans. Rather, the Asian male’s linguistic abilities remain in stasis while the white male’s linguistic abilities increase to above those of the black male and the female.
“Embrace” fares little better than “Language Barrier” when subjected to similar semiotic and content analysis. The similarities the two spots share go deeper than that they were filmed at the same park (Knott’s Berry Farm) and feature roughly the same amount of roller coaster footage (one shot, long enough to let us know that the roller coaster goes fast): both spots are about the elevation of a white male through the experience of a roller coaster.
While “Language Barrier” shows thrills connecting via the process of magical three-second language acquisition, “Embrace” shows thrills connecting in a more conventional way. The spot opens with a man and a woman, both white, sitting in a wooden coaster train,21 ready for dispatch. The woman tells the man that she’s “not scared, maybe a little scared.” Her seatmate tells her she’s “going to be fine” in a nice, assuring tone. A bell rings and they’re off. We see the train zooming through a curving drop and before we know it we’re back at the station, the woman clinging desperately to her seat mate, who pats her arm reassuringly while wearing a look which lets the viewer know he doesn’t mind having this woman clinging to him.
Here we arrive at the punch line: GhostRider seats a maximum of two riders per row.22 The woman is actually a part of a family of three that had to split up due to the coaster’s seating configuration, with her husband and son sitting in the row behind. Naturally, her husband is not amused to see her clinging to a stranger, leading to some awkward conversation. In an attempt to meliorate the situation, the wife proposes that the family goes off for funnel cake. Her seatmate is not invited. The closing voiceover? “Hairpin turns have a way of bringing people together.”23
In some ways, “Embrace” solves the problems of “Language Barrier” in that it bothers to suggest that there is a park outside of roller coasters by including the funnel cake line towards the end. The spot is also less overtly racist, though it helps all the featured actors are white, giving the spot less ability to encode stereotypes through its portrayal of ethnic minorities. This is not to say that the spot does not have non-white extras—five of the 18 people visible on the train are non-white.24 Of those five, four are in the extreme background of the shot, while another, an Asian woman, is three rows behind the lead actors. The non-white extras, barely visible in the background of four shots (this is counting shots with at least one non-white extra; only two shots have more than one non-white extras), are much less prominent than the white leads, who are featured in essentially every shot. The world of “Embrace” is a world where minorities exist but are nowhere near as relevant or important as whites, again upholding the dominant power structure in American society.
More problematic is the spot’s portrayal of gender. While there are female extras who can ride GhostRider and chat lightly about the experience afterwards, the spot treats them just like set dressing. The spot’s central focus is on how the primary woman (the mother of the family of three) is scared and the man is not, on how the woman needs the man for protection and on how the man’s masculinity is upheld through the woman being scared. This upholding of masculinity is particularly conveyed by the facial expressions of the lead actors when the train pulls into the station. Both have their eyes closed. The man is smiling, looking blissful. He’s absentmindedly stroking her (exposed) arm. The woman is breathing deeply, inhaling the scent of the man’s shirt. Her hand, wedding ring proudly visible, cradles the stranger’s neck. She looks thoroughly at peace, thoroughly protected. She’s survived the scary thrill ride, after all.
What is more, the spot (for an establishment aimed at families) is selling illicit sex. The man and woman embrace in front of her husband, who looks older than our protagonist—at the very least, if he’s not older, he’s got a some facial hair (our protagonist is clean-shaven), glasses (our protagonist has none) and a receding hairline (our protagonist, needless to say, has no such concerns), all of which code for more advanced age and convey some sense of stodginess. There is also the fact that the woman is dressed fairly conservatively. She’s wearing short sleeves but otherwise, no skin is visible (we can’t see her legs, given that she’s sitting in a coaster train). Though her clothes do not mark her as an easy target, our protagonist’s masculinity and courage are such that he still gets a nice, prolonged embrace.
Granted, the woman and man react with shame after her son, witnessing the action going on in the row in front of him, utters a less-than-amused “Mom?” She points out that “that’s my family.” “That’s your family—wow,” her seatmate contributes before the mother goes into funnel cake damage-control mode. Maybe the thrill-driven connection didn’t last particularly long, but once again, we see Cedar Fair’s advertisements upholding the dominant white male ideology.
For spots supposedly designed to encourage people to spend “precious” time with family and friends at the parks, “Language Barrier” and “Embrace” do a poor job showing family and friend connections being strengthened by roller coasters. “Language Barrier” shows a white man being elevated by thrills to a linguistically superior place compared to his supposed friends, whereas “Embrace” shows a family day at the park made awkward by thrills.25
In the context of the amusement industry, this seems rather off at first glance. After all, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), 78% of parks list “families with children 2-18” as their primary demographic.26 “Language Barrier,” however, shows nobody recognizable within the 2-18 age range; “Embrace” only shows the child who catches his mother cuddling up to a stranger on the coaster. Neither spot shows any recognizable teenager, the secondary demographic for amusement parks according to IAAPA.27
However, looking at Cedar Fair’s leadership structure, the values portrayed in the advertisements begin to make more sense. Popular culture teaches us that amusement parks are owned by white males28—look at Walt Disney (as portrayed by Tom Hanks in the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks, partially filmed at Disneyland),29 or John Hammond, the dreamer behind the ill-fated dinosaur park in Jurassic Park (both the Michael Crichton novel and the 1993 Steven Spielberg film). This holds true with Cedar Fair: the chain’s leadership skews heavily male and heavily white. Nine of the chain’s 11 general managers are male. Only three are non-white. Of the 11, only Pat Jones (Kings Dominion) is both female and a minority. Beyond general managers, the Cedar Fair Board of Directors is entirely white. Of the nine members, only two are female. The picture is similar among Cedar Fair’s executive officers. Of the nine, eight are male. Seven are white.30
Thus far, we have determined that “Language Barrier” and “Embrace” imprint messages of white male superiority in line with Cedar Fair’s leadership structure. But are the spots effective? While we do not have the word from anybody outside the production and broadcasting of the spots, Ouimet credited the campaign with driving record online season pass sales prior to the 2013 season,31 Cedar Fair’s best ever (according to its third-quarter earnings conference call, the chain is projected to take in between $1.125 and $1.135 in revenue).32
In other words, while we might disagree with everything the spots sell (white superiority, male superiority), it’s hard to deny that the spots do exactly what they’re supposed to do. They sell, increasing ticket sales for Cedar Fair parks33 and continuing to proliferate the dominant codes of American society.
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