TED's Tricky Branding Challenge

TED's amazingly successful local spinoff, TEDx, has come under fire for hosting talks on pseudoarchaeology and perpetual motion machines. TED-central is stepping in, but what happens when success causes a branding challenge?

TED Talks are everywhere. The California non-profit's annual gatherings are at the center of global intellectual life; they're just as likely to be parodied by The Onion as they are to show up in a classroom, a corporate retreat, or in a startup elevator pitch. TEDx is the wildly successful TED local spin-off program that brings TED-like talks to the masses ... but TEDx faces a credibility problem. Some talks have introduced previously verboten topics such as alien abduction and crystal power, along with scientific assertions that didn't check out in basic peer review.

Local affiliates, working with minimal oversight from the TED mothership, bought fringe science and unlikely ideas into the fold—causing blowback from TED's established audience. While crystals may indeed have mysterious powers, they haven't been proved in empirical experiments. One TEDx event held on December 1, TEDxValenciaWomen, featured speakers (Spanish-language link) on a variety of topics including crystal healing and "Egyptian psychoaromatherapy" alongside TEDx's standard technology and self-help fare. Reddit's large user community quickly learned about the Valencia TEDx event, and criticized TED for "pseudoscientific content."

TEDx quickly embarked on damage control. Lara Stein of TEDx and Emily McManus of TED.com wrote a jointly signed blog post calling on TEDx organizers to make sure scientific speakers have data which is peer-reviewed, verified, and backed up by genuine experiments. More importantly, Stein and McManus issued a set of, well, anti-wingnut guidelines for TEDx organizers. Among other things (ranging from reiki healing to perpetual energy machines), organizers are urged to watch out for potential speakers who barrage them "with piles of unrelated, over-general backup material" and who demand TEDx present "both sides of the issue" on topics such as alternative health, vaccination, and autism.

Importantly, TEDx did not introduce any sort of official oversight for speakers at local events. TED embraces a decentralized approach for contact with local licensees. TEDx leaves speaker screening and selection entirely in the hands of local organizers, which is a mixed blessing. When local event organizers have different opinions on, say, peer-reviewed science than the TED mothership, that creates a branding problem. For TED and TEDx, the issue is making sure UFOs, crystal healing, and revisionist history don't dilute the TED/TEDx brand.

At one recent event, Massachusetts' TEDxShelburne Falls, stonemason Jim Vieira spoke about the existence of giants in Ancient America, who built giant mounds currently ascribed to pre-Columbian Native American cultures.

A 2012 presentation at TEDxCharlotte in North Carolina described the science behind perpetual motion machines, which have never been peer-reviewed in a legitimate academic setting.

One of the biggest problems facing TEDx in policing odd content is the sheer number of local TEDx events that take place. In January 2013 alone, 125 TEDx events on five continents are scheduled; January is a relatively slow month for local affiliates of the massive "ideas worth spreading" monolith. Among others, the CIA is hosting TEDxCIA, and local TEDx events will take place in Tehran and Mogadishu. Policing TEDx talks for content would require massive centralization and an overhaul of TED's operating model.

For TED, success is a mixed blessing. While their talks have become cocktail party fodder worldwide, they also regularly encounter blowback from critics. More importantly, TED made the conscious choice to put TEDx forward as the local face of the TED mothership. The vast majority of the college professors, entrepreneurs, and intellectually curious types who compose the TED demographic are infinitely more likely to attend a local TEDx than the annual California TED festival. When the local licensees end up claiming ancient America was dominated by giant, mound-building humans, it creates a daunting branding and public relations challenge.

[Image: Flickr user Karthik Chandrasekariah]

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  • Antonella Broglia

    If you are open you are open and you need to have the courage to be really open. If you supervise, then you prevent the platform to be diverse, diversifing and innovative. TEDx program is a R&D program. 4 bad talks out of 20.000 is really a little price to pay, especially when the incident provokes such an interesting discussion.

  • trib

    Oh, they're watching. As a TEDx licensee, there's been much conversation amongst us and TED HQ.

  • Neal Ungerleider

    It's an interesting issue. TEDx talks themselves are based around a radically decentralized licensing scheme - and it seems to me that 99% of TEDx talks pass muster without a problem. But as TEDx grows and scales larger and larger, that 1% will certainly become more of an issue.

  • trib

    You're right. And it's this very issue the TEDx licensees are thrashing out right now. It's very much in our hands, with a little light guidance from TED itself, but we're the one's with the responsibility to make sure we have scientifically valid ideas presented.

  • H2

    While I don't find anything wingnutty about Eastern medicine topics (really? Reiki is fringe?), I do think some oversight is needed for local events. I recently attended a TEDx event. The topics weren't too alternative, they were too mundane. Ideas worth spreading? Not many.

    Different problem, same cause. 

  • vickytnz

    The problem is that TEDx is being used to cover far too many things these days. I'd ague that a lot of these more methodologically dubious talks would do better in unconference style events such as Refresh or even just Pecha Kucha.

  • trib

    I think organisers like me, and our teams, need to be more picky. We need to look for truly worthy talks, and not just settle.