We gave Oprah a symbol of American redneck pride

Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful and most connected people in the world, spent a day in Edmonton. It was snowy and -11 when she arrived. As I write this, it is snowy and -9 in her hometown, Chicago, but alas. Oprah spoke of the weather.

oprah

We talk about the weather because it is the easiest thing to talk about, in elevators and at airports. It is inoffensive, unless you happen to live in a city with a confidence problem. When Oprah uses the word “tundra,” it stings. Not because Edmonton on a snowy January day does not resemble the tundra. It does! When the lovely towers of downtown Chicago are obscured by snow it looks like tundra too. It’s flat and white and windy.

This is why we spent a year researching the Edmonton story. What do we want Oprah to think and to say and to see and to feel, when she arrives, so she is not obliged to talk about the weather?

We gave Oprah gifts, as a city. Sausage from Mundare makes sense, and everyone gets an Oilers jersey. But Edmontonians are most proud of things, events, companies that were invented or built here, from the ground up. We have a lot of them to draw from. “If we don’t grow it, we don’t own it,” as Shirley Lowe, historian laureate, puts it.

So why did we give Oprah Winfrey “truck nuts”?

Truck Nuts were invented in the southern United States as an emblem of redneck pride. What someone might say in response, as I worry aloud about giving truck nuts to Oprah Winfrey, is that I don’t have a sense of humour. That may be true. But I do think, in my humourless manner, that you can be funny and smart at the same time. This is marketing. We’re leaving someone with over 16 million Twitter followers with an image, a memory, of our city — of us. Randomness is wrong. An empty joke is wrong.

It’s an act of failure, of desperation, of stupidity, and it’s why no traditional branding agency could solve this problem. This is why we took the approach that led to Make Something Edmonton.

What might we have given Oprah?

“Oprah: Live your best life” might have met “Edmonton: What are you making?”

I know this stuff is hard, but it’s also so, so easy.

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56 thoughts on “We gave Oprah a symbol of American redneck pride

    • An outrageous act demonstrating insensitivity to those who work so hard to convince us that we should be working to reduce carbon emissions. But on the other hand, just look at what’s parked in mall parking lots, driving on the streets, We have a long ways to go. Over and above that think of the rich cultural and musical life of Edmonton and Alberta. Think of the parks, the river valley trail system, and all the positive aspects of the city. Truck nuts?

  1. I must have resembled a guppy when I first read of this gift. I just could not keep my jaw from dropping. I am trying very hard to find a positive in this.

    • Seems to me the conversation that’s going on right now should have been had before Oprah’s arrival. Lots of great gift ideas.

      • Totally agree. The conversation should have come to the inevitable conclusion that this may be funny for about 2 seconds, as a gag gift, and also only if made clear that it was a gag gift. Oh the shame. Worse still, it is an American invention. Way to go.

  2. Was that really the official gift? Maybe this makes me humourless as well, but I think we could have done better. Thanks for writing about this and for sharing some positive ideas for how we could have done better.

  3. Please send this thoughtful post to the person(s) at Global who gave her the gifts. It would be nice to be a bit smarter going forward.

    • I was there at Rexall, and I think truck nuts are ridiculous, but the intention was purely humour and Oprah was very amused…it wasn’t intended to be a serious reflection of Edmonton as a city, it was more SNL style…and Oprah got it, and so did many people in the audience who were paying attention. Unless you were there you wouldn’t get the humour of the moment…just my thoughts from someone who was there.

  4. Todd, I felt the same way. When I saw the truck nuts brought out, I felt myself actually cringe. Is that what we want people to know us by? When we have amazing local businesses that craft cute sock monkeys and monsters. We have authors and artists, we have creators and so many other things to be proud of. So why truck nuts? We should have known better, but what’s done is done. So let’s use this as an opportunity to learn from it and not make the same mistake again.

  5. Were you there? In the audience? I was, and those gifts were not “official” City of Edmonton gifts. They were a few of Edmonton’s Favourite Things. And she received it with the humour it was intended. Don’t get me wrong, those truck nuts make me throw up a little bit in my mouth when I see them, but it was more of a self-deprecating poke at some of the people who live here, rather than a true “gift”. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the few gifts she’ll remember…

    • Kim you are right! I was there as well, and it was just a little fun that was had with Oprah. If anything, Oprah has a grand sense of humour and is naturally, human. Thanks Todd for great gift ideas for future opportunities.

  6. This is so ridiculous. It seems surreal.

    We should try and send Oprah a “Citizens of Edmonton” gift. It might be late, but it could also be more comprehensive. I’d be willing to give her an Edmonton-themed, spoken word poem as part of the package.

  7. Holy hell, I overheard something about truck nuts being referenced at the Oprah event, but didn’t realize that we’d actually given them to her as a gift! While I do think it’s darkly comic that someone thought truck nuts were an ideal way of representing Edmonton, I can’t believe that they actually ran with the idea.

    Maybe if they’d been invented here and produced out of a machine shop on 99th Street it would have made some sort of sense.

    *sigh*

  8. I am not sure who helped to coordinate the gifts. I would have to admit that it would have been a very intimidating task. I am not that embarrassed about the “truck nuts” as a gift, more about the originality. Oprah already knew what they were coming from the south.

    I think this task has ignited a lot of great ideas for future gift ideas! Let’s use this situation as an opportunity to do better! Doesn’t mean we can’t send her some new gifts 😉

    • Not sure where “tellyles” lives but truck nuts, not even “PRODUCED” in Canada, are NOT popular in Not sure where “tellyles” lives but truck nuts, not even “PRODUCED” in Canada, are NOT popular in Edmonton – one would have to see more than 1 pair/year to even call them “common”! Perhaps they’d be a funny & appreciated gift for Jeff Noseworthy, but Oprah? Have you seen her yearly ‘100 Favorite Things’? They’re tasteful, beautiful, unique or useful – not tasteless and crude. With so many talented artists in Edmonton I’m sure we could have given her a unique gift she would remember & perhaps display/use in her home. Let’s pray she never does a show of the “100 Favorite Things of Toured Countries”! How do you think our ‘gift’ would compare? That’s all Alberta needs is to be known for is truck nuts and oiled ducks! A late gift to show her talented, classy people live in Edmonton is in order.

    • Al lot of should have and could have’s. I agree with the post her. I think there is so much richness to Edmonton. We all new Oprah was coming… if we wanted to make her gifts and reach out to give her some custom made boots or suggest to the City or event organizers what to give. Why didn’t we. If we didn’t take care, I feel we can’t complain. What will we solve from looking at the past. My questions is, what have we learned from this and how can WE make sure that these ideas are brought forward or used next time? Did we do all we could? In reading some of the other comments. I see it more about the wit and “balls” it took to present something about that. It’s not the gift that makes the impression, it what it takes to actually stand up and present something unpredictable. We’re not square, we’re not a typical city… we’re a City filled with folks who have the guts and courage to make bold moves and create amazing things. I see this gift as representation of that and less about the actual gift. It’s Oprah… she sees base the literal. I think we’re okay folks.

  9. Todd, you’re one of the funniest and smartest people I know; ‘humourless’ would be the last word I’d use to describe you. And whether you care what Oprah thinks or not is not the point here. The point is, are truck nuts the best we can do to represent ourselves? Is that the sum of what Edmontonians are and what Edmonton is? I think not.

  10. …this has me livid.To anyone reading this, who is quick to flippantly respond with: ‘who cares what Oprah thinks.’ has most certainly missed the point. This city had the privilege of welcoming one of the most influential individuals of our time. An individual, whether you love her or loath her, has influence and a voice that reaches the masses. A scale of influence that both you and I will likely never have or even begin to understand the scope and weight of. We had the missed privilege of showing her who we are, where we come from and what we’re about. I refuse to sit back and be lumped into a minority people group in this city that would proudly consider themselves a ‘redneck’. To be so proud as to offer a guest of honor TRUCK NUTS. I employ those who find such a gesture even remotely amusing to reassess. The above blog post points out a number of small yet meaningful, authentic and insightful tokens of appreciation that would have left a lasting impression of merit and substance. Who was Barbie in that tasteless micro mini up there on Monday evening and who were the marketing Hilbilies that gave the ‘go ahead’ for such clown behavior? If only there was a way to ‘right this wrong’. I am deeply embarrassed. 

  11. …this has me livid.To anyone reading this, who is quick to flippantly respond with: ‘who cares what Oprah thinks.’, has most certainly missed the point. My response is two fold. This city had the privilege of welcoming one of the most influential individuals of our time. An individual, whether you love her or loath her, has influence and a voice that reaches the masses. A scale of influence that both you and I will likely never have or even begin to understand the scope and weight of. We had the missed privilege of showing her who we are, where we come from and what we’re about. I refuse to sit back and be lumped into a minority people group in this city that would proudly consider themselves a ‘redneck’. To be so proud as to offer a guest of honor TRUCK NUTS. I employ those who find such a gesture even remotely amusing to reassess. The above blog post points out a number of small yet meaningful, authentic and insightful tokens of appreciation that would have left a lasting impression of merit and substance. Who was Barbie in that tasteless micro mini up there on Monday evening and who were the marketing Hilbilies that gave the ‘go ahead’ for such clown behavior? If only there was a way to ‘right this wrong’. I am deeply embarrassed. 

  12. Mortified. It makes it appear that everyone who drives a truck in Edmonton sports a set of truck nuts. I haven’t seen one pair in Edmonton… it was only when I went to rural AB that I witnessed my first. What about a CD Colletion from Stony Plain Records?

  13. Agree completely Todd… Irrespective of the dark humour in selecting truck nuts and the good humour in which they may have been received, selecting them was nothing more than foolishness. We spent thousands to get her to come – presumably hopeful that she would end up selling our brand – and that’s the brand we give her to sell. If learning that and shedding a year – albeit symbolically – and shaking my head means I also am “humourless”, I’ll wear that brand long before I’ll give out truck nuts. 😦

    • Shafraaz,

      We already look “hick”… that would exacerbate it, not cure it, at least if done in any official capacity. Sometimes you just have to shake your head and leave well enough alone or you just probe we really don’t know what we’re doing or what we’re selling/branding or how to do it. On an individual non official basis – have at it. It may show something to the powers that be here as well as to Oprah if there’s more than a token of that but officially it could never be more than a token which would be a second wrong message.

  14. I’m kind of ambivalent about the truck nuts. Granted, it was a juvenile token from a local media personality supposedly representing us but admittedly its something Her O-ness will likely remember better than any locally-made boots, books, music or poetry which you could easily get in any mid-sized city across this continent. Truck nuts, for all the head-smacking embarrassment that ensued amongst some of us, will remind Oprah that she wasn’t in Indianapolis or St. Louis or Winnipeg. But I think this goes to a larger point–to this day we still don’t have an actual symbol of any kind that uniquely represents Edmonton. Go to Oprah’s website right now and check out the photo’s of her “3-City Canadian tour”…and its all photos of her with a white stetson in Calgary! Hell, even the photo of her at YEG International is mislabeled “frigid Calgary”! Yet again, we are (literally) made into a footnote to our provincial rival. I think creating our own imagery, even one as cliched, tired and tenuous as Calgary’s cowboy hat is essential to moving the Edmonton brand forward. It sure as hell better not be truck nuts, but at least they’ve gotten this conversation started.

    • Totally agree Sam…let’s focus our energy on brainstorming ideas for BRANDING Edmonton…one thing comes to mind, believe it or not, we are a very “green” city…our beautiful river valley and world-class waste management facility. I work in the tourism industry and always see Calgary with their white hats at international trade shows while Edmonton (and many other cities) struggle to find a central image or icon to “hang their hat on”… any thoughts? Truck nuts anyone — JUST KIDDING!!! Seriously tho…could we convert the River Valley into a brand? Convert “green” into a brand?

      • An idea for an ‘Edmonton Item’ that I’ve been throwing around recently is a pair of bright green Edmonton running shoes. It ties in the ‘ribbon of green’ river valley, our green initiatives (world leader in biofuels and recycling, I believe), and would definitely lend a hand to the whole Active Edmonton thing. Good in Summer and Winter (with a pair of trax).

  15. Truck nuts are a big thing here.

    Also, we’re talking about Oprah, right?

    Also, we also gave her a basket from Duchess Bakery.

    More importantly though, we’re talking about Oprah

  16. Truck NutZ?? I can think of at least 20 other items that would have been funny, representattive of Edmonton and would not have been offensive. These truck nutz should be banned period. I am definitely not a prude but they have no place out in public. I am so embarrased for the city, imagine what she is telling all of here staffers now.

  17. There were more gifts than the ‘truck nuts’ such as a beautiful assortment from Duchess. Also, the media host was not the sole person responsible for picking out the “gifts” all of which were vetted through Oprah’s people.

    Truck dangling things was a lousy choice to be sure which is all the more reason Edmonton needs to finally get a handle on our identity. It is 2013 and yet we Edmontonians still struggle with this despite having not one but two organizations (The City of Edmonton and Edmonton Economic Development Corp.) charged with this very thing. What will it take? More Washington Yo-yo’s, the contest to come to Edmonton where people had to be convinced not only was the randomness legit but that coming to Edmonton was a prize and now we give truck nuts…

  18. So a young woman from Ottawa who is here working in our local media and has the distinct honor of being the media personality who gets to present Oprah to an audience, gives an Oprah truck nuts – a gift that is not only entirely humiliating for us as Edmontonians but is exactly the stereotype we fight in Ottawa, in eastern Canada constantly.

    In addition, had she stopped long enough to understand the history of “truck nuts” and what they represent in the American south, the presenter may have understood what an incredibly insulting gift these are to give to an African American woman.

    So, to sum up: Edmonton, humiliated. Oprah, likely insulted given what culture truck nuts actually represent. And a woman from Ottawa succeeded in perpetuating the very redneck image we fight politically and socially.

    Yeah, I’d say our “peeved off” attitude is entirely qualified.

  19. Truck nuts are perfect symbol of Edmonton. Unfortunately edmonton doesn’t have a brand because it’s is a transitory town that people work in but would never seattle in. Can you blame them? No. Edmonton is not a great city by any means. Embarrassing urban sprawl, lrt lines going nowhere, poor city management, poor walkable communities, crime, lrt lines going nowhere, terrible weather, crumbling roads, Truck nuts are perfect symbol of Edmonton. Unfortunately edmonton doesn’t have a brand because it’s is a transitory town that people work in but would never seattle in. Can you blame them? No. Edmonton is not a Truck nuts are perfect symbol of Edmonton. Unfortunately edmonton doesn’t have a brand because it’s is a transitory town that people work in but would never seattle in. Can you blame them? No. Edmonton is not a great city by any means. Embarrassing urban sprawl, lrt lines going nowhere, poor city management, poor walkable communities, crime, lrt lines going nowhere, terrible weather, crumbling roads, Truck nuts are perfect symbol of Edmonton. Unfortunately edmonton doesn’t have a brand because it’s is a transitory town that people work in but would never seattle in. Can you blame them? No. Edmonton is not a great cit

    • well i guess the edmonton you live is is a lot different than the edmonton i live in regardless of how many times you want to repeat the myths. i have seen the edmonton region’s population almost triple since moving here the first time from somewhere else and staying. that’s not a transitory town that noone settles in. is edmonton a great city? maybe not yet, but it is a damn good city that’s a great one to live in. that’s why we came back so readily and why we’re staying. it doesn’t actually sprawl despite the myth – it’s actually quite dense when you net out the river valley and industrial areas and other spaces that are not actually available for residential development but are still included in our overall area. our financing – if you actually look at it – is in better shape than most other municipalities in alberta (or in canada or north america for that matter). as for the truck nuts, there certainly aren’t any on my car and i would hazard a guess that there probabaly aren’t any on yours either.

  20. What about an Oilers jersey – she did thank the Oilers for letting her use the facility – the NHL was just getting started again – and there was an Oilers game the next night. Or how about framing that painting of downtown Edmonton with some oak banisters from the 1912 Edmonton Courthouse that was demolished in 1972. A company from Leduc – Courthouse Memories http://www.courthousetreasures.com/ – makes custom frames. Would have been a touch of history – something that we certainly don’t have a lot of in this city. Obviously, not a lot of thought and effort was put into choosing the gift

  21. Pingback: Oprah, Oilers and the Arena | Edmonton Blog Watch | The Unknown Studio

  22. Pingback: Media Monday Edmonton: Update #65 - MasterMaq's Blog

  23. Another great gift would have been a painting from Irene Klar. Irene is a successful local artist who was commissioned to do the paintings for the Amnesty International Canada 1993 calendar and six for the 1994 Amnesty USA pocket calendar. In 1998, Irene Klar created an image for a poster in support of the Trans-Canada Trail. USC has commissioned a serigraph for women’s projects in Africa and Asia. A painting by Irene would show that we are more than just rednecks who love our nuts and hockey. And it would be something that Oprah could actually relate to.

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