20 Mar Mr. Rogers: A Model in Authenticity
Between 2019’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and last year’s film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, Mr. Rogers has been in the news a lot recently. The articles and coverage that have come with these releases has been overwhelmingly positive. A fitting counterpoint to a country left jaded by toxic politics and scandal. Take a moment to ponder the major names that have been forever tarnished by revelations from their sordid past in recent years. Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein to name a few. As a society we have grown used to the idea that celebrities, sports stars and politicians are not what they seem. So, how did Mr. Rogers pull off this remarkable branding achievement where everything written or said about him is reverential in tone? Where are the warts?
From a branding perspective, Mr. Rogers “creating” an authentic self is the key to everything. If you google the words “authentic self branding” you will find hundreds of articles with advice about how to build your own. Steps to take, ways to build a reputation, embracing vulnerability, how to be more transparent, becoming your own advocate. There’s no doubt that being consistent, building connections and being an advocate for your beliefs are key components of being authentic. Mister Rogers passes all of those standards with flying colors, but for him it was about more than that. What makes Mr. Rogers authentic self so enduring is that he never created any of it, he was the same on and off screen. That was the difference.
It’s almost impossible to be more consistent than Mister Rogers. Some elements of that consistency border on the absurd, such as him keeping his weight at 143 pounds (because “I Love You” has 1, 4 and 3 letters). Other aspects were well thought out, though. A great example is the way he started each show. It’s well known that Mister Rogers started each show singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” while changing his shoes and trading his coat for a sweater. He did this because he thought the consistent routine would be comforting to children. The rest of the show also followed a predictable sequence for the same reason.
“Talking about feelings can be difficult, especially feelings of vulnerability. This holds true today, although it might not seem as radical… at the time of the show it was unheard of.”
Another area of continuity more akin to branding was Mister Rogers consistent messaging. Even if you never saw the show you probably know that Mister Rogers was all about acceptance of self and others, loving one another and having honest discussions about real life issues. We all know what Mister Rogers ideals were because he never wavered from those. His ideologies were never in your face, they were subtle, instead trusting the intelligence of the audience. Just like his show, his views didn’t have to be loud; consistent messaging is just as effective.
Whether it be image, routine or message, you knew what you were going to get. Fred Rogers was Mister Rogers.
One of the more interesting aspects of Mister Rogers’ show was the way that he would talk to his audience directly through the camera. Other television shows have used this approach as well, but there was something about the sincerity of Mister Rogers that made it feel more poignant. His interactions with other people on the show also showed a level of genuine care for others. One such instance was when Rogers talked to a quadriplegic boy named Jeff Erlanger on his show. Tom Hanks noted that this clip brought him to tears and was a major reason why he chose to take on the role in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. What stood out to Hanks was the way Rogers was able to have a deeply personal conversation in a situation that may have made others uncomfortable. The depth of the compassion and empathy Rogers displayed on a regular basis would be impossible to fake.
The messages were positive, but oftentimes touched on deep emotional subject matter. He believed that children were capable of powerful emotions, by talking about these and normalizing those feelings he felt children would make better choices. In the Erlanger clip Rogers asks him if he ever feels sad; Erlanger replied that he did sometimes, but wasn’t feeling sad at the moment. Talking about feelings can be difficult, especially feelings of vulnerability. This holds true today, although it might not seem as radical…at the time of the show it was unheard of.
Another way that Mister Rogers formed connections with his audience was through answering questions from children that had written into the show. The questions could range from dealing with fear or anger, to traumatic events such as divorce or the death of loved ones. He created a special episode to help children understand the assassination of Robert Kennedy. He was even called out of retirement to create videos after the events on 9/11.
The important thing to note is that he didn’t shy away from topics that might be difficult. He listened to children and talked to them about what they cared about. It sounds simple, but it’s a great example of building connections by allowing your audience to influence your product.
“He was a master brand builder without even trying, he was just himself.”
Mister Rogers is most well known as a gentle, thoughtful person. He was also brave enough to take a stance for his beliefs. In fact the very reason he got into television wasn’t because he enjoyed the medium. Just the opposite, he looked at the programs available to children and found they lacked value. His show was his mission to correct that. When the government was thinking about taking away funding from public media in the late 1960’s it was Roger’s defense that swayed the opinions of congressmen. Unfortunately that funding is under attack again, but that’s a story for a different day.
Within “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” there were also examples of advocacy. In the first season and again in the 80’s “Conflict” episodes the show warned against nations become isolated and motivated by fear. The messages are played out in the Neighborhood of Make Believe, with King Friday calling for walls to be built in one episode, bombs in another. Airing in the 60’s and 80’s, these were direct parallels to Cold War fears, though one could argue it fits even more directly to the climate of our country today.
Mister Rogers also took a stance on racial intolerance in his unique way when he and Francois Clemmons, the show’s police officer, shared a kiddy pool to bathe their feet in. Not only did they share the pool, but they shared a towel afterwards to dry their feet. On the surface it doesn’t seem like much, but this was 1969 and Clemmons was African American. This was only about a year removed from the MLK assassination, 5 years removed from segregation and the United States was still very much a country of racial unrest.
Fred Rogers didn’t necessarily force his opinions onto others, in fact he didn’t even articulate them. Instead through actions he showed how he felt. Building walls out of fear is only hurting yourselves, sharing a pool with a person of different race is no big deal, and scary things like assassination or divorce need to be brought out into the open. Radical ideas then that are still relevant today.
A Brand That Stands the Test of Time
I knew that “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was a very important show in the history of television. I was even a viewer when I was a child. I had never thought about what made him so lasting or iconic as a person, though. What it comes down to is Fred Rogers was a master brand builder. He had a consistent message so that his fans knew what to expect, he connected to his audience members so that they felt like they knew him, and he showed he wasn’t fake by standing up for what he believed in. “Wasn’t fake” is really the key to all of it, and what makes it so hard to replicate. He was a master brand builder without even trying, he was just himself.