Tuned In

Buy the Sky and Sell the Sky: The Weather Channel Is Now Branding Winter

The channel now has its own system for naming (and hyping) winter storms. Call me old-fashioned, but is it too much to ask for marketing to stop at the freaking sky?

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On my recent vacation, I drove through two storms so momentous and terrible that they had their own names. Traveling from Ann Arbor to suburban Detroit after Christmas, I passed through Winter Storm Euclid. A few days later, we made the nearly 600-mile return drive from Michigan to Brooklyn under the chill breath of Winter Storm Freyr.

Driving in the snow is never especially fun, of course, but I generally associate named storms with cyclones, hurricanes, megastorms. So what frozen terror did Euclid and Freyr blow at us? Were there whiteouts? Impassable roads? Six-foot-snow drifts? White Walkers emerging from beyond The Wall?

Maybe somewhere. Where I was, it just snowed, like it does in winter. Then eventually it stopped. Driving was slow. There were some accidents. After Euclid, there was enough accumulation in Michigan to make a modest snowman. After Freyr, Brooklyn was wet with puddles; if you looked hard, you could find a patch of whitish dust on the sidewalk. Damn you, cruel Freyr! Damn you to hell!

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The reason these unremarkable winter events required their own names: The Weather Channel has willed it so. For the first time, TWC has announced its own slate of names for snowstorms, a la hurricanes. Whereas the decades-old hurricane-naming system tends to give us monster storms with ironically homely names like “Katrina” and “Sandy,” TWC’s telegenic list gives us snow showers with hyperbolic names that reference mythology (“Zeus,” Jove”), history (“Caesar”), Shakespeare (“Iago”) and, seemingly, Harry Potter (“Draco”). The channel apparently gave the naming job to a nerdy 11-year-old boy.

Announcing the plan this fall, TWC gave high-minded reasons. “Our goal is to better communicate the threat and the timing of the significant impacts that accompany these events,” the channel announced. “The fact is, a storm with a name is easier to follow, which will mean fewer surprises and more preparation.”

Uh-huh. Even assuming the most selfless intentions, there’s the obvious chance for TWC to benefit. Storms that people “follow” and “pay attention to” are storms that people turn on The Weather Channel for. I’m not sure that there was that much danger of people being uninterested in whether it will snow in the winter. But a storm with a name is an event, a brand, something that can become an on-screen graphic and a Trending Topic on Twitter. (Even the channel’s high-minded announcement suggests that: “it might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users.”)

The Weather Channel is a big media outlet with a big reach—it’s owned in part by NBC—so its branding has the potential to spread widely. If the practice gets picked up beyond its own air and sister news properties, in essence every reference to one of its named storms is marketing for the channel. Turning over the job of naming the weather itself to a commercial business feels like something out of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which characters lived through The Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.

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Of course, it’s possible two things could be true: that the naming scheme could be a self-interested marketing grab and a genuinely useful service. The problem is, it’s not quite clear what it indicates when a winter storm gets a name. Named tropical storms are discrete, defined systems that meet objective criteria: wind speed, barometric pressure, &c. Winter storms are more nebulous entities—sometimes less a single “storm” than an associated band of rough weather–and there are no hard criteria defining which storms the channel will christen.

Instead, TWC says, it will make the call on the basis of a storm’s potential to have “disruptive impacts.” Which, when you think about it, is pretty much any snowstorm, if you happen to slip on a patch of ice. How judiciously is the channel applying its judgment so far? I’m no meteorologist; I’ll just note that we’re already up to letter F, and it’s been winter for two weeks.

Which is one reason some detractors in the weather field don’t like the system: they say the process may just be arbitrary and confusing, if anything undermining public awareness of the weather. That may be, though I suspect that people will still care about snow in the winter and TWC will still find a way to overhype it, names or no names.

Really, TWC’s storm names bother me on a gut level, not a practical one. I’m pretty inured at this point in life to advertising, branding and marketing being on every surface and in every virtual environment. But—call me old-fashioned—is it too much to ask for it to stop at the freaking sky?

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People have never needed help noting and naming truly momentous winter events—The Blizzard of ’78, and so on—and social media has only made storm naming more democratic and organic. (Snowpocalypse! Snowmaggeddon!) In the name of the public interest, TWC is trying to impose a top-down dictate on a populist exercise. Weather is one thing in this world that is still wild and beyond ownership. To make an act of nature proprietary feels to me, well, unnatural.

But I guess that naïve spirit is gone like last winter’s snow. Next up on TWC’s list will be Winter Storm Gandolf, which, the channel has clarified, is a reference to William Morris’ The Well at World’s End and not to the J.R.R. Tolkien wizard character. Still, if Gandolf should come along in time to air ads for The Hobbit during the coverage—well, that’s a win-win for everyone, right?

Maybe next winter we can look forward to Winter Storm Smaug. After all, if there’s one thing that’s even better than a successful brand, it’s a sequel.