Experience Is In the Eye of the Beholder


By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She currently works as a staff member in the Department as a Student Liaison and filmmaker. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

The other day I came across a friend’s Facebook photo that advertised the upcoming 4th of July Color Run in Montgomery, AL. It reminded me of Russell McCutcheon’s post discussing the marketing strategies of the for-profit company The Color Run, LLC. I, like many others it seems, assumed it was a non-profit, cancer awareness type event. While it is marketed much the same as other charity events, their website does say on that they are a “for profit event management company.” So while the information isn’t widely advertised, it’s no secret, either.

But what I find so interesting is the level of outrage I was seeing in various online articles and posts calling The Color Run a “faux-charity scam” (the former headline of this article). Allison Leonard, the author of the article, argues that The Color Run is running a scam and is deceiving the marathoners into paying $50 for the event, rather than donating for charity purposes, which, according to Leonard, takes away from or degrades the experience to being nothing more than a “hyped-up” “fad” that promotes baseless promises of a “brighter outlook.”

Now, while I have no doubt that many people wanted to donate to some type of charity and, let’s be honest, were angered to discover that they were duped by some really good advertising, I don’t see how that would define the limits of this so-called positive and unique experience. I think the participants get exactly what they want out of The Color Run, whether it’s some sort of personal fulfillment for completing the 5K or some great Facebook photos, which is why it continues to be a successful enterprise.

There’s no “authentic Color Run experience” to be had, per se, because each participant creates that for themselves, and I have no doubt it varies widely among those involved. And these experiences aren’t manipulated or controlled by The Color Run, LLC — they just provide a particular venue. The idea of the experience is constructed or narrativized after the event occurs — not a description of the event itself — makes the notion of “experience” just another type of discourse and not some pristine or innate thing that happens to people. Therefore, the construction of different experiences reflects the present interests of the person constructing the narrative and not what actually occurred.

marjoeIt reminds me of a film I watched in one of my undergrad courses on the Rhetoric of Religious Authenticity. It was a documentary on Marjoe Gortner, a child evangelist who eventually, after about 20 years of traveling around to preach to different congregations, came out to say that he didn’t believe in what he was preaching. His followers had a much stronger response than do most who are perturbed by The Color Run: They claimed that he was a fraud, that they had been manipulated, and that their religious experiences had with him or facilitated by him weren’t real. Why? Does that mean that those individuals had a less than authentic experience (whatever that may be) because the facilitator doesn’t share their faith? I would say no. But with a new understanding, their reconstruction of their experience has caused them to narrativize differently. Take a look at some of his sermons:

So the issue, then, is not with the event but with how one interprets the event — their experience — in the present. The so-called authenticity of the experience is maintained or negated based on current interests and not a stable past event. So thinking back to the outraged Color Run participant, if “experience” is just a mode of discourse used to label, classify, and frame certain events in a particular way — not some inherent thing one has — and is retrospectively constructed, then their issue is not with the legitimacy of the event, because nothing there has changed; rather it is about their reconstruction of the experience now that they have a little more info on the for-profit nature of the run, which they take for granted as being static and unchangeable.