Biggest Sellout

Now that Guinness World Records is in bed with publicity-seeking companies, can we trust it?

The Knot’s attempt at the largest Champagne tasting world record in New York in February.

Photo by Jill Photography/The Knot

The Champagne tasting was over, and things had gotten tense. On one side of the discussion were representatives of the Knot, the wedding-guide website hosting the tasting. On the other, polite but firm, was Philip Robertson, a 41-year-old Scotland native wearing a green blazer that announced his affiliation with the Guinness World Records company. At issue was the question of whether more than 515 humans had completed all three rounds of the tasting.

Robertson is an official Guinness World Records adjudicator. That afternoon, he and  a staff of 11 “stewards” were keeping track of the event, at which Knot staffers and hundreds of invited guests (including, per the Knot, engaged couples and “married couples who have used The Knot to help plan their weddings”) were attempting to set a new world record for “largest champagne tasting.” Some of the stewards had informed Robertson that a group of about 20 people had left an upstairs area of the event space being referred to as Section C during the tasting. (In addition to the stewards, staffing included at least three people wearing headsets and six with clipboards. It was a big production.) If that group had left the premises before the event was over, the Knot would have fallen short of the 516 participants required to set the new record. The Knot’s representatives said that the group in question—which was affiliated with Kleinfeld, the bridal boutique—had in fact completed the tasting in Section A downstairs. But Robertson needed to confirm that detail with the stewards, who’d already left—and weren’t answering their phones.

It was a particularly sticky spot for Robertson because the Knot has a business relationship with Guinness World Records. In fact, it paid Guinness World Records to help create this very event. Robertson needed to worry about maintaining his employer’s six-decade-old reputation for being the authority on world records—an achievement in company-product synonymousness on par with Kleenex, Xerox, and Coke. But he also had to worry about the satisfaction of a client that—like many other companies and brands these days—had paid his employer thousands of dollars for its services as, in effect, a viral marketing consultant. If Guinness is both a record keeper and an advertising firm, can we still trust it?

The first Guinness Book of Records was released in 1955. The company says it’s sold 132 million copies of the annually updated publication in the 60 years since. The Guinness World Records business was affiliated with Guinness beer until 2001 and has since changed hands a few times, ultimately landing in the same conglomerate that owns Ripley’s Believe It or Not. In 2010 the business-to-business marketing division began formally selling its services to companies and brands. Guinness World Records marketing director Stuart Claxton told me the creation of a formal “B2B” arm was a response to the volume of requests for consultation that were coming in from for-profit entities; he says Guinness World Records now gets approximately 260 initial inquiries a month from businesses looking for help setting or certifying a record. “We offer creative consultancy services, and then the service spirals out from there. Licensing, [having an] adjudicator on site, branding, logo usage, all the kind of stuff that makes up the marketing and PR presence,” Claxton said. In 2013 the company told Bloomberg it hoped such efforts would account for half of its U.S. revenue by 2015, and a spokeswoman said projections are still “headed in that direction,” but did not share further details. Robertson told me that 60 percent of his work as a judge is at publicity events hosted by brands.

Evidence of the B2B team’s work is easy to find. On March 16, the Herbalife company announced that it’d set the record for “number of people in a High Intensity Interval Training Workout in One location,” and Pyrex unveiled “the World’s Largest Measuring Cup.” On March 18, Fiat Chrysler’s Ram division announced that it would be attempting to set a record for “largest parade of pickup trucks” when the Academy of Country Music Awards are held in Arlington, Texas’ AT&T Stadium in April. The day after the Knot event I attended, Robertson was due in Times Square to adjudicate as a puppet version of the Snuggle fabric softener brand’s Snuggle Bear attempted to give 5,000 hugs in eight hours.

It isn’t surprising that Guinness World Records would be looking for new ways to make money. Its flagship product is a book, and the book industry is in permanent crisis. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks books sold by certain retailers (including Amazon), the paperback edition of Guinness’ 2014 records almanac sold about a fifth as many copies in the United States as the comparable edition in 2001. Guinness does have a website, but its traffic of 14 million unique visitors a year is not going to pay the bills. The Internet has enabled other sources, most obviously Wikipedia, to move in on Guinness World Records’ territory as the go-to reference for the kinds of questions that pop up at parties and family gatherings:

GIF by Slate

But one thing the Internet has also done is made clear just how much interest there is in stories that are strange, novel, silly, amazing—the kind of stories that “go viral.” And what is more strange, novel, silly, and amazing than Guinness’ collection of world records? They are quintessential word-of-mouth factoids with a near- universal appeal. Guinness Book of Records conversations were a classroom, playground, and cafeteria staple of my elementary school experience, and it was a Guinness-stoked interest that my parents were indulging when we visited the Sears Tower and CN Tower during childhood trips to Chicago and Toronto. I still remember where I was when I saw the Guinness entry for “world’s longest fingernails.” (At my friend Ross’ house, age 5 or 6, and the fingernails were very long and very gross.) Today, I will still read any story about a contender for the title of “world’s tallest building.” Or “tallest man.” I’ll read anything about Mt. Everest or Usain Bolt.

There are a lot of suckers like me out there. While selling an annual printed book isn’t the business it used to be, overall interest in human extremes does not appear to have declined substantially. A fascinating 2011 New Yorker story about a serial record-setter named Ashrita Furman documented the active community of Guinness World Records obsessives. The Sears and CN Towers—record-holders of my youth—have been passed several times in the tallest-structure rankings by the efforts of extremely wealthy individuals who covet the worldwide attention that the title incurs. If you’re, say, a marketer working for the show CSI, getting free superlative-related press by breaking Dr. Who’s world record for “largest TV drama simulcast” is a smart move. The B2B account managers at Guinness World Records will help facilitate that kind of attention for as little as $8,000.

Of course, the word viral does not always have positive connotations. Many viral stories are debunked or revealed as self-aggrandizing stunts after they’ve flown around the world’s wires. To maintain its authority, Guinness World Records needs to be seen as an objective source when it vouches for a potentially viral story—and not saturate the market with dubiously useful brand-driven records. But to maintain its revenue, it needs to please the customers who are paying it to create those stories. Playing record-breaking huckster and record-keeping historian at the same time, and getting paid to do so on both ends, seems like a classic conflict of interest.

Ryan Serhant of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing and his fiancée, Emilia Bechrakis, at the Knot’s Champagne tasting world record attempt.

Photo by Jill Photography/The Knot

The company is of course self-conscious about this issue, and Claxton emphasized to me that simply hiring Guinness World Records as a B2B marketing consultant doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed with a wink and a nod to break a record. Indeed, when I got to Snuggle’s puppet-hug setup on a Manhattan sidewalk the day after the Knot’s Champagne tasting, a crew was closing down the event early, carrying big clear plastic bags of beige teddy bears out of a Snuggle bus parked on the street and loading them in a Ryder van. It was 20 degrees and windy, and there hadn’t been nearly enough foot traffic to set the hug record, as the company acknowledged in a press release. A look through Guinness World Records’ press clips, meanwhile, confirms the company still spends a great deal of time verifying and promoting records set by individuals and groups without a profit motive. (As the world’s oldest cat can attest, you don’t have to hire the B2B department to get viral press.) It’s not just all brands all the time.

But yes, that profit motive. As it turns out, Robertson was able to get ahold of two stewards who confirmed that the Kleinfeld group—which was actually 18 strong—had completed the Knot’s Champagne tasting in Section A. (The stewards also confirmed this to me personally via text.) But stewards, Guinness World Records admits openly, are supplied and can be compensated by the group making the record attempt. (One of the Knot’s stewards told me he got paid $11 an hour.) Meanwhile, Robertson told me he wasn’t completely sure that the record had been set until several days after the attempt, when he was able to speak to the second steward, and says he gave the Knot only a “provisional” approval of the record on the night of the event. The word provisional doesn’t appear in the press release the Knot put out that night announcing it had set the record, though, nor do any other qualifying words.

Robertson was nothing but firm and professional in his interaction with the Knot. I watched him walk through each section during the event making sure that the agreed-on rules for the tasting were being followed. And I never heard anyone from the Knot ever suggest that Robertson was obligated to award them the record because of the money involved. (Not all corporate entities that work with Guinness World Records will necessarily be as trustworthy. Herbalife, for instance, has often been accused of selling useless products via pyramid schemes. And Guinness does so much work in Dubai that they’ve had an office there since 2013, recording world records for a construction industry known for its exploitative labor practices.) I have no idea if Robertson and the Knot’s representatives were thinking about the money that had (in a manner of speaking) changed hands between them as they hashed out whether the Champagne tasting record had been set. But I’m also not sure how anyone could be in that situation and not be conscious of the incentives involved. Would you take this article’s conclusions differently if I told you Guinness World Records paid me $8,000 to write it?