Is Record Breaking Broken? : Planet Money The Guinness Book of World Records had a problem. It was a book. And books aren't selling as well as they used to. So Guinness changed what they were selling, and who they were selling to.
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Is Record Breaking Broken?

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Is Record Breaking Broken?

Is Record Breaking Broken?

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Eduard, how are you?


I'm good. How are you?

VANEK SMITH: Good. Would you mind introducing yourself?

SAAKASHVILI: I'm Eduard Saakashvili, and I'm the PLANET MONEY intern.

VANEK SMITH: We were in an editorial meeting recently, and Eduard just kind of casually mentioned something.

SAAKASHVILI: When I was in high school, I tried to break a Guinness World Record.

VANEK SMITH: That's right. Our intern made this very serious record-breaking attempt when he was 15 years old. It started about six years ago in the country of Georgia - that is where Eduard is from - and there was this YouTube personality that Eduard really loved.

SAAKASHVILI: His name is Charlie McDonnell. His YouTube alias is charlieissocoollike.

VANEK SMITH: Charlie is so cool...




CHARLIE MCDONNELL: My name is Charlie. I'm 18 years old. I'm a boy, and I am afraid of lots of things.

VANEK SMITH: Charlie is just this regular kid. He talks about his life on this YouTube channel, what's on his mind. He's really into "Doctor Who."


MCDONNELL: I'm afraid of commitment. I'm afraid of multitasking. I'm afraid of "My Little Pony."

SAAKASHVILI: He just seemed, like, very put together but not, like, very socially suave because he made a big deal of how he was, like, so socially awkward. And, like, I was a pretty socially awkward teenager myself. So I thought, you know, I don't have to be, like, cool. I can just be like Charlie.

Anyway, I was watching his video, one of his tours of his room.


MCDONNELL: You know, I feel comfortable having you around, so I think it's about time that I showed around the crib. So here you go.

SAAKASHVILI: And he said oh, look, that's a world record certificate right there behind me.


MCDONNELL: Did I ever tell you that I have a Guinness World Record? Because I have a Guinness World Record. I'll full warn you, it's pretty nerdy. I have the world record for typing the alphabet in the fastest time on an iPad.

SAAKASHVILI: I was like - whoa, like, he's even cooler because - you know, I thought records are pretty cool. I had the book.

VANEK SMITH: That would be "The Guinness Book of World Records." Eduard had a copy. And the idea of being in this book seemed amazing. So Eduard went online to see what Charlie's typing record was.

SAAKASHVILI: It turned out that his time was 6.31 seconds.

VANEK SMITH: Eduard thinks, I'm a fast typist. And so just for fun, he tries typing the alphabet on his own iPad. And he's really fast. And in fact, after practicing for an hour, he is faster than Charlie. He is beating the world record.

SAAKASHVILI: So I was like, OK, I have to - like, I can do this. And I thought, you know, he would probably find out about it, and it would sort of almost make us, like, equals in some sense. Right? It would put us in...

VANEK SMITH: You were hoping he might call you up? Or...

SAAKASHVILI: I was sort of hoping - yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.

VANEK SMITH: Eduard goes to the Guinness website, prints out the rules for attempting a record, asks his mom to film it - like, on her phone. But you know how sometimes you tell your parents about something and they start to make a really big deal out of it? And they want to, like, invite your family and start filming it and all of a sudden, you just wish you'd never told them at all? This happened to Eduard. But, like, times a million.

SAAKASHVILI: I don't know if I should get into the whole president thing. But - should I get into it?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, that your dad was...


VANEK SMITH: ...The president of Georgia?


SAAKASHVILI: Is it bad that we introduce this?

VANEK SMITH: Eduard's dad was the president of Georgia. And like dads are, he's super proud of his son. And he's excited about this thing that he's trying to do. But he is also the president, so he's thinking about national presidential issues. One of the things he's been doing is trying to establish Georgia as a place for technological innovation. He's been making this push. And he thinks Eduard's Guinness record could fit into this.

SAAKASHVILI: I was summoned to the ministry of sports in Georgia.

VANEK SMITH: You were summoned?

SAAKASHVILI: Summoned, sent.


SAAKASHVILI: They set up a meeting with me. And they said, we want to pay for this. We're going to pay for their travel. We're going to pay them the flat fee.

VANEK SMITH: Georgia wanted to do this upright - fly out a Guinness judge, have a big official ceremony with lots of press, basically make Eduard's YouTube-inspired Guinness project into a major national news event.

This sounds like a lot of, like, government policy and press and - sounds like a lot.

SAAKASHVILI: Yes. And I think that's sort of where the trouble began.


VANEK SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SAAKASHVILI: And I'm Eduard Saakashvili.

VANEK SMITH: And Eduard, you are joining us today on this journey through the business of breaking records.


VANEK SMITH: Because what you didn't realize at the time when you decided to break your record was that Guinness was in the middle of a major transformation.

SAAKASHVILI: Yeah. It was a make-or-break moment for Guinness. And it's a moment that a lot of companies face, when their old business model just stops working.

VANEK SMITH: And of course, Eduard, we follow you to your Guinness world reckoning. Are you excited?

SAAKASHVILI: I am very excited.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).


VANEK SMITH: There is a man in Queens who holds the record for most Guinness records broken ever. His name is Ashrita Furman. He has been breaking records for almost 40 years. And when we went to meet him, he was standing in his backyard with his hands on his hips, looking at this big wall covered with balloons.

ASHRITA FURMAN: First record was jumping jacks - you know, like this. And I started in 19 - let's see - 1979 and went for the record and did 27,000.

VANEK SMITH: You did 27,000 jumping jacks?

FURMAN: Yeah. You know, that was a special record, that first one (laughter).

SAAKASHVILI: So we were at Ashrita's house because he was about to try to break another record.

VANEK SMITH: What record will this be if this works out? Am I jinxing you?

FURMAN: No, not at all. Right now, I think I have 195 official records, so this would be 196. This is a record for breaking the most balloons with chopsticks in a minute. We have our balloons set up on a board. You know, it feels like we're - it's like a carnival or something.

VANEK SMITH: It does look like a carnival.

The chopsticks had these kind of sharp metal tips like darts. And Ashrita's yard is just buzzing with activity. There is an official Guinness judge with a special blazer and a clipboard. And she is measuring everything out with a tape measure to make sure that Ashrita is standing exactly the proper distance away from the balloons when he starts hurling chopsticks at them.

SAAKASHVILI: And there's a team there filming the whole event for an online video.

VANEK SMITH: How many records have you broken here in your backyard?

FURMAN: Actually a lot. Probably about - over a hundred - I don't know, a hundred. Yeah, there's a lot of stuff here. Yeah, I mean, this is the compost pile. I mean, there's watermelons. I do a record where I have watermelons on my stomach. My friend chops them in half with a machete. Actually, is that where I'm lying on a bed of nails? No, that's not - the bed of nails is where they chop those concrete blocks while I'm lying on a bed of nails. And I have the bed of nails. (Inaudible). This is some of the bed of nails, you know.

VANEK SMITH: You have, like, several beds of nails.

FURMAN: Several beds of nails here, yeah.


VANEK SMITH: Oh, there's a bowling ball.

FURMAN: Oh, those bowling - that's for juggling. Well, let's see, this is - now, I'm going to do - this is not the record.

VANEK SMITH: You are lifting a dolly over your head.

FURMAN: Right. And I'm balancing it on my chin.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my God.

FURMAN: Gosh - so it's not - no, that's not the record. I'm supposed to be playing guitar. This...


FURMAN: Yeah, Guinness invented this record. It's for the most weight balanced on your chin while playing a song on a guitar. Problem is, I've been trying to learn the guitar, though.

VANEK SMITH: You have to learn the guitar (laughter).

SAAKASHVILI: That's the hard part.

FURMAN: That's the hard part, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: What do your neighbors think?

FURMAN: These people kind of know me because I've done - you know, I've been back here for years doing records. And like, I have a record for - it's called sabering champagne. You know what that is?

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, yeah - when you chop the top off with a saber.

FURMAN: All these tops of bottles are going into that guy's yard. He's said, what the heck are you doing up there? You know, it was like - it must be kind of interesting living down there 'cause - all kinds of chopsticks go down there - I mean, 'cause you know, I can't help it. It's a low fence.

VANEK SMITH: The tour has to be cut short because it's time for the big moment, record No. 196, most balloons popped with chopsticks in one minute. Ashrita has been practicing for a month.

FURMAN: Are we ready?


FURMAN: No, no. It's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).

FURMAN: I'm actually - I'm nervous.


FURMAN: Yeah, I am.

VANEK SMITH: Ashrita takes his place. The judge sets her stopwatch.

UNIDENTIFIED GUINNESS ADJUDICATOR: For the record - three, two, one - go.


VANEK SMITH: Ashrita is so focused. He's just flinging chopstick after chopstick at these balloons.

SAAKASHVILI: And you can hear him just saying to himself - come on, come on.


VANEK SMITH: I mean, some of the balloons are popping, but a lot of them aren't. The chopsticks are bouncing off, and people on the live video start commenting about this.

SAAKASHVILI: Fail, fail, fail.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, it's not looking good. Then, the judge calls time.

FURMAN: Wow, that wasn't that easy.

VANEK SMITH: It didn't look easy (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, guys, this is the moment of truth here.

UNIDENTIFIED GUINNESS ADJUDICATOR: OK. So Ashrita, today you attempted the Guinness World Records title for the most balloons burst with chopsticks in one minute, and you achieved a total of 24 balloons.


VANEK SMITH: All right.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A new Guinness World Records title achieved right before your eyes. Speaking of new records, I'm so excited to tell you guys that the 2018 edition is out now in the United States. Ashrita Furman is in this book multiple times.

VANEK SMITH: Book promotion.

SAAKASHVILI: Book promotion.

VANEK SMITH: So this moment is why Guinness is here. They want to sell books. In fact, "The Guinness Book Of World Records" is one of the best-selling books of all time. And this is amazing, especially if you consider that Guinness started out as this little book that the Guinness beer company used to hand out in pubs to settle bar fights. In fact, they were the same company for decades, the beer guys and the record guys.

But then eventually Guinness Brewery was bought up by this big beverage conglomerate, and Guinness records was spun off. The little company was on its own. It needed to fend for itself. But that was fine because every year, Guinness came out with a new edition. And every year, that new edition was a best-seller. In fact, a lot of the people in the Guinness book became these cultural icons. Their pictures were known around the world - the tallest man, the shortest woman, the woman with the smallest waist.

SAAKASHVILI: Peter Harper is a senior vice president with Guinness World Records.

PETER HARPER: Longest fingernails is another totally iconic record.

VANEK SMITH: I remember that photo from the old Guinness book in our grade school library.

HARPER: That's it. That's one of the photos. The other photo is the McCrary, who are the heaviest...

VANEK SMITH: World's fattest twins.

HARPER: ...Twins.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, on the motorcycle - I remember that picture.

HARPER: Yep. Yep, that's another classic one.

VANEK SMITH: But then Guinness' book sales started doing what everybody's book sales were doing, falling.

HARPER: I was hoping you wouldn't get to that question. I think we're sort of generally following the industry.

VANEK SMITH: Guinness needed a new way to make money, but it was not obvious. I mean, how do you make money off of the amazing photo of the man with the world's longest fingernails if anybody out there can just Google it for free? And that is the moment that Guinness realized that their new business model was literally knocking on their door.

HARPER: Companies started coming to us asking if we could fly someone out to their event.

VANEK SMITH: Companies and people were coming to Guinness wanting to break a record for publicity or to draw attention to themselves.

HARPER: They've gotten onto the fact that if they achieve a record title that they get a lot of press for it or they get a lot of shares on social media.


HARPER: Increasingly, they want to make it more of a marketing event. They want to invite one of our adjudicators and then the usage of the logo.

VANEK SMITH: Guinness realized they could charge for this - a lot. The price tag for a full-service event starts at $12,000 and goes up over half a million. Peter says they do hundreds of events like this every year. Reebok did a multinational event. They broke 44 records in one day on four continents to launch a new shoe.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is an official Guinness World Records title attempt. Are you ready?



VANEK SMITH: The Gates Foundation helped set a record for drug donation to draw attention to neglected diseases. Gordon Ramsay broke a fish-filleting record to promote his new TV show.


GORDON RAMSAY: I've waited 50 years for this moment.

VANEK SMITH: Dwayne The Rock Johnson has broken a bunch of records to promote movies and other various things.


DWAYNE JOHNSON: In honor of this weekend's big Super Bowl game, our highly ambitious Seven Bucks Digital squad sets a new Guinness World Record for the largest seven-layer dip in the world.

VANEK SMITH: Guinness' main customers used to be kids who were just fascinated by the people who were breaking records and pushing the limits of what it meant to be a human. Guinness' customers now are the record-breakers themselves. If you pay Guinness enough money, they will help you figure out a record you can break, and they will help you break it. Guinness is even setting up places where members of the public can come in and attempt a record - for a small fee of course. Guinness is now in the business of selling record-breaking attempts, and they are really good at it.

HARPER: There is something about you I bet, Stacey, that you do that no one does as well.

VANEK SMITH: Oh. So you think I have a world record in me maybe?

HARPER: I think you do somewhere. You should think hard about that. And you know who to call if you come upon something.

VANEK SMITH: You can still break a Guinness World Record for free. That does not cost money. You can go to the website, print out the rules for breaking a record, record the event, send it in, break the record.

SAAKASHVILI: But here's the thing - the rules for breaking a record are really, really complicated and particular. It can take months to get a response from Guinness. And people who pay money - they get advice; they get help; they jump the line; they get a quick response.

VANEK SMITH: Does it feel at all like part of Guinness' mission was compromised in a way or that it kind of tainted the record-breaking to take charge?

HARPER: Well, that was certainly a debate at the time. And it is a question we are mindful of because, if we compromise our reputation for being an authority, I mean, the business goes down the tubes really pretty quickly.

VANEK SMITH: Of course, some people think it already has.

DAVID ADAMOVICH: My real name is the Reverend Dr. David Adamovich, retired professor with a doctorate in exercise physiology, paramedic, pool hall owner, professionally trained chef, ordained minister. And in my spare time, I throw knives. My friends call me Throw.

SAAKASHVILI: The great Throwdini.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

Throwdini started throwing knives when he was 50. He's in his 70s now. He got really good really fast. He started performing in this live knife-throwing show.

ADAMOVICH: We promised to end each show with an attempted world record. And it was at that time that I had thrown 80 knives around my assistant in one minute on stage.

VANEK SMITH: Eighty knives around a beautiful assistant in one minute.

SAAKASHVILI: Throwdini gets this on film. He submits that film to Guinness.

VANEK SMITH: And he is over the moon. There is not a record like this in "The Guinness Book Of World Records" yet. And so Throwdini's thinking, I am going to have my picture with this amazing record in "The Guinness Book Of World Records." And then a couple of months later, he gets an email.

ADAMOVICH: They weren't interested in the knife record.

VANEK SMITH: They weren't interested in a record involving knife-throwing?

ADAMOVICH: Yeah, knives around a human target.

VANEK SMITH: How did you feel when you read that email?

ADAMOVICH: I was crushed.

VANEK SMITH: A while later, Throwdini says, he saw that Guinness had created a knife-throwing record. They had a publicized event around it. His friends told him that was about money. Guinness thought this new record seemed cool. They wanted to find a way to cash in on it. So they gave it to someone else.

ADAMOVICH: It's all about money. And if you don't get involved with the money side of what they're doing, then what you do falls to the wayside.

VANEK SMITH: All of this was a decade ago. And even Throwdini isn't really sure what happened. He eventually made it into Guinness. But he says if you're not paying money, it can feel really hard and really discouraging to break a Guinness record.

SAAKASHVILI: Throwdini was mad. He was so mad that he joined a rival world record company. It's called Record Holders Republic. It's a nonprofit owned and run by record-breakers.

VANEK SMITH: Throwdini says this is a crucial open database of records. But even Throwdini admits Record Holders Republic is never going to be the brand that Guinness is. I mean, Guinness has these powerful, deep roots in the childhood memories of people all over the world. The Guinness name after all is why, Eduard, your dad and the country of Georgia thought breaking a Guinness record would bring global attention.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

VANEK SMITH: So Eduard, we are watching a video of your record-breaking attempt. And this is - it's like - this is looking very fancy (laughter).

SAAKASHVILI: It's very fancy.

VANEK SMITH: So Eduard, in this video, this 15-year-old you is in this shiny government building. There are TV cameras everywhere. I mean, this has clearly become a major national event. Like, what are you seeing as you walk in?

SAAKASHVILI: A lot of people are standing around. Most of them are wearing T-shirts with the Guinness logo. And it says Eduard Saakashvili - fastest time to type the alphabet on an iPad.

VANEK SMITH: Like, shirts had been made up.

SAAKASHVILI: Shirts had been made.


SAAKASHVILI: The ministry of sports.

VANEK SMITH: How did you feel when you saw the shirts?

SAAKASHVILI: I was just thinking, I have to get this right. If I failed, then what would the media say? All these media, with their, like, live vans - what are they going to do? Are they going to like run their breaking news story like, Eduard Saakashvili failed to get a record? (Laughter) And like, my grandma's there. And she would, like, cry probably. I mean, I can't even - 'cause she's...

VANEK SMITH: Your grandma was there?

SAAKASHVILI: Yeah. And my great-grandma was there. And (laughter)...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my God. Eduard, you had really started out in sort of an old-school Guinness spirit. Right? Like, you just wanted to break this record for the joy of breaking the record. You weren't trying to promote your personal brand or make money or anything like that. But then you kind of got sucked into Guinness's new business model.

SAAKASHVILI: Yeah. I mean, this was just going to be for me. But sitting there looking around at these people, the shirts and all the logos, it just felt like my record had been hijacked.

VANEK SMITH: And very publicly hijacked (laughter). But anyway, here it is, this big moment. You're sitting in a chair. There are all these people crowded around you.

SAAKASHVILI: I was very nervous.

VANEK SMITH: So there you are. You're typing. You are really fast. You're really fast.

SAAKASHVILI: Yes. And then I stop typing. You can see, I raise my arm to say stop, I'm done.


SAAKASHVILI: And then the adjudicator is looking at her stopwatch. And then she walks over to the podium.

VANEK SMITH: And so - OK, now, the suspense is killing me. I can't even look at this video.

SAAKASHVILI: She has now kind of moved to the microphone to announce what has happened.

VANEK SMITH: And what was your time?


VANEK SMITH: You did it.


VANEK SMITH: You broke the record (laughter).

SAAKASHVILI: I did it. I broke - yes.

VANEK SMITH: After everything.

SAAKASHVILI: I broke - I was champion of the whole world.


SAAKASHVILI: Oh - and there she is calling me over to get the certificate.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, there you are posing with the certificate.

SAAKASHVILI: She's telling me to raise it (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Oh, really? She's like, raise it over your head?


VANEK SMITH: The Guinness branding and polishing at work (laughter).

And anyway - so Eduard, I mean, did it work? Was this a big news event in Georgia?

SAAKASHVILI: Oh, totally. All the news channels ran it as their top item that afternoon. Everybody found out. And then for months afterwards, everybody I met would come up and say, oh, congratulations - what a great accomplishment.

VANEK SMITH: And how long did you have the record?

SAAKASHVILI: So I think about a month later, I checked the website, and it said that it had been broken.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. You the record for four weeks?

SAAKASHVILI: Something like that.

VANEK SMITH: How did you feel that this record had been broken after just four weeks?

SAAKASHVILI: I don't think I really cared. Honestly, I was a little sick of hearing about it.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) OK. Well, I mean - actually, I guess that makes sense because what Guinness was really selling was the experience of breaking a record. Right? It's sort of a service. I mean, that is what the ministry of sports paid for - got a fancy event, lots of publicity, some great sound bites. I mean, they got what they wanted. And Guinness got what it wanted. But what about you, Eduard? I mean, you'd started out - you wanted to meet your YouTube hero and just try to see if you could do this cool thing. What was your takeaway after all this? Did you get what you wanted?

SAAKASHVILI: Even if it's kind of a dumb record, I still feel like the idea of Guinness has so much pull that it even fools me knowing that. Even if I know that it's not all that it seems to be, it still fools me and makes me feel good.

VANEK SMITH: It just means that, like, you stand out. You're special.

SAAKASHVILI: Yeah, it means you're special. And I - yeah, I felt special after doing this.


SAAKASHVILI: We always love to hear what you think of the show. Send us an email, Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. And if you set a record, definitely tell us about that.

VANEK SMITH: Today's show was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. PLANET MONEY's supervising producer is Alex Goldmark, and our editor is Bryant Urstadt. Special thanks to Larry Olmsted - if you want to learn more about Guinness, check out his book. It is called "Getting Into Guinness."

I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SAAKASHVILI: And Eduard Saakashvili. Thanks for listening.


VANEK SMITH: So Eduard...


VANEK SMITH: ...I have kind of a surprise for you.


VANEK SMITH: Are you ready?


VANEK SMITH: OK, here you go.

MCDONNELL: Hey, Eduard. This is Charlie. I'm just here because I realized that I never really formally congratulated you on beating my world record. So congratulations on beating my world record that I guess isn't my record anymore. It's still mine in my heart. You are officially better than me at typing the alphabet in the fastest time on an iPad - for now. That's all I'm saying. All right. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.


SAAKASHVILI: (Laughter) Yeah, this is - I'm like - I'm feeling really weird right now. Like, I'm feeling a little bit, like, starstruck or something. Like, physically I have this kind of - like, a heart pounding in my chest sort of a feeling. So...

VANEK SMITH: Aw. I mean, do you have anything you'd want to say back to him?

SAAKASHVILI: (Laughter) I guess just thank you. It is a certain lightness. I feel lighter. I got, like, all this media attention and stuff at the time. But I felt like it was coming from the wrong place. But now I feel like - yeah, Charlie saying, you know, good job - finally, it's coming from the right place.

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