not defending the guy, but…
I get that some people would not like his art; that’s fine. What I don’t get is why there is such a jihad against Kinkade. If these paintings were mine, would anyone be up in arms about it? It’s Kinkade’s supposed influence as a cultural tastemaker that is getting everyone so upset, not his art at all. It’s the fact that he’s made $4 billion on prints sold to “trailer trash” and grandmas that has got everyone’s panties in a bind. His fans are people who are low on the societal totem pole, have low incomes, and aren’t well connected. Oh, and based on their other tastes, they are unqualified to judge art (unlike me, of course!).
We end up with long articles like this one, where people supposedly radiating with class and taste expound on the awfulness of Kinkade by boiling his work down to 16 fairly lame sounding artistic criticisms that prove why he’s so bad. Here’s one little gem:
10. Short focal length. In general, I love a focal plane that favors the center of interest, and allows mid-distance and distant areas to remain blurry. Recommend “stopping down” to shorten focal lengths.
Normally, we’d not really be sure whether short focal length is a good thing or not. But since we know the article is about Kinkade, clearly this attribute is the mark of horribleness in artistry. Gawd, I hate paintings with short focal lengths, don’t you?
I see no reason why a similarly reductivist analysis of Monet seeking to boil down Waterlilies into a semi-organized file of unappealing epithets wouldn’t also work as a withering critique. Oh wait, I do see a reason: because Monet has a priori credibility and Kinkade doesn’t. If you think articles like that one work as takedowns of Kinkade, they do. But it’s not because they are insightful and contain meaningful critiques of Kinkade’s work; it’s because they preach to the choir on a subject that both authors and readers have already been trained to despise and disdain. Aesthetes have already been socialized to take an unwavering stand on Kinkade so arguing that short focal length is bad is presented (and accepted) as axiomatic and self-evident.
It seems to me that the purpose of all the criticisms of Kinkade serve not to illuminate so much as to reaffirm prevailing taste cultures in the social classes that these criticisms stem from. This is philistine art for the tasteless masses, and I’m not a part of that group. I’m part of an educated elite with class and taste. So I must hate this in order to maintain my identity.
I realize that by arguing these points, I sound like 1) I’m defending Kinkade, which I’m actually not, 2) I’m being a contrarian that is deliberately trying to buck social trends in order to subvert expectations (perhaps in order to gain the sort of social capital only available to the artistic renegades). But I’m not. I just think it’s somewhat pointless to create hierarchies of bad art and good art. It’s all contextual, and it’s all based on who you know, your educational background, and who you spend time around. See Bordieau. See Veblen.
Based on the kind of reverse-engineered “arguing backward from a conclusion”- style criticism we see in the above Vanity Fair article, Howard Finster should probably be considered terrible— that is, if you judge the art alone. But of course, his back story is a good one because it so perfectly fulfills the upper class’s taste for mysterious outsider artists who live on the margins of society and operate in a world outside of the commercial. Taste for this guy has nothing to do with the art and everything to do with the cultural contexts, and where the artist is situated in place and time. If he was a rich lawyer from NYC with a right-wing blog, I’m fairly confident that no one would give Howard Finster the time of day.
But saying you like Howard Finster has cultural cachet because of who he is and who likes him (the Talking Heads used one of his works for one of their album covers); it also means that where he’s situated makes you less inclined to take critical views, the same way you rarely hear anyone criticizing Matisse or Cezanne. It’s too risky to say anything even if you do have a divergent view, because expressing it may reflect poorly on you within your social network, which has been trained to feel (or at least say that they feel) the same ways about the same things as you.
Again, NOT defending Kinkade, as this isn’t a commentary on art per se. It just seems quite apparent to me that people who think that Kinkade is bad and think it has nothing to do with their cultural influences and social strata are completely in the dark about how taste cultures work. The level of hate and scorn leveled on the guy completely outstrips his ostensible badness as an artist. The hate has everything to do with social identity, and little to do with art. It has to do with him being a “huckster”, a Republican, a capitalist, a man who sells prints that go in lower-middle class bathrooms. The concept of Kinkade is an affront to people who think of themselves as intelligent. Calling that a defense of Kinkade is be conflating a defense of the man with a critique of the logic. While my intent is not to defend Kinkade, I’m still going to come out and say it:
I think Kinkade is all right; sometimes I like looking at his work. I wouldn’t put him in my top 10, but for certain moods I don’t mind him at all. And guess what? Matisse sucks. I hate Matisse! Give me a Kinkade any day of the week!
you can learn a lot when people hate you
Not too long ago, I went to a party being thrown by Rob, a sociology graduate student and friend of mine in Madison. Soon after I arrived at the party, he introduced me to a fellow sociology grad student “Peter”, who he thought I would like to meet.
Before I could say anything, Rob tried to connect us: “Peter, this is my friend Rahul— he’s a marketer. Rahul, this is Peter. Peter is a socialist.”
A socialist? “You mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice. For the record, what Rob said— quite possibly among the most awkward introductions of all time— was not intended as a joke. Peter actually was a card-carrying socialist.
“Oh, you mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice.
Peter did not laugh at my Obama joke, which was intended to point out the ridiculousness of trying to label a US President a socialist when real dyed-in-the-wool socialists see him as nothing of the sort. Instead, Peter tilted his head and gawked at me inquisitively, perhaps as if I had just descended from an alien planet or if I was a bizarre, mythical object he had previously only read about.
I suspect that Peter thought my comment was in earnest. I suspected that despite the fact that we had just met, Peter had a lot of prejudices about me, and I probably had a few about him (though less than he probably thought).
Despite this most auspicious of beginnings, Peter and I didn’t actually talk at all. Though he showed few outward signs of contempt, I knew that there was far too much baggage associated with being a marketer even for normal people, much less for a guy who genuinely believed that the entire capitalist system was perverse and corrupt (or is that just a stereotype of a socialist view of capitalism?). I really wanted to have a chat with the guy, but there was already too much between us, and we melted back into the crowds around us.
Over the years, I’ve had any number of encounters like this. Like:
- The fellow who was buying a bookshelf I was selling, and was about the most chipper man you could ever possibly hope to meet— until I told him I was selling it because I was going away to business school, upon which he morphed into a frothing attack dog whose demeanor literally frightened me. He dropped the price he was offering me from $20 to $5 and growled as he drove away.
- The guy who refused to talk to me like a normal person because I suggested that Wal-Mart was not “evil.” I gave examples of positive things Wal-Mart has done, and gently suggested that consumers are also responsible for American consumption habits. At this point, he basically deemed me a subhuman and just barked out a barrage of anti-corporate warhorses at me without allowing me to respond to them.
I have a lot more stories like this that I’ve compiled over the years, and I sense that these stories are not unusual for people who do what I do, particularly if you run in the circles that I run in. I don’t see this as an entirely bad thing. I try to be an ambassador for the “dark side,” as some have dubbed my line of work. Sometimes you can reach people just by being civil, thoughtful, and responsive to their concerns. Other times, people have already made up their minds and choose not to view you as a human anymore.
Regardless, I value these experiences because time has revealed to me that the world advances not as a monolithic block of people who all think the same thing, but as an evolution of cultural tensions that, while frustrating, keep the world in check and prevents society from changing too radically too quickly. And these tensions from the front line of the culture wars make for good stories too.
What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?
Much has been made of Web 2.0, and the shifting power structures of the media industry. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the stodgy, old-school mentality of international record companies, or the lumbering media conglomerates; it’s about the punk kid recording albums in his suburban bedroom, and the auteur shooting feature films on his iPhone.
As a society, we are increasingly aware and concerned that media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments”It’s a great narrative. It taps into the increasing anxieties we all have about how much corporate control there is in our lives. As a society, we have become increasingly aware of how media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments” and to sanitize true artistry to crudely cater to broad demographics.
How many times have we heard the story of an artistic visionary whose irrepressible genius was, er, repressed when a profit-motivated production company/record label/publishing house demanded some unthinkable aesthetic compromise or else!? For me, this story has been repeated so many times and about so many projects, that it’s virtually the most common trope I’ve heard about a “genius” work of art— that it was shelved because corporate accountants voiced concerns at boardroom meetings that these projects were too insular, too weird, too difficult to attract a mainstream audience, and thus had to be dropped.
“What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”
These immortal words, spoken by ersatz police chief Clancy Wiggum to his son Ralph on the long-running television program The Simpsons pretty much sums it up. The fact that you can’t have something means you want it even more. If someone is telling you that you aren’t allowed to hear a record, well, it suddenly becomes important to find out why and what the controversy is.
Sometimes you hear these stories when they leak out through gossip and media reports. Think Nirvana’s In Utero or Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The former was supposedly dubbed so “unlistenable” by Geffen Records that it was demanded that the entire album be scrapped and re-recorded. There’s something so poetically apropo about that story for a band whose roots were so firmly entrenched in the punk ethos. Ironically enough, this type of talk only galvanizes public interest in this suppressed content, most likely unintentionally in this case.
This story has been repeated so many times that it’s virtually the most common trope about a “genius” work of art.For the case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there is an oft-repeated tale of how crazy and unapproachable this album was upon completion and how record execs were just so stunned with its sounds and experimental nature that they just couldn’t release it, and dropped the band from its roster. This story is especially confounding to me because this album hardly counts as a wacky avant-garde freakout or anything remotely close. In fact, it sounds fairly run-of-the-mill to me, at least in terms of sonic quality, except for some random smatterings of “numbers stations” recordings, which maybe to people raised on Backstreet is a little weird, but the presentation is not so left-field as to create total puzzlement.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that execs actually heard YHF and felt like there was no way this could go through. But this is exactly the story that was spread at the time of release— that this monumental artistic achievement came on the heels of deliberate sabotage by a record company, who was too dense to understand its advanced artistry. Frankly, I think the story was a tremendous help in selling the album, and gave people who wouldn’t have otherwise cared (or even have a reason to be aware of this record) a reason to pay attention. Is it a coincidence that YHF ended up at the very top of year-end critics’ lists? I’m not sure, but I cannot imagine how it could have hurt it.
The Album that the Record Industry Didn’t Want You to Hear
KMD (aka Kausing Much Damage) was a not very famous rap group back in the early 90s that mostly got famous because in 1994 1) their DJ was run over by a car on the Long Island Expressway and died, and 2) that same week, their record company, Elektra, shelved their apparently already-controversial new album Black Bastards before it even came out. The album was supposedly was pulled from release for its shocking cover art, which depicted a race-baiting image of a golliwog being lynched.1
By the time the album was released 7 years later, it was a legendary album with near-mythic status, and was one of the most bootlegged rap albums of all time. This is despite the fact that most who had heard it didn’t seem to think it was particularly good.
When the album finally came out in 2001 courtesy of a small record company that had acquired the rights, it had a big sticker plastered on the front that advised consumers that it has been suppressed by a record company but was now available for the first time! The very fact that the media marketing machine was against it gave it a marketability that it wouldn’t have had on its own.
One can’t help but feel that as a society, we need these stories. We like these tales because they remind us that we’re not numbers. We’re not target markets. We are smarter than the media moguls and corporate marketing jerks think we are, and we have much better taste than they think. They serve as proof, particularly to certain sets of cultural first-adopters (read: hipsters and trendspotters) that these corporate types just don’t get it.
Of course, by stating this I don’t mean to argue the reverse, that they do get it. In fact, they often don’t. And honestly, I don’t have a lot of faith in the aesthetic sensibilities of most marketers or business leaders. Good ones are able to understand how to steal and co-opt genuinely revolutionary or merely very good aesthetic movements and resell them to mainstream audiences, despite the fact that they are risky investments and have no pre-existing markets. And I’d argue that it happens more frequently than we’d like to think. After all, throughout history, there have been few things with more cultural and financial traction than branding the rebellion against mainstream, even if that rebellion eventually becomes the mainstream.
1 One wonders why, however, the record company didn’t just change the artwork if that was the point of contention; Metallica’s first album originally had the charming title Metal Up Your Ass and was accompanied by the even more charming image of a clutched knife emerging from a toilet bowl. Elektra Records did not approve. But instead of abandoning the project from the fledgling metal band (who could have easily been dropped), Elektra simply attached a new title, Kill ‘Em All, to a way classier image, a shadowy hand dropping a bloody hammer.
simplifying complex decision-making
I recently took on a new job as a market researcher. On my very first day, I was faced with a monumental task that would take all my analytical skills, education, and powers of perception: signing up for employee benefits.
I am no stranger to complexity and jargon; yet, signing up for benefits is one of the most complicated things I have ever done.As a former academic, I am no stranger to complexity and jargon; yet, signing up for benefits is one of the most complicated things I have ever done. It’s hard to believe hundreds of millions of Americans have found themselves in the position of signing up for benefits given how shockingly unwieldy they are.
When I’m contributing to my 401K, what percentage of my bimonthly paycheck is reasonable? 10%? 20%? 50%? Should my contributions be pre-tax? After tax? Should I get a Roth IRA? Which investment plan should I put my money in? I guess that depends on whether I’m planning to retire at 55, 60, 65, or 70, since the portfolios associated with each are employing different risk strategies. Which health insurance plan should I get? Should I get the one that has a $1500 deductible or the one with a $1000 deductible? It’s going to be important because beyond the initial deductible, the percentage of co-pay is going to change between in-network and out-of-network doctors. Should I pick the dental PPO or the HMO? One costs half as much as the other, but there’s a difference between how each takes care of major restorative work, and also if I pick the HMO, it doesn’t pay for dentures, should I need them. Vision care seems awfully expensive given that I may or may not even get new glasses this year. But then, what happens if I need new glasses? They are pricy, what with frames alone costing $150, for reasons that have never been clear to me.
Despite that dense paragraph of choices I just dumped out above, my options are actually fairly limited at this company; at the University of California, where I once worked, there were many, many more options for every piffling detail. I was handed a book that was literally 200 pages long that detailed all the available options in health insurance. Each option had a 2-3 page summary.
We all know that what I’ve just described is crazy. I’m fairly well educated, I have experience reading complex documentation, and I have business acumen that should allow me to make somewhat rational economic decisions based on my own particular set of circumstances. But let’s face it: few people are going to be able to make sense of all this information, especially at a time when one needs to be focusing one’s energies on learning the new work environment. Yet the proliferation of legalese, fine print minutiae, and paperwork across HR desks continues unabated, and most of us have just come to accept it as a nuisance that we deal with but mostly stay ignorant of.
Rather than an opt-out program that forces complex comparisons, I would offer a decision tree, which offers a logical process to eliminate choices.In their pop-lit behavioral economics book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue that the solution is to create a default “best choice” option for employees that no one actually has to sign up for. Instead of presenting employees with a choice at the beginning, employees have to switch from this option, which is designed to make the most sense for the most people. So even if it’s not the best choice for someone’s particular set of circumstances, they’re also most likely not being completely screwed by it either— something that actually is a risk when someone is presented with choosing from 50 options, where they might make a horrible choice or might put off doing anything altogether.
It sounds good in theory, and the way Thaler and Sunstein present this concept (with the curiously offputting name “Libertarian Paternalism”), it seems like it would prevent a lot of people from making bad decisions. It’s true that it cuts down heavily on cognitive demands, but this is not an ideal setup for a number of reasons:
- It encourages employees to remain ignorant about things that they really should be invested in
- It empowers one person or a group of people within a bureaucracy to make a judgment about what is best for an entire class of people
- It could invite abuse, since the people in charge of creating the default position could have ulterior motives that don’t best serve employees
- What does “best” mean, and what are the metrics used to arrive at a consensus?
Questions like “Would you rather A) spend an extra $500 if you end up in the hospital, or B) pay $250 in advance regardless of whether you go to a hospital” would force you to make tough decisions about what you are willing to compromise, instead of making you compare features.To alleviate some of the problems inherent in this, I would offer another method: a decision tree. This tree would be something an individual or family could go through to arrive at optimal choices based on their own priorities. Obviously, the specifics would be dependent on the distinctions of the plans themselves, but it would offer a logical process to eliminate choices. Further, the abstract details of features will be bypassed in favor of the utilitarian concerns that underlie them.
For example, asking a series of questions like “Would you rather a) spend an extra $500 if and when you end up in the hospital, or would you rather pay $250 in advance regardless of whether you go to a hospital” takes a lot of the cognitive effort out of the selection process because it’s stating the cost-benefit explicitly and is highlighting the essential trade-off. In marketing lingo, this is called a conjoint analysis. The tradeoffs are presented upfront— forcing you to make tough decisions about what you are willing to compromise. Ultimately, this process allows you to decide what is right for you given a portfolio of choices that are otherwise hard to compare. Answer enough ‘trade-off’ questions and you’re bound to find the right plan for you, provided your choices are internally consistent.
At this point, it’s not a process of laboriously comparing— something that humans are not very good at, according to countless studies— but a process of elimination based on objectives and personal philosophy. I hope that the next time I’m saddled with having to sign up for benefits, someone in an insurance company or in HR actually follows through with a program like this.
how we unwittingly opened the flood gates to highly ‘contagious’ risk
Newton’s theory of universal gravitation was founded on nothing that the ancient Greeks didn’t know. The germ theory of disease could have been advanced and confirmed centuries before it was, if someone had made the right connections. It follows that there must be yet undiscovered generalizations that are “overdue” right now. Quite possibly, we have all the necessary facts needed to deduce how to prevent cancer or the location of a tenth planet, but no one is putting them together in the right order. More than that: Maybe we’re missing all sorts of logical conclusions about the world. They could be implicit in everything we see and hear, but might be just a little too complex to grasp.
- William Poundstone, “The Labyrinths of Reason”
|Question: Why did we not see the financial crisis on the horizon beforehand? Why couldn’t steps have been taken to prevent it?|
We live in a complicated world. So complicated, in fact, that few anticipated the financial crisis that crippled the world economy in a span of a few short years. There was nothing stopping us from seeing its impending destruction looming, but yet our most esteemed economists, businesspeople, and politicians all failed to recognize it. Why did we not see this crisis on the horizon beforehand? Why couldn’t steps have been taken to prevent it?
To understand the answers to these questions requires us to first face something unsettling: the arrangement of our financial and economic systems is almost as mysterious, complex, and labyrinthine as any of the natural sciences we study on this planet. In many ways, we have even less capacity for understanding economic systems because natural sciences are governed by processes that are reproducible and testable in laboratory settings, while economics is not well suited to such studies, being governed by irrational and unpredictable human behavior within a changing environment that is continuously impacted by literally billions of other factors at once. We are excellent economic historians, adept at developing post hoc explanations that put it all in perspective after the fact, we are not all that skilled at doing it in advance— which is precisely when we really need it.
There are people who understand small parts of the economic whole very well, but there is no one in a position to single-handedly put it all together at this very moment.There are people who understand small parts of the economic whole very well, but there is no one in a position to single-handedly put it all together at this very moment; each minute portion is sufficiently complex that grasping the entirety would require the instantaneous processing of tremendous amounts of constantly changing information, and a capacity for superhuman absorption of knowledge. We don’t even have computers that can manage the herculean task of collecting and crunching those kinds of numbers at the rate necessary for us to make sense of it in advance.
The Paradox of the Globalized Society and Breakage of the Ecological Feedback System
The overarching complexity that has come to define our economic world is somewhat paradoxical, because we tend to think of the ascent of rapid transit, satellite links, and Internet telephony as forces acting to shrink the globe and increase levels of communication and understanding across political borders. However, in many respects, these same forces heavily obscure the mechanics of the global economy through the sheer multiplicity of interregional and international relationships, corporate partnerships, and business dealings, leading to an impossibly tangled and web-like global supply chain.
Just 50 years ago, an everyday household item in the United States was likely to be made from raw materials, labor, and resources that came entirely from the United States; it is now common for products to be cobbled together using the resources and labor of many different companies housed in many different countries. Aggregated over an exponential rise in the number of consumer goods available in the global marketplace, we can easily see how it has become much more difficult to understand exactly what went into making any particular object: Where did the materials come from? How far were all the parts shipped? Were the materials sustainably produced? How much net pollution was created in the creation of this product? Were there human rights abuses associated with any part of the manufacturing of this product? As intermediary steps are introduced to the process of taking a product from production to consumption, the feedback mechanism between economic action and global consequence becomes increasingly unclear.
The feedback mechanism between economic action and global consequence is becoming increasingly unclear.Case in point: on the outskirts of Delhi, India, there is a tiny, impoverished village called Tila Byehta whose economy revolves around the stripping and processing of e-waste imported from countries like the United States. E-waste consists of discarded computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices which contain highly toxic but expensive and critically important metals that can be reused to make new electronics. While Tila Byehta benefits economically from processing this e-waste, we also know that e-waste is highly carcinogenic, causes permanent neurological and reproductive damage, and has the propensity to contaminate groundwater. But that matters little to the peasant workers in India who are more interested in their next meal than they are about long-term health consequences.
The dominant paradigm in our global supply chain is tantamount to transnational NIMBYism.At a structural level, why is this village halfway across the globe littered with highly toxic waste shipped from the United States? The answer is that America’s social and economic footing on the global stage facilitates the ability to pay others not only to take on the work of manufacturing and production, but also to absorb the costs, whether that is implicitly (as in the environmental costs of mining copper for computer components in Chile or the human rights concerns involved in manufacturing motherboards in China) or explicitly (by making trade deals to ship hazardous waste to India). In other words, the dominant paradigm in our global supply chain is a kind of transnational NIMBYism, where the U.S. consumer can consume all the value while being completely alienated from the social and environmental costs.
It is possible to see through this example how modernity’s creation of rationalized industries has led to consumers being almost entirely shielded from both the production and post-consumer sides of the equation for any given product or service. It has also allowed those controlling the means of production to be able to run factories by proxy, without necessarily having to witness firsthand the extent of the damages they are tacitly responsible for.
The implications of this are profound. In an era of escalating environmental hazard, low-latency feedback mechanisms in which our actions can be immediately seen as being causally-related to undesirable social outcomes are crucial to prevent us from unwittingly entering into dangerous and unsustainable practices.
Imagine that for every consumer good you purchased, you were forced to discard all related waste and packaging into your own home.Here is a thought experiment to illustrate this point: Imagine for a moment that for every consumer good you purchased, you were forced to discard all related waste and packaging into your own home. There is a very good chance that this model would radically change your entire approach to consumption; for all value you consume, you must also accept and absorb the costs in a manner that forces you to recognize the consequences of your choices. It may make life harder in some ways, but it renders it far less likely that you will be ambushed by an unpleasant surprise down the road, since you can see what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Living in the Western Hemisphere, we many not care about e-waste in India at the moment, but the earth is not in homeostasis; it is an interconnected ecosystem where events in one place can have serious downstream impacts elsewhere.
Systemic Risk and the Inevitability of Failure
The movement towards “glocalization” has embraced the idea that we should “think globally, but act locally.” The sentiment is well-intentioned. As consumers, we should be reflecting on how our actions affect our planet outside of our political boundaries and geographic locales, while simultaneously focusing on doing our part within the confines of our immediate surroundings. But as an American, unless you specifically take action to understand what goes into making a computer monitor and what happens after you discard it, there is a good chance that you will never even be exposed to the concept of e-waste, much less that it is a growing problem that is causing serious injury to human populations. Because it is not happening in consumers’ own backyards, it is only advocacy groups and ideologically-minded consumer-activists who are actually going to be thinking of human rights abuses in Chinese factories or e-waste seeping into water in India when they are reflecting on monitors. Everyone else will be thinking about features and prices.
Unfortunately, our system as it is arranged discourages us from having to think about such things since we rarely have to deal with real consequences directly. But even worse, our supply chains are so long, convoluted, and non-transparent that it is virtually impossible to get information even when one wants it. Contrast this with the natural arrangement of traditional societies, where geographical proximity to production and consumption activity intrinsically bestowed upon a society the ability to monitor and adjust behavior to maintain balance with the ecosystem and to ensure the health of the society as a whole.
It is becoming increasingly hard to view consumption-driven failures like the BP Gulf oil spill or the Sendai nuclear crisis as geographically-limited disasters instead of catastrophic game-changers.We should all be concerned about the impacts of our consumption choices because at some level, we all may have to deal some day with the consequences, no matter how invisible they may be in the short term. It becomes increasingly hard to view consumption-driven failures like the BP Gulf oil spill or the Sendai nuclear crisis simply as one-time disasters causing serious but geographically-limited impacts. Once we take into account both natural global ecology and the globalized supply chain, we see that such failures can easily become catastrophic game-changers.
With high levels of interdependency, a failure in one area creates unpredictable effects that ripple throughout unrelated industries, societies, and environments. The BP oil spill, for example, was not just a disaster for BP’s oil drilling and stock price. It impacted the fuel supply chain, which influenced oil markets and increased transportation and heating costs for everyone who buys fuel. The spill ruined the Gulf fishing industry, decimating thousands of jobs. The Gulf Coast’s tourism industry was destroyed, and may be gone for a long time to come. The animals that were killed by the oil were an integral part of the food chain, and thus affected the reproduction of marine life all over the Atlantic. And these are all just the first level of entities affected by this one disaster. Imagine the exponential effects that this might have once we take into account how the aforementioned groups interact with other groups and industries that normally have no direct connection to the Gulf. Most likely, you were somehow affected even if you live nowhere near the Gulf Coast.
Painting Ourselves Out of the Corner
The BP disaster, the nuclear crisis in Japan, and the financial meltdown illuminate how we are rapidly moving into a future where we, as individuals linked into the global supply chain and the global flow of capital, are perpetually exposed to serious systemic risks. Yet, despite the alarming disconnect between consumption patterns and very real threats of global ecological catastrophe, it is difficult to imagine how our civilization might ever revert to a system in which we take steps to mitigate the systemic risk we have introduced through the global value chain. We have come to rely on this chain in every sphere of our lives; we require newer and faster computer components for our economic growth, and thus need the copper that is strip-mined from developing countries; our transportation infrastructure leaves us heavily dependent on foreign fossil fuels; nearly every item that populates our Wal-Marts and Targets is sourced and manufactured many thousands of miles away to maintain affordability; and many of us enjoy eating fruits and vegetables that are completely out of season, something that the global supply chain is happy to provide, to name but a few things.
Trying to put a dollar value on natural processes is a lot like trying to put a dollar value on having your sense of sight; its work is so utterly irreplaceable that to assign a monetary value is almost pointless.Unfortunately, our leaders and indeed most of us tend to be fixated exclusively on growth, profit, and convenience motives rather than balancing them with a hard look at social and environmental costs— especially when these costs tend to be intangible, elusive, and difficult to monetize. How do we put a dollar figure on a systemic problem like the decline of the honeybee population when the role of bees in crop pollination is so central and taken-for-granted that no one in the agriculture industry ever conceived of the possibility that someday they might go away? Trying to put a dollar value on natural processes is a lot like trying to put a dollar value on having your sense of sight; its work is so utterly irreplaceable in the global economy that to assign a monetary value is almost pointless. Currently, the value of natural processes in the U.S., as far as anyone has ventured to estimate, has been ballparked at $33 trillion a year. The entire U.S. GDP is estimated at $14.26 trillion.
It’s only when we look at numbers like that that we can recognize the impossible frailty of the global ecosystem, and how we could all easily be facing an catastrophe of unparalleled proportions should something go wrong.
Unfortunately, the unpleasant reality is that there isn’t a simple solution we can implement without severely scaling back many of the positive changes that have come with globalization and modernity. Some relevant ideas have been discussed that could aid in solving this problem; each has a set of advantages, disadvantages, and headaches in instituting, but all are worth thinking about:
- Stronger incentives for corporations to not outsource labor and manufacturing
- VAT taxes that incorporate social costs into product prices
- Data that quantifies social impacts of products, which consumers can access at point-of-sale
- The “locavore” movement, encouraging consumers to voluntarily limit consumption to products they know are made entirely within a certain geographical proximity
These suggestions are serious ones, but yet they all seem quite inadequate; facile solutions for problems requiring drastic shifts. Regardless, whatever we do, it’s important that we do something, and ensure that we are encouraging politicians, manufacturers, businesspeople, academics, and consumers to develop engaging methods of reuniting the isolated regimes of production, consumption, and post-consumption in our global ecology.
While that process lumbers on with the regrettable torpor we afford only to the critically important issues of our day, it will, in the meantime, become harder and harder to predict when we’ll suddenly realize that we’re in way over our heads. There is, of course, the distinct possibility that we’re already there and we just haven’t put it all together yet.
why the post-millennial youth identity is really about transcending identity
Identity in “The Breakfast Club”
The 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club,” features a group of genre-fied high school students trapped in a Saturday detention by an autocratic, power-hungry principal. Together these students represent all the major factions of your proverbial high school cliques: there’s the nerd, the popular girl, the burnout, the jock, and the proto-indie rock chick. Over the course of this canonical movie’s 93 minutes, viewers are supposed to reach the startling realization that we need to break free of the stifling prejudices for we have for people unlike ourselves, take more time understanding their worlds, and we need to celebrate the strength we can find in our collective diversity.
A more cynical— and in my opinion a more sober— look at the movie only reinforces some of the ugly realities of how our identities drive us in our public lives. The movie opens with a voiceover of the nerd character (played by brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall) reading from the essay he’s being forced to write by the principal while in detention, an essay in which he has been asked to explain “who you think you are”:
Brian Johnson [the nerd] reads: Dear Mr. Vernon [the principal], we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong…and what we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us… in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.
This letter suggests that the characters are not who others think they are— they defy such base categorization and stereotyping. Yet, at the end of the movie, the main characters end up reading a slightly modified, more telling form of the initial letter:
Brian Johnson [the nerd] reads: Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong…but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…
Andrew Clark [the jock]: …and an athlete…
Allison Reynolds [the weird girl]: …and a basket case…
Claire Standish [the prep]: …a princess…
John Bender [the stoner burnout]: …and a criminal…
Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.
In other words, the kids admit that they are the stereotypes they are identified by others as. Indeed, by the end of the movie, the stoner burnout (played by Judd Nelson) remains an anti-social stoner burnout; the preppy pretty girl (Molly Ringwald) only earns the proto-indie rocker (Ally Sheedy) romantic interest from the popular jock (Emilio Estevez) by giving her a mallrat makeover just like her own. And the nerd guy (Anthony Michael Hall) gets stuck with the unpleasant task of writing on behalf of the others the paper they’re all supposed to write individually while in detention. Odd then that this movie achieves status as a canonical bildungsroman that teaches us to be ourselves even if it means bucking society’s conventions, when really it just seems to suggesting something quite different and antithetical— that we can try to shift our identities if we want, but we’re only really what others think we are, or what we can convince others we are.
We’re being given freedom to remix and juxtapose whatever we want to create something entirely new. This unbridled borrowing and recontextualization is the hallmark of the coming era.Symbolism in the Postmodern Theater
In high school, I knew a guy who was a long-haired skater one year, and after summer break suddenly returned as some country-fried cowboy, complete with a drawl. At first, people wondered what happened to the “alternative” dude with the Airwalk shoes, but eventually people just accepted the shift and forgot about “Mike” v1.0. Indeed, one of the tenets of postmodern thought is that the world is a kind of theater that is animated by the market. If you want to be a skater today and a cowboy tomorrow, the market will provide all the accessories necessary for you to make that transition. Whether or not you actually adopt the psychological qualities of the cowboy is no longer all that important, because first and foremost, it’s important to look the part. Why?
Critical theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that the following are ways in which objects acquire value in the world:
1. The functional value of an object – You can think about the functional of the cowboy hat, to protect its user from the scorching heat of the sun.
2. The exchange value of an object – This is an object’s economic worth. You could offer someone $30 and get a a new cowboy hat in exchange for the money.
3. The symbolic value of an object – A cowboy hat might, for example, represent a certain lifestyle that involves herding cattle.
4. The sign value of an object – Its value within a system of objects. A cowboy hat represents a particular philosophical outlook on life, a certain implicit set of priorities and beliefs (e.g. for the cowboy, things like masculinity and self-sufficiency), and a certain position within the socio-economic hierarchy.
When unencumbered by specific contexts, we’re usually seeing number 4 when we look at a person. This is why our wardrobes and personal accoutrements are so important to us. It’s the reason why a person used to dressing like a cowboy would feel so uncomfortable in goth garb, or why an indie-rock kid would never want to wear anything with a Hollister logo on it. We instinctively understand that within our society that the images associated with our clothing says something very specific about our personal characters.
For that reason, when I was younger, I found the kind of metamorphoses that people like Mike were engaging in rather unsettling, and frankly, annoying. I felt like I never really knew anyone because of the apparent ease with which people transformed from one identity to another. There was such a remarkable level of fluidity that it was sometimes hard to gauge whether someone was a “real person” or a character in some elaborate theater. And what made it even more disturbing to me was that these shifts didn’t seem to be limited to radical changes in garb or lifestyle. People seemed to be continually shapeshifting in their priorities, value systems, and who their friends were depending on who was around, whatever Machiavellian goals seemed salient at the moment, and what seemed fashionable at any given time. At the time, I chalked all this up to a high schoolish sense of wanting to find acceptance and the approval of others.
Thinking back, I realize that my views on identity were marked by a remarkable naivete. Not only does this shapeshifting occur at all ages, but in many ways it seems to escalate when the stakes get higher. For example, many businessmen have to play certain buddy-buddy roles in order to secure contracts. And we hear— quite often— about people whose very different public lives and private lives collide in rather unpleasant ways. In fact, our 24-hour news media model seems to partly rely on life-shattering inconsistencies in public and private identities. Think: Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Christine O’Donnell, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, any number of pastors of mega-churches who have been forced out as gay, any number politicians involved in sex scandals. All this because there is a perceived inconsistency in the identities and roles being conveyed in one place (public) versus the identities and roles being conveyed in other places (private). While I am personally troubled by the sorts of moral hypocrisy that follow around the identity disconnects in many political and religious figures, my feelings about identity shifting in the general public has softened considerably over the past few years, particularly after I have spent more time contemplating the drivers of consumption behavior in the postmodern era.
Who are You?
One day in 2003, the popular indie-rock music criticism site Pitchfork Media, which had by then come to be viewed as the central hub for the hipster/indie set, was lambasted by its audience for what was considered a terrible betrayal of trust. What was its transgression? It posted a review of a rap album, Eminem’s “The Eminem Show.” Accusations of selling out were bandied about with a sense of genuine moral outrage.
At first it might appear that this is a story about resentment stemming from a loss of editorial focus, like if Car and Driver started doing reviews of motorboats. But I think that’s only one part of it. True, readers felt that the inclusion of any music that was representative of genres outside of Pitchfork’s hipsterite bread-and-butter was tacit admittance that the site was composed of musical mercenaries. Yes, readers believed that for the site to showcase music criticism for artists that weren’t obscure or semi-obscure was a kowtow to some corporate ideology or commercialism. But another facet of this had much to do with the ideas of propriety and the symbolic value of genre:
If you’re an indie rock kid, you don’t listen to mainstream rap.
In 2011, less than a decade later, a statement like this seems ridiculous, the kind of thing that’s only true for extreme cases. It almost seems like it was never true. But I think we’ve just forgotten how much aesthetic sentiments have changed in the past decade, and how the influx of new media channels like the internet have impacted our receipt and consumption of cultural texts. In the intervening years since this story took place, eclecticism in musical taste has quite remarkably become the hallmark of much youth appreciation of music. Where in the 80s, there was something genuinely unusual about mainstream audiences who claimed to listen to Metallica (thrash metal), the Human League (new wave), and Run DMC (rap)— all of whom have had albums released in the same years (both 1984 and 1986)— now it’s simply expected that basic cultural literacy involves knowledge of and openness to this vast domain.
It’s beyond the idea of cultural literacy though— it’s the idea that few audiophiles now believe that the worlds of rap and metal are so completely alien to each other that they require entirely different philosophical/psychological/cultural backgrounds to enjoy. As a result, shutting oneself off from entire genres is now considered coarse and unfashionable. In fact, most popular music relies entirely on the freeform borrowing of prominent elements of other genres. It is not at all unusual to hear jazz elements in a rock song, or a hip-hop beats in hard rock, or rap song with metal guitar riffs. Or a top 10 hit with some elements of all these genres.
The way media and cultural texts of all different sorts have penetrated the lives of not just tastemakers but average people has ensured that nobody automatically separates genres in the way that we did in the past. Instead, there has been a trend towards legitimizing all cultural texts as long as they can contribute something interesting to the postmodern melting pot. It also helps that bringing undiscovered cultural texts to the table is part of the “coolhunting” phenomena, which means that there’s some level of status-seeking embedded in these deliberate displays of eclecticism.
In this way, we are no longer held hostage, and forced to assume identities simply as a result of our consumption habits. We feel less bound or “entitled” only to a limited palette of styles or genres; instead, we’re being given freedom to remix and juxtapose whatever we want to create something entirely new, to transcend simple views of identity and to embrace complexity. This unbridled borrowing and recontextualization is going to be the hallmark of identity creation for the next era. It’s why Lady Gaga and the avocado wasabi mayonnaise that you find in your grocery store nowadays aren’t all that far apart.
when public enemies hit the mainstream
As I write this, there are massive revolts occurring across the world; in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, and why, even here in Madison, Wisconsin. Indeed, revolution is pretty popular at the moment. But then— rebellion has always been popular, and as far as I can tell, it has always been cool, especially with the youth.
But one of the most interesting aspects of rebellion is how, after some countercultural nuisance spends years enraging, irritating, and aggravating the mainstream, it eventually permeates it. It is at this somewhat perplexing juncture that this formerly toxic social element is repackaged and sold by mainstream entities as perfectly respectable and worthy of celebration. And deserving of our money, of course. This year’s (2011) Super Bowl featured two ads that perfectly illustrate my point.
The first Super Bowl ad was one featuring Eminem. This ad, by Chrysler, told an elaborate narrative about the auto industry, a story involving strength, conviction, and vision, followed by a subplot about hardship, regrouping, and an eventual Biblical-style resurrection. Chrysler employed two metaphors to develop this tale of the auto industry’s Second Coming. One was somewhat direct: the tale of Detroit, which due to the failures of the auto industry, had undergone at least most of the ad’s described trajectory of riches-to-rags-back-to-riches. The second metaphor employed was more indirect, and told courtesy of one of Detroit’s most famous native sons: Eminem, whose personal life saga has also thematically mirrored the narrative recounted by the ad. Yet, despite this, Eminem is an interesting choice of a mascot for the notoriously conservative American auto industry.
“Ten years ago, Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.”It might be hard to recall, but nary 10 years ago— and as few as 6 years ago— Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. Countless news sources like CNN, a litany of advocacy groups, and innumerable prominent politicians (including no less than President George W. Bush himself, in fact) described through recurring soundbites Eminem’s personal role in elevating school shootings, teen drug abuse, domestic violence, homophobic hate crimes, and various other signs of declining social order. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.
Many commentators from the public sphere lamented that Eminem had ‘sold out’ by appearing in a car commercial (despite the fact that plenty of Eminem’s close contemporaries and labelmates like Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre had all done it before). But to me, the far more noteworthy element of this story is that a Big Three automaker wanted this erstwhile scourge on society to represent them. But they did, and it seems like few people in the mainstream thought twice about it once they saw the ad. While some questioned whether he was the right candidate for the tone of the ad, there was little controversy about the appearance of a guy who once recorded a jaunty little tune about brutally murdering his ex-wife while his young daughter looked on. Though his Slim Shady persona was jarring and disturbing to the American mainstream in the years of 1997 to 2003, now he’s just another familiar celebrity face.
The same thing has happened to Ozzy Osbourne, our second case-in-point. I wasn’t around for Black Sabbath’s heyday in the early 1970s, but from my understanding, people genuinely though of Ozzy and company as Satanic and poisonous to our childrens’ souls. Their proto-metal featured dark and disturbing imagery, impossibly heavy guitar work, and lyrics about nightmarish and supernatural phenomena. In the 1980s, Ozzy was even sued by some parents for allegedly causing kids to kill themselves (though he was eventually acquitted). And here is Ozzy Osbourne on Super Bowl Sunday, selling us on Best Buy with his good chum, teen heartthrob Justin Bieber (whose popularity, incidentally, is also considered by many to represent a serious decline in American society).
Of course, this ad comes on the heels of many years of Ozzy being in the public spotlight. But it’s still interesting to note that his popular reality TV show did little to cement the idea that Ozzy is a responsible, upstanding individual that represents the paragon of American virtue. Quite the opposite, in fact; it documented in graphic detail just how messed up he still is. But the cycle of the mainstream re-appropriating countercultural values means that America loves Ozzy anyway.
Converse, the Clash, and Metallica
Interestingly, the cases of Eminem and Ozzy are not isolated incidents. Such examples abound. I was recently in a normal, everyday shoe store and saw an entire wall of countercultural icons that had been packaged and sold as rebellious accoutrement by Converse. Look at the bands featured here:
The Clash, AC/DC, the Doors, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix. These bands at one time symbolized a serious rejection of mainstream sensibilities and aesthetics. Two of them were viewed as harbingers of dark, anti-Christian devilry; two more were icons of overt sexuality, drug abuse, and debauchery; and the last represented virulent anti-establishment politics. But here, Converse has commodified their images and symbolism (i.e. the fact that ‘the man’ hates them and views them as a threat to social order), and explicitly resells their names as pre-packaged rebellion in the form of fashion accessories:
Looking at these shoes invites the questions: who is buying these products? What is the demographic, and what is the psychographic?
“One of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.”The first thought that comes to my mind when considering the target consumer for these shoes is of the movie Juno. The protagonist of Juno is an uber-self-aware teenager (played by Ellen Page) whose entire goal in life seems to be to mash as many trendy references into her dialogue and personal consumption patterns as humanly possible. As far as is discernible, however, Juno is not interested in appreciating these references on their own terms (e.g. actually listening to their music); instead, she is far more interested in exploiting them to gain social capital and acceptance from her social network, which she does through incessant name-dropping.
Are people like Juno the target market? Probably. There’s a big pressure in our consumer society these days to not necessarily show that you like anything, but to show that you get all the right references; to demonstrate that you’re hip enough to at least know what good taste is, even if you don’t necessarily have it yourself. And as an added bonus, as the shoe below demonstrates, one of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.
It’s not hard to understand why all this happens: Capitalism knows full well that anything popular enough to get our attention is probably popular enough to sell. And at its heart, marketing is all about meeting untapped consumer desires— even when the untapped desire is to undermine the very system that is providing the raw materials used to fight it. It’s an irony that is most likely lost on the people who end up buying Clash shoes. But hey, if rock’n‘roll is about rebellion, maybe the most rebellious act you can do these days is actually just admit to conforming.
“A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture” by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, 2004.
on conducting market research to better effect behavioral changes in consumers
In an earlier article about bicycling, I mentioned that our cultural narrative about addressing energy problems typically involves a story about technology. Using existing means of solving problems is not usually viewed with much seriousness, or is dismissed entirely. Recall, for instance when President Obama was roundly ridiculed for suggesting that America’s continual search for oil wouldn’t be so pressing if we just kept our cars’ tires inflated.
In the realm of energy, energy policy, and energy politics, efficiency is not a sexy concept. Cool new technology is. Everyone intuitively gets that. Of course, my point here is not to say that technology can’t do amazing things; there’s no question that new technology is revolutionizing plenty of things. However, we also need to take into account that technology is expensive, takes a long time to roll out, and its outcomes simply aren’t keeping pace with the exponential urgency of our problems.
While we wait for our scientists and engineers to crank out viable and affordable solutions, the question turns, then, to whether it is possible in the meantime to make efficiency more attractive. I think the answer is a definite yes. However, there are good reasons why past efforts have not met with much success.
“The failures of achieving efficiency goals can be traced to a lack of attention to anthropological understandings of consumers and how efficiency can fit into consumers’ worldviews.”The failures of marketing in achieving efficiency goals can be traced, in my view, to a lack of attention to sociocultural and anthropological understandings of consumers and how they view the world, and how an implementation of efficiency can fit into this worldview. If I were a policy-maker looking to increase consumer efficiency or encourage participation in energy-saving efforts, here are some starter questions that I would want answered before spending a second crafting a program:
- How do people conceptualize energy in their lives, and what are the narratives they subconsciously tell themselves with regards to energy?
- How do the above views manifest themselves?
- What are consumers’ attitudes and beliefs about energy conservation and technology, if any?
Based on my own readings of literature in energy politics, my discussions with consumers, and the recurring themes I’ve seen highlighted by our media, I have arrived at a few thoughts of my own about consumer narratives about energy, and how those might guide behavior.1
So why (in my view) is technology so attractive while efficiency is not? I think it boils down to:
- Consumer confidence in technology – a cultural belief that technology will unfailingly come through to solve our problems for us
- Desire for magic bullets – a belief that there are (or will be) amazing solutions that don’t require much effort or sacrifice to implement
- Bias against the cheap and familiar – a belief that cheap existing things (e.g. inflating tires, installing weatherstripping) couldn’t possibly be as good as new things (e.g. energy efficient heaters utilizing cutting edge technology) for solving problems— especially complex ones
- Discreteness – technological solutions are typically housed in a single package (e.g. a hybrid car), which makes them more attractive and less cognitively complex concept than ‘efficiency,’ which is by contrast a series of behaviors
- Social visibility – people want to be recognized by others as contributing to a solution ; the visibility of technology generally makes that easier
Much of how we as consumers act has to do with unquestioned cultural beliefs and narratives that guide the way we perceive the world; as a result, attention needs to be focused on understanding those views. Once you can understand consumers’ worldviews, it’s easier to understand what might be important in either changing attitudes or in catering to mentalities; otherwise changing behavior is a rather Sisyphean task. On that point, I hope that those working in the field of energy take the time to push for comprehensive qualitative research to undergird their future programs for creating better energy programs and policy. It’s complex work, no doubt— but I can’t think of many things that are more important.
1 I will, however, caveat that these views are unfortunately not the product of a specific program of research backed by industry funding, which of course is a serious limitation; however, I have a reasonable degree of certainty that these are important, if not central, issues.
on understanding and addressing motives
A few years ago, I was consulting for a well-known company with a large vehicle fleet. Higher-ups were interested in the company’s environmental impact, and wanted to know the best way to reduce their carbon footprint given “X” dollars of investment. They were thinking of maybe of replacing their vehicles with hybrids. My team and I, being the intrepid businesspeople that we were, collected figures, ran some numbers, and came to a solid and convincing conclusion about what they should do.
Standing before company execs, we went through a number of concise charts and calculations demonstrating our work. Then we stated— with some sense of pride for our thoroughly researched and unintuitive conclusion— our genius strategy: on retirement of vehicles, the company should replace its gasoline powered vehicles with diesel powered vehicles.
It was in the moment of silence that followed that I believe we lost them.
Sure, we told them:
- Diesel vehicles are much cheaper than hybrids and one could thus buy many more of them with the same amount of money
- Diesel engines are much cheaper to maintain and replace
- Hybrid batteries have high carbon footprints of their own, and disposal is a serious and largely unconsidered issue
- Diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline
But ultimately, we sensed that something hadn’t quite translated. There were some questions and some comments by the company’s representatives, but they didn’t look convinced or excited by our presentation. The question of what happened, of course, is blindingly obvious to the onlooker. The company had already made up its mind about its strategy— they were going to get hybrids—, and our proposal simply did not fit into their plan. More to the point, we simply took their words about wanting to reduce environmental impact at face value, without taking careful stock of what their motives might be.
If you look at the business environment with regards to carbon footprints, the United States tends to be fairly hands-off at the moment. Generally there aren’t very many penalties for generating negative externalities as long as your company happens to create jobs and contributes to the economy. That is, no company is going to face government intervention because employees create air pollution while they drive around; the penalty for driving around comes almost exclusively in the form of fuel expenses and maintenance costs of the vehicles. Thus, any potential benefit that comes from reducing carbon footprints comes from these cost savings— and from creating a positive impact in the PR department.
Ah! The PR department. That was the critical element that we had missed. Somewhat naively, we had overlooked that the main intent of the carbon footprint reduction initiative was not the reduction itself, but in looking good for doing it. We had yet to learn that part of marketing is understanding that it’s as much about the story you can tell as it is about the reality. And the bottom line here was that “we care about the environment so we’re going to buy, errrr, smog-spewing diesel trucks” was not as compelling a story as “we care about the environment— that’s why we’re replacing our gas-powered vehicles with green technology hybrids!”
In other words, while doing the right thing is without a doubt a good thing, effective sustainability campaigns will definitely need to place the image factor high on the set of priorities. Something to keep in mind.
the implications of popular song in commerce
“I was one the people who reacted violently the first time I saw the  Nike commercial [using the Beatles song “Revolution”]. I think I was in a hotel room somewhere, and I was jumping up and down! I was real pissed off. Goddamnit, I was mad, you know, because when John Lennon wrote that song, he wasn’t doing it for the money. And to be using it for any corporate thing… it made me angry.”
- John Fogerty, quoted in Rolling Stone, December 10, 1987
“For me and my generation, that song I watched John Lennon creating at the Abbey Road studios was an honest statement about social change, really coming out and revealing how he felt. It was the truth— but now it refers to a running shoe.”
- James Taylor, quoted in Musician, April 1988
“The most difficult question is whether you should use songs for commercials. I haven’t made up my mind… Generally, I don’t like it, particularly with the Beatles stuff. When twenty more years have passed, maybe we’ll move into the realm where it’s okay to do it.”
- Paul McCartney, quoted in Musician, February 1988
“If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise, it’s going to be a free-for-all!”
- George Harrison, quoted in Musician, November 1987
“John [Lennon]‘s songs should not be part of a cult of glorified martyrdom. They should be enjoyed by kids today.”
- Yoko Ono, quoted in ENS, May 14, 19871
You Say You Want a Revolution
The Beatles have always been held apart from their contemporaries. They occupy a special space that confers them godlike status; their greatness is woven into the very fabric of our collective history and aspiration. They embody the pure ideals of peace and love, the hope and promise of a better world. Indeed, they transcend the crass realms of commerce. Which is exactly why they have been so successful in commerce.
Of course, since that highly controversial Nike ad aired in 1986, we’ve seen any number of Beatles songs in commercials, to less and less fanfare. From the use of “Getting Better” in a series Philips flat screen television ads that started in 1998, to the use of “Hello Goodbye” in Target Commercials in 2008, and of course the Apple ads hawking the Beatles’ own music in 2010, the Beatles have had immense success in the commercial sphere.
It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that the Beatles are “special” in the musical canon, the prevalent feelings of distaste that punctuated the initial use of “Revolution” wasn’t reserved for the Beatles. For the longest time, any use of popular song in commercials was polarizing. In the late 90s, Burger King used Modern English’s haunting “Melt with You” to sell a double cheeseburger, and the Gap used Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to promote a fall fashion line.
You Tell Me that It’s Evolution
When the popular song catalog started being mined for commercials, it seemed like the only people who found these ads charming were people who hadn’t heard the original songs before, and thus weren’t attached to them in any personal way. To everyone else, such ads seemed the height of distaste, the grossest expression of corporate scorched-Earth mentality, where the soundtrack of our lives were being exploited thoughtlessly to get people to buy crap.
Over the past decade, however, there has been a noticeable shift in how the public has perceived these ads. Much credit can be given to Volkswagen’s use of Nick Drake’s and other semi- or genuinely obscure artists like Richard Buckner in their ads. Something was less offensive about the use of these less recognizable songs, especially since many of these songs seemed like songs worth hearing, and the ads seemed to focus on the music as much as the products themselves. The ads came off as a genuine artistic statements about abstract concepts like wonder and marching to one’s own beat, rather than contrived attempts to sell people on things. Notably, the music featured in these ads actually generated sales of not only the vehicles, but also the music; in fact, nearly all the success in Nick Drake experienced in his entire career (granted, mostly posthumous) can be traced almost exclusively to Volkswagen ads.
Bob Dylan’s much-discussed entree into the commercial genre came in 2004, when his music and his person were featured in a Victoria’s Secret ad. If you listened very carefully when Dylan’s grizzled face appeared on the screen next to a scantily clad woman wearing racy lingerie, you could faintly hear the ghost of George Harrison groaning. What was Dylan thinking? Here is a man whose influence in the counterculture was incalculable— definitional, even— and here he is part of the corporate machine, veritably spitting on his legacy and the ideals that gave him his status in the first place! In retrospect, it appears Dylan was more clever than it may have initially seemed.
You Tell Me It’s the Institution
Walter Benjamin argued in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that the endless copying of a work— like the ubiquitous use of Beatles songs or the plastering of Bob Dylan’s visage everywhere— would destroy its unique value, devaluing the market with a flood of replicas. However, in the intervening years since the publication of Benjamin’s work, we have seen that not only did Benjamin misfire— but he was dead wrong. What Dylan correctly understood was that in the postmodern landscape, the ubiquity of a text radically increases the value of an original. Ergo, the more you see images of Bob Dylan and hear reproductions of his music, the greater the brand equity of Bob Dylan, the more you’ll pay to see him in concert, the more valuable his music becomes.
It’s not hard to see where Benjamin went wrong. His assertion stemmed from an economic assessment of the situation (as a text’s supply increases, its value must decrease because it is easier to acquire). However, what he failed to take into account was how a text’s very ubiquity causes it to be woven directly into the fabric of culture, which undergirds a society’s entire system of perception and values. Though Dylan might have made his mark in non-commercial settings in the 1960s and 70s, his appearance in consumer culture cements his relevance to the present.
Likewise, placing Beatles music in advertising, which might in one sense cheapen the music through decontextualization and reappropriation for nakedly commercial interests, also creates yet another avenue for the music to permeate and influence society. The commercials end up breathing new life into the songs simply by virtue of exposing new audiences to them (or re-exposing old audiences), and by removing them from the cutout bins of decades past and situating them as timeless pieces for any era.
Nowadays, the mark of a real hit song is not where it places on the Billboard charts, but in the number of different mediums it can fully permeate, and ultimately, how inescapable it is. A song that has dozens of YouTube videos dedicated to it, is played on the radio, is shown on MTV, is in commercials, is racking up sales on iTunes, and is featured on a video game like Rock Band— well, that’s a hit song that people are probably going to remember.
1 All quotes taken from “Beatlesongs” by William J. Dowlding, 1989.