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.
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.
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.
why building bicycle infrastructure is only a partial solution
PROLOGUE: THE NEED FOR RETHINKING THE CONVERSATION ON ENERGY AND BICYCLE GROWTH
At the recent Energy Hub Conference, held in mid-October in Madison, WI, Skip Laitner, Director of Economic and Social Analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), argued in a keynote address that the vast majority of our nation’s conversation about solving energy problems assume that it’s all about employing amazing new technologies like solar power, hybrid vehicles, wind power, microscopic energy-producing organisms, and the like. Point taken— in fact, just moments before his talk, the audience was subjected to a five-person panel of scientists and businesspeople who took turns promoting their new and wonderful energy technologies, and who tried to convince us that their innovations were going to be key elements in the high growth energy markets that drive the American economy and which will prevent the energy disaster looming on the horizon.
Laitner, however, was skeptical of this viewpoint. He argued, quite convincingly, that we need to wipe clean the slate on which we have written the dominant narratives about energy independence and we need to rethink it from the bottom up. One of his central points was that that we need to seriously think not about creating more energy, but in using what we have more efficiently. In general far too much attention has been paid to looking to the future technologies, and too little has been spent in understanding and addressing, in his words, the “cultural and anthropological” aspects. In short: We have a tendency to think of improvement in terms of technology, not in terms of behavior.
It is in this spirit of rethinking that I write this essay, in the hopes that it can better articulate why bicycling, a practice that in theory could be very instrumental in accelerating energy independence, requires a new approach in promoting its growth. I hope that in examining this issue and proposing marketing strategies, I can do my part to illuminate how the growth of the bicycle market can be not only be hugely profitable, but also culturally valuable to the American populace in a number of salient ways, not least in reducing energy dependence.
UNDERSTANDING THE BICYCLING MARKET AND ITS BARRIERS TO GROWTH
One of the highest product growth markets in the United States from 2000 to 2008 was bicycles.1 Indeed, the number of bicyclists on American streets has grown exponentially, and the prominence of bicycling in the mainstream consciousness has been increasing quite rapidly. Lance Armstrong is now a household name, and his athletic abilities have been held in high regards by Americans, who view him who is reinforcing American excellence on the world stage in competitive games like the Tour de France.
However, the growth of bicycling is starting to plateau; it experienced a rapid rise, but is now butting up against formidable barriers. The bicycle industry and bicycling-related groups are now finding themselves facing a seriously uphill battle in breaking bicycles into the American mainstream.
Three Major Sources of Consumer Resistance to Bicycling
As an avid cyclist myself, I have spent much time considering how advances in bicycle ridership could occur, and I have uncovered three distinct areas that require attention:
- Serious attention to improving bicycle design
- Improved transit infrastructure and bicycling amenities
- Greatly increased focus by bicycle companies on understanding the cultural barriers in bicycle growth, and addressing them in meaningful ways
The first of these issues is one that I have written about before, and which might be of interest. To quickly summarize, it seems apparent to me that most R&D and innovation at bicycle companies go towards efforts like reducing bike weight. While this is certainly something that is of concern to road bicyclists and many others that currently make up the core market of bicycle buyers, this is not a concern for the massive potential market that U.S. bicycle companies seem to be completely oblivious to. There are other, seemingly minor concerns regarding bicycle design that I strongly suspect are at least partially responsible for preventing an explosion in bicycle sales that would exponentially grow the entire bicycle market. While it is critical to understand this argument, it is not the focus of the essay here.
The second of these issues, the lack of bicycle infrastructure, tends to be the one that bicyclists fixate on. There are constant laments from cycling quarters that not enough money is being spent by city, state, and federal governments on improving transit infrastructure for bicycles despite its growing popularity. As a result, cyclists and bicycling advocacy groups have been relentless in pushing new projects like bike paths, bike lanes, and other amenities for cyclists. While I agree that these amenities would be nice, pushing this angle also implicitly argues that bicycling is an alternative form of transport that requires special and additional facilities to accommodate. This is a false assertion, and one that needs to be seriously questioned. Bicycles could easily make use of infrastructure that is already in place, and theoretically, even infrastructure that cars couldn’t use (like sidewalks and narrow alleyways). The United States has already built more than 4 million miles of public roads, almost all of which are currently allocated to cars. However, the ownership of this space by cars is not generally a legal designation so much as a cultural and psychological one, which brings me to the third point, which I think is the one that most seriously needs to be addressed: cultural barriers.
The recent increases in bicycling have rather unexpectedly hit a sensitive cultural nerve for something that might appear from the sidelines as an innocuous hobby. This is because bicycling is a phenomenon that touches heavily on a number of issues that are central to American culture, identity, and outlook, and like many of the other highly controversial issues on our collective table, is creeping rather nastily into the messy purview of the culture wars. In this article, we will examine many of the issues surrounding the controversies and cultural warfare that has erupted somewhat unexpectedly from bicycling, while situating the conversation in a socio-historic context. My hope is that understanding the resistance to bicycling from the mainstream can help bicycling manufacturers and advocacy groups reposition cycling to be a more attractive pursuit to the mainstream consumer than it traditionally has been.
RECURRING THEMES IN OUR CULTURAL DIALOGUE ABOUT BICYCLES
With the socio-cultural context of American streets as a backdrop, it is interesting to note that there has been a massive increase in interest in bicycles over the past decade. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it likely has a lot to do with young people being more environmentally-conscious than their parents, economic woes forcing people to adopt cheaper forms of transport, our culture’s increasing focus on ‘authentic’ lifestyle choices as being more status-conferring than traditional wealth-oriented consumption patterns, and the internet’s help in fomenting communities. It doesn’t hurt that city planners have been spending more time thinking about how cities can better reflect the needs of people through initiatives that encourage civic pride.
As a result of this, there has been a great increase in bike-related stories in news outlets. In recent years, I’ve lost track of the number of articles about bicycling public policy, government proposals about allocations of money to bicycling projects, details of bicycling accidents, opinion articles about bicycle culture, advocates raising the merits of bicycling, and other bike-related coverage that I’ve come across without even looking for them. Clearly, something is happening in the public consciousness with regards to bicycling. I’ve noticed that many of these stories—and the comments made about them on sites that allow user comments— involve explicit or unstated tensions, pitting bikers against other members of the community. The following are themes that I’ve collected, and which I think it is extremely important for bicycle advocates and bike manufacturers to take note of and to address in a serious and focused manner if we are to look at cultural barriers.
- Biking as a rejection of modern society and the societal expectations of 21th century citizenship
In the summer of 2010, an article appeared in the online version of a Madison, WI newspaper describing current Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s desire to spend more money on transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of all consumers, not just ones that have typically benefited in the past. Translation: there are a lot of bikers (and walkers) out there, and we can further encourage biking (and walking) with improved infrastructure; while this might negatively impact motorized vehicle traffic, we need to think about the needs of society as a whole. I’ve read many news stories like this, and invariably, the comments sections are littered with comments by warring parties bemoaning either a) the hitherto under-recognized needs of individuals who do not want to use or do not have access to motorized vehicles, or b) the need for individuals falling in column ‘a’ to grow up and get with the times. One comment I read stated, with some degree of hostility, that “bicycles are an 18th century form of transport.” The implication being, of course, that people who use them are living in the past, and are refusing to come to grips with the advent of newer, better, faster, and more modern technologies. By choosing this mode of transport, it is suggested, these anachronistic contrarians are clogging our roads and hindering America’s technological, economic, and social progress.
- Biking as an obstructionist takeover of a space assigned to cars
Critical Mass is an organization that promotes bicycling and bicycling culture. As an organization that is prominent in major cities like San Francisco, they do a great job of getting bikers together for what amounts to organized protests. Once every few weeks, for example, they like to get hundreds of bikers together to take over heavily-trafficked main streets during particularly inconvenient times— like rush hour on Friday afternoons. By thrusting themselves into this public space while preventing the regular flow of motorized vehicular traffic, they essentially force motorists to take note of bicycling as a movement. Unfortunately, the tactics involved in this act basically amount to some rudimentary form of cultural terrorism. Even more unfortunately, like most forms of terrorism, it’s built on the frustrations of people who realize that getting their message across in non-confrontational ways is a fruitless endeavor, which is why they feel forced to do it in this way. To their credit, Critical Mass does bring biking to the forefront of the minds of people who otherwise don’t care— but ironically, their approach does little to create sympathy towards their cause, and does much to create antagonism. What besuited businessman stuck in bicycle-created gridlock on a Friday afternoon is going to think good thoughts about bicycles?
It’s not just Critical Mass members that face the wrath of angry motorists. For a society in which patience is not a commonly-held virtue, and for which instances of road rage are in rapid ascent, it does not surprise me that the sight of a bicyclist is inherently rage-inducing for many motorists. A bicyclist on a road probably fires the same neurons as a sluggish driver who waits too long when the light is green. As a result, bicyclists are often viewed by motorists as individuals who are obstructionists in a space that is designated for cars. They get in the way and prevent the smooth flow of traffic at the speeds motorists like. Few people like driving at 15mph, and the venom against cyclists ties into the combined frustration of traffic, low patience for delays, and perceived invasion of space by outsiders who aren’t playing by the rules set by society. Interestingly, in most states, bicycles are given equal status as cars, at least on urban streets and state highways. Usually bicycles are not allowed on freeways, presumably for safety reasons. Yet, stories of bicyclists facing harassment and marginalization on the streets are quite common. In high school, a classmate of mine bragged about chucking a bottle of urine on a bicyclist on a rural road; behavior like this may not be condemned by the public as much as a similar story about an assault on a pedestrian because the bicyclist is perceived as someone challenging a largely unquestioned notions about who owns street space.
- Biking as an explicit challenge to a cultural status quo
If you get to talking to people about food (everyone’s favorite topic!), one thing you’ll find very quickly is that many otherwise sensible people ridicule vegetarianism. On its surface, it’s hard to argue against it as a personal choice. Even if you think animals don’t have feelings and that they are here for human benefit, it really has little impact on anyone else if someone chooses not to eat meat. But once you look a little deeper into it, it’s clear that the attitude against vegetarianism has less to do with the lifestyle or personal choice, and more to do with meat-eaters perceiving vegetarians as making some moralistic statement about consumption, a statement that gives moral superiority to vegetarians over omnivores. The discomfort of feeling looked down upon, or perhaps even morally outdone is enough to make many meat-eaters dismissive of vegetarians, and by proxy, vegetarianism as a whole. Many vegetarians I’ve met claim that they don’t express hostility, condescension, or moral superiority towards their meat-eating brethren, but still feel as if others dump that baggage on them anyway. Having been a vegetarian myself for 3 years in my mid-20s, I understand the feeling. Because the overwhelming majority of people are omnivorous and our collective diet is so meat heavy, it’s hard to convey to others that your consumption habit is not necessarily a political statement but a personal choice; it so defies the dominant culture that it is bound to be viewed as a rejection of mainstream society, and as some kind of battle cry— even if it isn’t.
Bicyclists seem to fall into that same category of a marginalized group whose consumption habits defy mainstream cultural expectations. The United States has an extremely dominant car culture, so it’s hard for people who are heavily embedded in it to see the motives of the people who either reject car culture or who embrace bicycle culture. On its face, cycling has the appearance of a political movement because of its phenomenal growth, and because of the view of the car as the dominant mode of transport in this country. As a generally center-right nation, we have a fairly strong aversion to the idea of messing with the status quo, and we tend not to look favorably upon those who attempt this (at least outside of the business realm). Aside from the rose-colored glasses through which we view historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., we usually view people who challenge the status quo outside of a business context as either naive idealists, Che Guevara-style revolutionary wannabes, or meddlesome gadflies. Bicyclists seem to be tarred with all three of these dubious and unflattering epithets.
- Biking as a flagship cause of liberal politics or a means of forwarding a liberal takeover of public space
Bicycling as a cause has come to be strongly associated with liberal politics in a way that simply rankles many conservatives irrationally, regardless of any objective social, environmental, or health benefits increased biking might provide our society. There is little doubt that due to certain historical and demographic realities (e.g. that many adults took up bicycling during their time in college), much of the public sees the interest in promoting biking as a preoccupation of a certain class of liberal elite— well-educated trust-funders who come from privilege and have a disdain for the white working class, the Protestant work ethic, and conservative values. It also doesn’t help that bicycling is associated with those elitist, socialist Europeans, whose entire continent many parochially-minded Americans apparently view with broad disdain for being effete, weak, and pretentious.
In fact, with these ideas in mind, many anti-biking factions genuinely view the pro-biking movement as a maneuver by a cancerous cell of socialists to hijack public resources for their nefarious political agendas and “special interest” needs— a theme that has repeatedly come up in opinion articles, responses, and conservative talk shows. This is regardless of the fact that legally speaking, motor vehicles are generally not privileged over bicycles, and that infrastructural changes would uniformly benefit all citizens (of course, whether or not you see these changes as benefits or a wasteful diversion of resources is a different matter entirely).2
- Biking as expression of anarchy, lawlessness, and the flouting of society’s values and social norms
One of the most commonly expressed frustrations motorists have with bicyclists is their apparent disinclination to follow the rules of the road. Watching as bicyclists blow through stop signs; ignore traffic lights; ride alternately on sidewalks, roads and lawns; cutting across several lanes of traffic; and riding the wrong way on one-way streets, many motorists see bicyclists as representing an element of lawlessness, anarchy, and a lack of common courtesy.
Bicyclists often don’t have good excuses for their lack of adherence for the laws. Observing from the sidelines, it is possible that this is a by-product of our car-friendly infrastructure coupled with American attitudes about non-motorized traffic on streets. In short, bicyclists don’t feel welcome on streets because they are car space, and they don’t feel welcome on sidewalks because they are pedestrian space. As a marginalized group, bicyclists feel as if they don’t belong anywhere, and are thus compelled to adopt a somewhat Machiavellian attitude that sidesteps following traffic laws. The unspoken question is: why follow traffic laws if you aren’t also being actively protected by them? Bicyclists also defend their actions by arguing that the potential for injury or damage that stems from ignoring traffic rules largely apply only to the cyclists themselves, not to others; that is, a car can inflict massive damage on human life, property, animals, and things that have nothing to do with the driver of the car, but a cyclist is mainly just going to be injured himself if he breaks the laws. Of course, this isn’t entirely true; cyclists can certainly hurt others, but—without defending lawlessness—it is true that the likelihood of a serious incident generally are much smaller.
What is interesting in observing this tensions, however, is that law-violating bicyclists seem to be expressing certain elements of the same frustrations that motorists have; namely, that they are impatient with the lack of movement on highways and arteries, and tired of having to deal with traffic slow-downs and obstructions. But unlike motorists, whose impotent rage at being stuck in traffic needs to be grounded, bicyclists can actually bypass the traffic and ignore the elements that cause the slow-downs. Of course, most drivers would likely do the same if they could get away with it, but the unwieldiness of cars, the potential for damage, and legal repercussions prevent it— while the agility of the bike actively facilitates it. Unfortunately, the overwhelming proclivity of bicyclists to take advantage of this fact only makes motorists more angry; the idea that some people on the road seem to view themselves as not being subject to the same laws as everyone else, and are able to easily benefit from breaking those laws (rarely with consequence) is often deeply upsetting and rage-inducing for motorists.
- Biking as an effete/unmasculine/pretentious pursuit
People already are annoyed with bikers for various reasons already described, but there’s also something about groups of people wearing skin-tight spandex that doesn’t quite translate to mainstream sensibilities. There’s also something convincingly cult-like and laughable about a bunch of identically dressed people parading around town together in a way that completely defies even the lowest-brow fashion sense. Maybe that’s why so many dismissive comments about road bikers revolve around their distinctive and decidedly eye-soreish garb. It’s hard for me to personally defend the bike clothing as fashion, because it’s obviously meant to be functional (the spandex wicks away moisture to prevent chafing). Nevertheless, the fact that this clothing is such a massive departure from the clothing that the general population chooses to wear is interpreted by motorists as reflecting a certain spacey, cultlike cluelessness. Such “fashion” statements (even if unintentional) tend to engender dismissiveness from outside observers.
EXAMINING CAUSES OF CONSUMER RESISTANCE
Without a doubt, over the past decade, there has been a rapid ascent in DIY culture that has privileged simplicity, customization, authenticity, and other crucial characteristics of consumer goods; these qualities are ones that make bicycles an attractive, cheap, and fashionable mode of transportation amongst members of certain demographics and psychographics. However, there is much resistance to widespread bicycle movements in areas outside of progressive hubs like Portland, Oregon; Davis, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Madison, Wisconsin. As I have already mentioned, some of the problem is infrastructural in nature (though truthfully, the U.S. has some 4 million miles of paved road, almost all of which is dedicated to motor vehicle traffic— an allotment that could be reapportioned given public support), and some of the problem is due to what I consider antiquated bicycle design; but a large part of the problem is cultural. As a society that has been heavily indoctrinated into car culture, we simply have a strong aversion to this alternative transport mode for reasons that aren’t easily addressed. For non-cyclists to begin adopting bicycling as a primary form of transport currently requires certain psychological adjustments that, depending on the person, range from minor to massive. The following are the specific barriers that are expressed through consumer resistance, and which play on the ideas mentioned above. For many, the idea of using a bicycle as a legitimate form of transport:
- Violates certain deeply engrained cultural beliefs about transport propriety
Namely, that the road is for cars and motorized vehicles only
- Requires many potential cyclists to re-evaluate their sense of identity
Am I the type of person who would be a bicyclist? Remember that to people who are not used to doing it, riding on main streets is somewhat of a renegade concept and may require them to view themselves as people who challenge status quo, which many are not comfortable with. Also, because many of the strongest advocates of bicycling currently are young people, people who have reached middle age might feel demographically excluded from participation
- Creates discomfort with political or group associations
Even if one follows road rules, if one belongs to a group of people that is widely considered the spoiled children of urban anarchy, it could be problematic for those who walk on the side of law and order, and value being associated with that image. To make things worse bicycling is now so closely associated with liberal politics, people who feel uncomfortable possibly being identified as such, or uncomfortable associating with those whose alleged political views are antithetical to their own may find biking problematic to their image.
- Highlights safety issues
Again, the cultural assumption—and the obvious corporeal reality— that roads are car space factors heavily into the unwillingness of broader segments of people to adopt bicycling as some component of their portfolio of transportation options.
This reality became quite apparent to me in Madison, WI, where there is an annual (sometimes semi-annual) event called Ride the Drive in which large segments of major streets in the city are closed off to car traffic. In 2010, 50,000 people came out to bike around the city that day (to give you an idea of the magnitude of this event, Madison is a city of approximately 200,000). I took the opportunity to speak to participants at this year’s Ride the Drive event, and many confessed that although they own bicycles, they don’t use them as much as they’d like because they simply don’t feel comfortable with all those cars around, especially when many drivers are distracted with phones or aren’t looking out for cyclists.
CREATING MARKETING STRATEGIES TO COMBAT CULTURAL RESISTANCE AND TO GROW THE BICYCLING MARKET
Clearly, there are many barriers to the growth of bicycling, and many different ways that growth can be facilitated. Here, I describe how a successful approach to popularizing bicycles— in addition to manufacturing better bicycles and improving city infrastructure— must adopt marketing strategies that encompass holistic views of the cultural elements of bicycling, and the behavioral inhibitions that face many potential and current bicycle consumers. What follows here is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of marketing strategy, but rather a brief sampling of the types of avenues that should be explored by bicycle manufacturers, bike advocacy organizations, and bicycle consumers.
- Legitimation of Bicycling by Respected Government/Non-partisan/Apolitical Agencies
Because the American cultural assumption is that cars are street space and that if you aren’t in a car, you should stay out of the street, many people are inculcated from childhood to believe that as bicyclists, they shouldn’t be on the streets. For this reason, it is important to average citizens that biking activities be legitimated by politically-neutral government agencies; the go-ahead from these groups government agencies is reassurance and encouragement that it is okay to be on the streets, even if you are not in a car. Some city governments advocate cycling once or twice a year with “bike to work weeks,” which give people who don’t bike much a green light to do it. More work of this nature and more frequent such events are absolutely necessary to convey the understanding that bicycles do belong on city streets, and that respectable organizations think so.
- Converting Advocacy from a Political Movement to an Apolitical Business or Social Organization
One of the best ways to grow the bicycle market is not by focusing on how to market bicycles per se, but rather, to focus on developing bicycle communities. The ones currently in existence revolve largely around bicycle advocacy through political processes. These have been organically-generated movements that arose from the fact that bicyclists have traditionally been somewhat disenfranchised on public streets, and these organizations served to raise awareness of bicycle issues, a cause near and dear to their members. However, at this stage, it is no longer beneficial for these groups to move in this fashion; indeed, I propose that their work might actually be harming their cause rather than helping it. Like with PETA, the explicitly confrontational tones that surround organizations like Critical Mass do not generate sympathy for the bicycling cause; instead, they contribute an unpleasant sense of haranguing the public, which preaches mostly to the choir, and may even eliminate goodwill from people who might otherwise be sympathetic. I propose that bicyclists and bicycling companies should create regular (i.e. daily) bicycling events that not only invite the general public to join, but place leadership roles in the hands of eager volunteers. Such events might be long rides around town, or perhaps organized rides from residential areas to business parks during the morning commute. The importance of the social element cannot be understated; it is legitimating, it is gives an opportunity to meet others, it conveys the sense that one is being left out of something interesting if one doesn’t join, and it can help create a sense of inclusion that doesn’t favor only certain types of people (e.g. age, political persuasion, gender, etc). Clearly, some thought should be put into how this goal can be achieved but there is no doubt that something needs to happen somehow on this front. I personally would propose some kind of social networking website that links bicyclists regionally, a one-stop site that combines maps, routes, group cycling events, group commuting times, etc. Done properly and with the simultaneous backing of all the major bicycle companies, this can eliminate a number of cultural barriers like safety issues, social issues, political fears, etc. Importantly, connections between people who can make things happen— even in the absence of bike corporation money— can be made, which could change everything.
- Promoting Local Races / Group Biking Experiences
Just as professional sports like the NBA and the NFL have been instrumental in turning the tides against racism, and television programming about gays and lesbians have been instrumental in changing Americans’ attitudes about homosexuality, establishing periodic regional bike races and group biking experiences would help greatly in exposing citizens to biking as a legitimate sport and bicycles as a non-threatening and perhaps even endearing presence. Targeting high school students for participation in such races might be a particularly good avenue because it involves young people (who eventually go on to continue the activities they enjoy throughout their lives) and it gets their parents and neighbors excited too. Moreover, America has a longstanding tradition of pitting various regional high schools against each other, and this is one more avenue for it to happen. Demonstrating the excitement and athletic prowess involved in racing, bike races could also be interesting periodic festival-style events in any town, especially if coupled with other festivities. Bicycling companies, working with various food and beverage companies, should go to extraordinary lengths to promote these types of races across the country, first starting in medium to large-sized metropolitan areas. In general, the more exposure and familiarity the general public gets to bicycling events, the more likely they are to accept bicycling as a normal and admirable pastime. Indeed, another angle that is worth thinking about is the deliberate playing-up of the turbulent lives of specific cyclists, to ensure that they join the ranks of celebrity gossip fodder (think: Brett Favre, Shaq, Tony Hawk, Venus and Serena Williams).
- Cultural Rebranding through Aesthetic Appeals
Unfortunately, many Americans tend to think of bicycling—unlike, say, football— as a sport that attracts wimps and pretentious arty types. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thirty years ago, video games were almost the exclusive purview of the dorkiest kids in high school, but now we find that all kinds of people play video games. To present bicycling as a pursuit that could involve anyone— even non-dweebs— is important. One possible inroad into this could come in the form of the visual aesthetic of bicycles and clothing. Currently, neither have much in the way of ego-expressive qualities built into their aesthetics. You can glance at a car and instantly have an idea of what kind of person would drive it. Very often, you can have a look at someone’s wardrobe and quickly understand with a good degree of confidence how that person views him/herself. The same should be true with bicycles and bicycle clothing, to ensure that all feel welcome, and a set of options can be procured that are consistent with one’s self-image. Vehicles are a big part of identity in the United States, and work should be done to explore whether expanding the aesthetic dimensions of bikes and clothing can make the pursuit of cycling more appealing to those it currently has no appeal for.
- Transcending Political Barriers through Economic, Health, and Civic Benefits
The following do not address specific cultural barriers, but can be pushed as part of a larger outreach campaign. These elements can serve as ways to offset negatively viewed aspects of bicycling with clearly messaged benefits.
For many people, moral arguments about the merits of bicycling have little weight. For example, individuals who were not persuaded by environmental arguments to drive less were persuaded in the late to thousands to drive less because of rapidly rising fuel costs. Ultimately it is very difficult to make the sorts of moral arguments that bicyclists like to make to those who do not subscribe to the politics or the political views that are central to the rationale that many within the movement subscribe to. It is often easier to convince someone who is not philosophically aligned to engage via another route that more directly affects their personal concerns (which is what a good marketer should always do).
In a suffering economic climate in which unemployment is high, disposable income is decreasing, and there is a generally high level of instability, the argument for bicycles as a primary form of transport can be made more salient through explicit demonstrations of cost-effectiveness. Cars and car maintenance costs are very high, and through proper messaging, arguments can be made that bicycles provide a more effective use of money in transport. Ivan Illich’s 1974 book “Energy and Equity” suggests that the average American spends several hundred extra hours a year working just to own and maintain a car, time that could be spent in other ways (there are obvious complications involved in employing this calculation in a practical setting, but it is interesting nonetheless). It should be noted that economic incentivization may not be effective as a singular strategy; it should be employed in tandem with other methods of promotion.
As the obesity crisis reaches epic proportions, and while demands on American workers put a premium on time, many Americans find it increasingly difficult to find time to exercise. The use of the bicycle as a primary form of transport combines the economic benefits and health benefits in one package, and depending on the distance one has to travel for work and the geographic density, could actually save time. Bicycles can and should be aggressively promoted by bicycle companies as alternatives to gyms, ones that can be seamlessly integrated into one’s work day; instead of spending more time locked in a building, biking gives a person the opportunity to experience the outdoors during a time when he/she would be otherwise trapped in a car. Bicycle companies would be wise to band together and promote this message through advertising on television, magazines, contests, and channels that involve health-conscious consumers. This message would be much more powerful in conjunction with a social networking website that can quickly convert the message from well-intentioned thought to action.
Promoting Economic Revitalization and the Reclaiming of Civic Space
What became stunningly vivid to me during the aforementioned Ride the Drive events, where cars are banished from major streets, is the realization that cars take up an immense amount of real estate in a city—not just in terms of the literal space of the 2-4 lane city streets that cars dominate, but the more subtle psychic space of residents. The knowledge that cars are around forces us to be vigilant at all times when we’re anywhere near a street. There are giant metal behemoths whizzing by at 25-90 miles an hour wherever we go. In shopping areas, we have wait for traffic to pass or we have to go to a crosswalk before we can cross a street to go to a shop. We have to breathe the polluted air and listen to the constant noise of humming motors and honking horns.
Conveying the idea that cars have been instrumental in the decline of public space, the suggestion must be offered that increased use of non-motorized traffic would have the effect of promoting community and the reclaiming of space that was once dominated by motor vehicle traffic. With enough reduction in motor vehicle traffic, or an eventual massive overhaul of the apportionment of street space, it could even be argued that giving children the space to play in front of their own homes will reduce instances of delinquency and other unwholesome activities that detract from city life.
Most importantly, however, work should be done to asses the economic benefits of creating shopping areas in which only minimal traffic is present. There are only a handful of areas in the country like this. In Madison, WI, this area is 6 blocks long and does not allow motor vehicle traffic except for the occasional bus or police car. It is a very lively area filled with people and bicycles, and an area that is much more pleasant and conducive to spending long periods of time than similar areas that cater to cars. If cities can reliably create areas that produce economic benefits through this means, this can be a powerful signal for other cities to also build them and encourage non-motor vehicle traffic. Studies from urban planning should be compiled to understand the impact of pedestrian malls on economic climates.
In addition to legitimating government organizations, it is important to involve organizations like the American Lung Association, groups who aren’t easily categorized into politicized “special interest” groups. The ALA in particular is one that should be greatly concerned about air quality issues; the pollutants stemming from cars have had a far greater deleterious effect on Americans than cigarettes. Other organizations like MADD, the American Heart Association, and Noise-Free America might be interested in collaboration too.
The reason for getting these organizations involved is because social pressures can be very strong incentives for shifts in consumer behavior. For example, cigarette smoking was quite common until organizations like the ALA got involved and created a heavy stigma on smoking. Since then, smoking rates have dropped dramatically, and I’m inclined to think it had less to do with health benefits (especially since obesity rates have gone up) and more to do with these organizations essentially making smokers feel like bad people. The same has happened to some degree to SUV drivers, who increasingly feel some level of shame for being alone in a 6000lb. vehicles on the freeway. It’s not necessarily a pretty strategy, but increased effort in making bicycling feel like a civic responsibility that bestows upon cyclists a “warm glow” of respectability, and which simultaneously tars drivers with a negative stigma might be what it takes to grow the bicycle market. Medical organizations in particular seem like good agents of non-politicized stigma creation.
For cultural reasons, promoting the adoption of bicycles is not going to be an easy sell. Cultural attitudes are notoriously hard to overcome and are ingrained in entire thought patterns. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that overcoming the hurdles can happen through a careful understanding of the cultural barriers and taking active steps towards addressing those barriers through effective marketing strategy. It will take some money, but a lot of work, planning, and relationship-building at the agency and aggregate level.
The above strategies are only a few ways to address the central issues. More effort should be put in my bicycle manufacturers and bike advocacy organizations in crafting strategies that take into account the cultural forms of resistance I have elucidated above. For reasons I have described, they are just as important (maybe more) as pushing for better dedicated bicycle infrastructure.
Do you have good ideas on how to address the cultural barriers to bicycle growth? Any important cultural barriers I have missed? Please let me know in the comments.
1 National Bicycle Dealers Association. “U.S. Bicycle Market Overview,” 2008.
2 The comparison of this particular theme is one that reminds me strongly of the origins of America’s attitude towards its drug policy. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading up on the economic aspects of American’s longstanding (and largely failed) war on narcotics, largely because understanding how this war has been executed vividly demonstrates how ineffective demonstrations of brute strength are against all known economic and marketing theory. Yet, it’s hard for anyone who has spent any time reading about this topic to walk away without the feeling that generalizations about the politics of drug users had a major impact on how policy has played out. The use of drugs during the 60s and 70s was associated with liberals, hippies, intellectuals, and minority groups. All their talking about revolution and social upheaval was not an association that, say, the Nixon administration was eager to be bedfellows with— regardless of what objective studies said about these drugs. I strongly suspect that in a similar way bicycles are maligned in an unwarranted fashion by those on the conservative end of the political spectrum.
the burgeoning raw milk controversy and how it ties into the broader culture wars
Over the past few months there has been a tremendous amount of controversy brewing about what the government is describing as a dangerous substance, one for which there is a rapidly-rising demand for, and which experts claim has no legitimate medical value. If you guessed that this substance is some kind of narcotic, think again. It’s milk. Specifically raw milk. How could there be such a big controversy over milk?
At the crux of it are two opposing sides. On one side is a group of people who believe that there is no reason that they should not be able to drink raw milk if they want it. People have been drinking raw milk for centuries, and it’s just milk after all. It’s natural, it’s accepted by society, it’s everywhere. The other side is represented by the government and food/sanitation experts, who argue that raw milk is simply unsafe. Cow udders being so close to the area where waste is excreted, it is much more likely to have deadly bacteria in it, and besides there are no added benefits to drinking raw milk, so all milk should be pasteurized (heated to the point of killing bacteria) before sale. Period. Thus, many states have now implemented a ban on the sale of raw milk. There has thus erupted a highly charged debate about the merits of raw milk, a debate that has spilled over into the mainstream public sphere, and which has led to a number of angry protests and demonstrations.
On the surface, this debate seems a bit comical and overblown; a war over milk? But the topic has been steadily gaining attention in the national press and in consumer groups over the past couple of years— so much so that farmers have been marketing ways to circumvent American laws outlawing the purchase of raw milk. One such way involves cow time-shares, which allow a city-slicker to temporarily rent a cow. Renters can then capture the cow’s milk and drink it, without technically buying the milk per se (the money is for the rent).
What I find fascinating about the hullabaloo about raw milk is the way that the dialogue neatly encapsulates many of the war horses of the ongoing culture wars and exposes certain American cultural attitudes towards food, changing trends in how people view the food marketplace, and shifts in how companies approach the marketing of food. Let’s examine these issues further.
Perception of Government Overreach
The current Tea Party movement is the latest in a long stream of movements pitting consumers against the forces of government tyranny and overreach. Interestingly, the narrative of callous bureaucrats who capriciously control our personal freedoms is one that has had incredible traction across the political spectrum, from issues ranging from gun control, the war on drugs, abortion, welfare, health care, food and drug safety, helmet laws, and pretty much everything else under the sun. Not surprisingly, the issues involved in government legislation form the basis of the American culture wars.1 As a result, pretty much everyone at some point feels that government intrusion, conducted under the nebulous umbrella of “protecting the public interest”, has interfered with their ability as consumers to exercise free choice. Most people don’t really care about the systematic tendency of the government to enforce laws of restriction, except when something they want is restricted; then suddenly, legislative actions and legal codes are viewed as broadly overreaching and totalitarian.
The language that has been used by raw milk enthusiasts suggests a subscription to the idea that government fears (incited by food and dairy experts) about the safety of milk are misguided, alarmist, and the work of pencil-pushing outsiders who simply don’t get it. Again, the argument comes that people have been doing this for centuries, so why the sudden fear about sanitation? Also, say the pro-raw milk lobby, if someone wants to risk their health, what business is it of the government? No one is proposing making other risky activities like skydiving illegal, after all.
The Justification and Legitimation of Consumer Choice
With the aforementioned conflict in mind, it’s interesting to note how the cultural view of the government suppression of raw milk, in a way, mirrors that of the decades-old culture war involving marijuana. On the one side, the government argues that marijuana— which initially came to light in our society as a recreational narcotic— is dangerous and has only harmful applications. On the other, proponents argue that it not only isn’t harmful but has tremendous value for our society.
As suppression of marijuana eventually reached epic proportions involving government crackdowns and raids (which, incidentally, have occurred with respect to raw milk facilities and retail outlets as well), the recreational aspect of the drug, a facet that initiated the debate and which involves the basic concept of consumers being able to make their own choices, actually took a back seat in the pro-pot narrative; that is, there became a stronger story within the pro-marijuana factions about how marijuana is not a recreational drug, it’s actually something that has other virtues— like the pain-reducing properties for cancer patients and the fact that the industrial fibers that can make sturdy ropes and clothing. Most recently, the addition of the November 2010 ballot initiative in California about legalizing cannabis was founded on the idea that the legalized pot trade could be an economic panacea.
All these applications might be accurate descriptions of the social values of marijuana and industrial hemp; however, the focus on these “legitimating” applications sidesteps the redress of the argument at the heart of the issue for the pro-marijuana lobby: do consumers have the right to choose to use a product that epidemiological data appears to suggest is a relatively harmless (though not entirely without risk) vice? Unfortunately for the pro-pot advocate, to bring up the “consumer choice” argument for a taboo subject in the absence of some “legitimate” use is an automatic dismissal of credibility. As such, there has been a proliferation of pro-pot propaganda that focuses not on the fundamental validity of the government’s stance, but on the “legitimate” contributions marijuana offers society.
Likewise, the pro-raw milk groups, tired of having to battle bureaucrats whose simple message of “it’s dangerous” becomes increasingly difficult to retaliate against, are starting to employ a similarly slapdash “it-does-everything!” narrative in order to legitimize their desire to choose raw milk. At this stage of the raw milk debate, we’re hearing about how raw milk is not just a drink, it’s one of the rare “superfoods.” It has antibodies that help boost your immune system to unparalleled levels. Its powerful enzymes reduce the load on our bodies. It has massive amounts of beneficial bacteria. It just tastes better. While there may or may not be some legitimacy to these claims, it is interesting to view that once the government stepped in about raw milk sales, the raw milk faction’s narrative about raw milk shifted from one about consumer choice and preference (a story which, in this battle, fails to gain traction) to one about various health and social benefits.
Employing Legitimating Narratives
Because raw milk advocates apparently cannot forward their agenda purely on the level of defending consumer choice, they are forced to employ narratives that either exemplify their own beliefs about the values of raw milk, or which cater to latent beliefs of the society at large. Indeed, the narratives that raw milk advocates have jumped to highlight the larger social trends that we increasingly find animating the sphere of food marketing. The following sections detail these broader narratives.
Pharmaceuticalization of Food
A recent radio story featured an indignant woman complaining that the government should have no right to bar her from consuming raw milk, a drink she referred to quite casually as an “enzymatic nutrient-rich superfood.” This comment brings me to a question: what exactly is a superfood anyway? If we are to believe Michael Pollan’s view of the modern food industry, the concept is simply the by-product of an evolving philosophy we have come to use in understanding food. That is, the marketing of food has turned us towards a model of food as pharmaceutical. We have come to a point where we no longer view food as food alone; instead, we think of it as a convenient (or inconvenient) aggregation of beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin c, fiber, fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients transported to us in the form of a broccoli floret, a tomato, or a cheeseburger. Pollan argues that we have now been culturally trained to think of food products less within the context of an overall balanced diet, but individually as a bunch of isolated nutrients that we use to mentally mix an optimized nutrient cocktail containing the certain nutrients we’ve heard about such that, over time, we can slow the processes of aging and health decline, and maybe live forever.
Thus, as pharmaceutical companies have cornered the market on medical cures, food companies have moved into the preventative care market. This philosophical shift has become so ingrained in the Western worldview that you might not have noticed that the commercials associated with most foods not being marketed as a form of junk food (i.e. any food marketed to people over the age of 30) are uniformly littered with references to specific vitamins and nutrients, along with vague or implied medical claims about what these nutrients will do for you. Increasingly, food companies are finding that they need to promote these nutrients and various nutritional claims (“No Transfats!”) to get consumer attention.
The aforementioned shift didn’t happen by itself. While the Protestant work ethic did create in Americans a strong attitude towards working hard in the past, more recently Americans have been noted for another, perhaps less endearing quality— impatience. When we want something, we want it now. As a result, we have a cultural proclivity towards magic bullets. We apparently believe that wearing $150 basketball shoes will actually make us jump higher or play ball better without us having to invest any additional effort practicing; many seem to think that using the secrets of Rich Dad, Poor Dad will, overnight, grant them access to lives they only could have dreamed of before; we have a tendency to believe that we can get “ripped” (and fast!) simply by owning products like the Perfect Pushup device (advertised on late-night television), without us having to sweat very much. Likewise, we believe that eating certain “superfoods” will magically give us perfect health overnight. Apparently raw milk has joined the cadre of those foods now.
The Distrust of Processed Foods
In the wake of increasing awareness of processed food and its apparent role in facilitating the numerous impending health disasters in America, grocery store shelves are awash with words like “natural”, “organic”, “whole food”, “non-GMO”, and “raw.” Coupled with the paradigm shift that focuses heavily on the nutrient content of food, the by-product has been a narrative that glorifies the unprocessed, the untampered-with, the pure. Farmers’ markets have seen an explosion in popularity; Michael Pollan has achieved papal status exposing the economic and health dangers involved in the marketing of food (one of his snappy adages is if it’s a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t); and the corn syrup industry has even recently lobbied to change the name of their product to “corn sugar” to combat its pilloried status as the paragon of everything wrong with the modern food industry.
In addition, there has been a renewed focus on how unprocessed foods just taste better. A new brand of foodie-ism has emerged, eschewing the expensive restaurant and championing the lost worlds of flavor that can be harnessed by the enterprising chef through the combination of fresh ingredients and easily-learned home culinary wizardry. Raw milk falls neatly within this purview, being described as being “milk the way it’s supposed to be” and also retaining all the flavor apparently lost in commercial pasteurization process.
The phrase “having a relationship with [one’s] food” has seen exponential increase over the past decade; it has fed into the massive increase in farmer’s market attendances and the soaking prices seen within them; it’s at the heart of popular movies like Food, Inc., bestselling books like In Defense of Food and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and food movements like the locavore and slow foods movements. But what does “having a relationship” with one’s food mean? It seems to have to do with the idea of not commodifying food; not viewing food as a commercial construct or as a[n] SKU number. It’s about reconnecting with the land and the origins of the things on our tables; it’s about reconnecting with lost innocence and simplicity. It’s reconnecting with the authentic.
With consumers’ increasing recognition (and alarm) that everything in the modern world is simulated, marketed, forged, commercial, etc., there has been an anxiety for consumers to grab onto whatever is authentic, and which seems to come from a context that has maintains freedom from crass economic interests (Andrew Potter’s 2010 book “The Authenticity Hoax” is a well-explicated treatise on the issue). Raw milk contains within it that authenticity. This is not ordinary supermarket milk, a product (in every sense of the word) that is so divorced from its agrarian roots that it is mass-produced by biologically-augmented cows in industrial farms run by multinational corporations. Raw milk is back-to-the-earth; it’s a relationship with the farmer; it’s doing things the way they used to; it’s about quality, not commerce.
Ironically, despite the fact that the people to whom this raw milk phenomenon is appealing tend to be wealthier and better educated than typical grocery store milk consumers, the science behind its illicit status tends to be viewed by them with suspicion and dismissiveness. All this talk about bacterial threats is a modern invention; no one worried about bacteria in their milk a few centuries (or even decades) ago. That line of argument is just part of the highly ordered realm of not only the food industry, but the modern world in general; the talk of deadly bacteria is emblematic not of progress in recognizing pathogens, but of our changing vernacular, the wholesale loss of connection to our food, the rationalization of everything through formal, mechanized commercial processes. In that light, the fervor surrounding raw milk comes into focus more as a kind of political protest to widespread processes of “McDonaldization” (to borrow a phrase from George Ritzer) than a health or gastronomic statement.
Significance of the Raw Milk Narrative in Marketing Strategy
The raw milk controversy is not particularly novel in the sense that it seems to rehash many of the same themes that have formed the heart of almost all heated national debate for the last 30 years— what rights are we entitled to as consumers in a society built on laws and networks of social interdependency? Where this story does seem remarkable is the apparent innocuousness of the subject matter— which is the reason why the way this particular story will pan out is going to be more important than it might initially seem.
In the past, the culture wars have largely centered around notably taboo subjects like drugs, abortion, and gay marriage; but as we see the tentacles of the culture wars start wrapping themselves around seemingly trivial matters like raw milk and the right to dry movement — issues that are not associated with factions perceived by the mainstream as representing threatening rogue elements (e.g. drug cartels, abortion doctors, ‘socialist’ politicians, blasphemers, gun manufacturers, etc.) and which are instead associated with interests of middle-class Americans (e.g. farmers, soccer moms)— it will become increasingly hard for us as a society to delineate and agree where government should and shouldn’t be able to go, and on what grounds they can or can’t do it. In the past, drawing these lines was more straightforward because it was easier to successfully argue on emotional, not logical, grounds about the limitations of government interference (“we can’t let the drug cartels win!”). But when all the parties involved start looking like sympathetic figures, legislating begins to get very sticky.
At this point, it becomes a fairly complex and convoluted political and philosophical question; what exactly does democracy mean, and what does giving consumers freedom of choice entail?
1 Of course, the narrative about the government being a grossly unjust behemoth trampling personal freedoms in search of power and rights for special interest groups is one that seems to be conveniently employed when one’s pet interests are at stake through some systematic “crack down”, but almost never when the same government “cracks down” on a politically oppositional interest— an action that is almost always met with unbridled enthusiasm.
why revealing your true identity will be the next tectonic shift in the virtual space
The role of anonymity is a topic that comes up often about the increasingly unpleasant tenor of discourse on the internet. It’s getting harder and harder for websites and content providers to deal with the incivility, abusiveness, and venomous anger that is constantly being spewed out on their forums— almost all stemming from users who never reveal their real names or identities. As I mentioned in a previous article, as the internet has moved from obscurity into the mainstream, civil and thoughtful conversation has become increasingly rare. We’re finding that it’s easy for the public to sling mud on the internet when they can hide behind their monitors. It’s common for vigilante internet mobs to form and harass their enemies. Namecalling and insults abound.
As a thought experiment, think about this for a minute: how would behavior on the internet change if you had to use your real name?
As I see it, changing this one aspect of the internet would radically reduce the level of unseemly activity in the virtual environment. In “real life”, norms of civility and politeness help us maintain our positive appearances in the eyes of others, which to most of us is pretty important; on the the internet, anonymity allows us to largely avoid consequences of bad behavior, essentially giving us license to abandon self-control. But when your name and identity is forever linked to the comments you make, you must maintain a certain level of comportment fit for someone interacting in polite society, lest you earn a permanent mark against your character. And, as a friend of mine once said, the internet never forgets.
Thus, I predict that some day, the internet will undergo a radical transformation into a dichotomized space: there will be one portion that is anonymous; its qualities will be generally seen as chaotic, unreliable, and unstructured. This anonymous internet will not be taken very seriously by anyone— even the people who use it; it will probably not be regarded very well, and people will use it either just to let off steam or to just mess around.
And then there will be the other portion, demarcated by the use of users’ real identities in communications. This latter internet will be regarded as civil, purposeful, and reliable in its information; it will be a place where reputations and communities can be built, meaningful and polite interaction can take place, and where comments are helpful and constructive rather than snarky, dismissive, and hostile. Though it may come off initially as a somewhat sterile space, as its userbase expands, it will evolve to be as the primary virtual complement to “real life” interaction. The anonymous forums of the ‘other web’ will simply be too unstructured by comparison for long-term investment of time. A company will probably make a lot of money selling you an official identity that you will use as a login for all the websites that subscribe to this part of the internet; this will prevent you from making up an identity and ruining it for everyone.
Privacy advocates will worry about this evolution of the internet into a sphere in which we give out our real names and are forever linked to our comments, but the dystopian reality of the current internet “community” and commenting as a whole is one that both the public and those privacy advocates simply must acknowledge, as the current state of affairs threatens to undermine the internet as a whole. Currently, websites are having to employ increasingly heavy moderation to weed out bad behavior, but ultimately, content providers will find that they lack the resources and manpower to corral human nature in an atmosphere where there are no rules. However, they can avoid having to deal with this problematic behavior when they understand how the presence of social norms can suppress incivility from the get-go.
People will initially be reluctant to sign up for this idea—mainly for privacy reasons and the fact that they are accustomed to anonymity— but once they realize it’s the only ticket to entering a consistently constructive and civil society in the virtual world, I think they will understand the value, and eventually embrace it. They will see how it can be leveraged it to bolster their personal reputations, build their names, and create a lifelong history of their characters. They will appreciate how the internet will go from being a glorified anonymous chatroom to being a community of real people with valuable things to contribute. They will appreciate how having the discipline to maintain oneself will make conversations more pleasant, constructive, and intellectually satisfying. They will appreciate how knowing each others’ names will facilitate the transition from being online friends to being “real life” friends.
It will be interesting to see whether my prediction will come true, and if so, how long it will take. The level of moderation necessary on reputable sites that allow public commenting (like news sites) is reaching all-time highs, and younger generations who have grown up with the internet as a free-for-all are posting with increasing frequency. Why, even the middle-aged adults who were taught growing up to mind their Ps and Qs have, over time, been socialized by the rest of the web to drop their pretenses of civility.
Given all that, my bet is that the wheels will be in motion within the next 5 years.