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Forecasting change


I am going to NYC today to present the the capital markets data collected in Boston, Seattle and Kansas City (see posts above). But a couple of things before I go.

I am setting up a forecasting model for popular culture for a large client, and I want to recruit people who are well informed about one or more aspects of same. I am looking for people who really know their music, film, magazines, zines, sports, design, retailing, food, architecture, cars, capital markets, marketing, radio or television. The idea is to establish “listening posts” throughout contemporary culture in order to identify and track innovations. This is not a full time but a consulting assignment. The expert would be consulted on a monthly basis, supplying perhaps a day a month. (Details of the project are still being worked out.)

The “listener” will be a rare bird. Some of the people who are well informed about an aspect of contemporary culture are, in a sense, too well informed. They cannot see for forest for the trees. My client is looking for someone with tremendously good powers of pattern recognition and a feeling for the bigger picture.

The other key qualifier is that the listener exercise a curiosity that is dispassionate. There are lots of people who know popular culture down to the ground but they use this knowledge to demonstrate how exquisitely hip they are. In a phrase, they are “too cool for school.” No avant-garde-ists need apply.

Could I ask “this blog sits at” readers for names of people they think might qualify. I will post more details in subsequent entries (and forgive me if I slow acknowledging your suggestions…I will be on the road for the next few days.)

Your help would be very much appreciated.

The Political Science of Father’s Day

Alison Thomas, a sociologist, recently looked at Father’s Day cards. She didn’t like what she saw.

It’s terribly superficial. If this was your only way to access images of fathers, it would be couch potatoes whose interests are angling, golfing, fixing things – oh, and farting … It’s a terribly unflattering portrayal of fatherhood, but it clearly says a lot about our ideas of what it means to be a dad.”

Only about 5% of the cards represent an image of a “modern, nurturing dad.”

I don’t want to be a spoil sport. Sociologists believe it’s their job to tell us that our society is going to hell in a hand basket. But I can’t help feeling that this study would have been more revealing if undertaken by a political scientist rather than a sociologist.

There is a model of consent that says that subordinates have the right and the liberty of making fun of their superordinates. It is their way of reminding the monarch that some part of his/or authority comes from the people. If the modern family is a “little commonwealth,” we might expect there to be ritual moments in which fathers are gently mocked. In its way, this ritual is an acknowledgment of Dad’s authority and he is most wise to engage in it.

In the immortal words of Sir Thomas Elyot, “O what domage ensued to princes and their realmes where liberte of speche hath ben restrayned?”

These cards could be a mark of the modern family. Or, we might suppose that, in this case, the people at Hallmark Cards know more about the family than your typical sociologist.


Elyot, Sir Thomas. 1531. The Boke named the Governour. (Part V, Book 2). London: J.M. Dent.

Owns, Anne Marie. 2004. Dads are always good for a laugh. National Post. June 19, 2004., p. 1.

Adorable or what? Not


Adorable or what?

Not at all. You are looking at a major investment opportunity. Today’s blog is not warm and fuzzy. It’s hard headed and money seeking. It’s about where to put your money in the stock market.

Here’s the anthropological take on pets.

There is a growing group of unmarried or divorced people. We know that, in 2002, the married population stood at 59%. This number is falling, down from 62% in 1990 and 72% in 1970. So unmarrieds stand at 41% and their numbers are growing.

Will this group live alone? No, chances are they will go out and buy Gizmo there on the left.

This tells us the pet population will increase. How else will those who want to get married find a mate, if not by taking Gizmo to the park for a walk? How else will those who want to stay single survive life alone. They will need a companion, and, yes, it will be Lulu, sitting there next to Gizmo.

So that’s it? Of course not. Those who are married are going to want pets, too. Especially if they are childless. After all, they need a child surrogate. You know who you are. You are the people we hear at the supermarket having intricate conversations about whether Danny (second from right) would like IAMs or something a little meatier. (“Yes, but what about his cholesterol?”)

So that’s it? Of course not. Those who are married with children are going to want pets, too. They are struggling to give their children the perfect childhood. They cannot be done without “Pattikins” (far right) or “Buddy” (middle).

This is what they call “coverage.” Everyone needs pets. We need them when we live alone. We need them when we’re married. We need them when we’ve got kids. Street kids need them as spare change magnets. Firemen needs them to fight fires. Presidents need them as photo ops. Hospitals use them as care-givers. College football teams need them as mascots. Bookstores use them as paper weights.

We are, as a culture, becoming increasingly pet-centric. I recently staying in a grand hotel that lets you bring your pet. This used to be the privilege of film stars and the very wealthy. Airlines will now let us travel with them.

And when it comes to pets, we cease to be rational, penny pinching consumers. Buddy needs a new collar, a new parka, a new hip. “Here, just take my credit card. No, that’s ok, just keep it.”

The real question here is where to make this opportunity to work for you, and, of course, Buddy. I have made one investment which is doing very nicely, thank you, up $2.00 a share. Their ticker symbol is WOOF. (Though, come to think of it, if you are now preparing to take stock advice from an anthropologist, you need to have a serious talk with Buddy.) I have a call in to my favorite analyst, a brilliant young man (and Harvard Business School grad) at UBS. I will let you know what he thinks the best picks are.


Marriage statistics from:

The Ben and Jerry rampage

Sorry for not posting yesterday. There was a death in the family.

In both of the sessions I did in New York City, I could see a new trend in the works. I heard people talking about how important it was for corporations to “stand for something.”

There are a couple of variations on this theme, but mostly it comes down to a kind of “Ben and Jerry’s” argument that says corporations will win consumer loyalty when they show that they care about social issues and make this part of the corporate and brand message.

This is a bad idea for three reasons.

First, the corporation must speak to diverse consumers. Surely, it’s true that one person’s “social issue” is another’s “perfect nonsense.” Or, to put this another way, some people eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream because the company stood for something. Others don’t eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for the same reason. They don’t like Ben and Jerry stand for.

Second, the corporation is now struggling to build better, more nimble brands. They are having to learn to be many things to many people. This new brand architecture will test our ability as marketers. The last thing we need to do is to have to work in a “feel good, do good” message.

Third, I have always assumed that there is a kind of church and state separation here. Corporations are supposed to work the “for profit” side of the equation, with the other side left to the NGOs and government. When the corporation ties profits to social projects they muddy the waters. For some this will provoke Brave New World anxieties. (And this will provoke a consumer down side, especially in this conspiracy minded age. For instance: “have you heard what the stars in the P&G logo actually stand for?”)

For others, and especially capital markets, it will raise fears that the pursuit of profit is being obscured by another agenda. I think investors are entitled to suppose that the corporation will pursue its (and their) best interest in a clear headed way. What the street does not want to hear is that a corporation decided not to pursue a profit opportunity because it was not consistent with their social agenda.

In sum, corporations, within the letter of the law, should do what they were designed to do: make shoes, soda, software, or high riises.

Let’s be clear. I am not saying that corporations should not do “good works.” My favorite exemplar here is Timberland’s which gives each of its employees a month of paid leave each year to do volunteer work somewhere in America or the world. Well done, Timberland’s. This is “all good.” What Timberland’s doesn’t do is to make this part of the marketing message. Good works are what they owe the work. They are not the way they build the brand.

Potentially, we are looking a devil and the deep blue sea scenario here. On the one side, some will damn the corporations who don’t have a social agenda. On other, others will damn for having one.

Corporations do stand for something. And this something is plenty complicated enough without making them moral actors. Let’s do the right thing. Let’s keep this simple.

Brooks become a waterfall

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks describes his visit to the global hub of Federal Express in Memphis.

The first thing you notice during the overnight sort is the endless parade of planes stacked up in the night sky. Then there are the swarms of workers who descend upon the planes once they land and strip them of their cargo. Then begins the scramble of the caterpillars — little motorized tugs towing strings of cargo containers pell-mell around the complex and honking out warnings at every intersection.

They’re bringing about 1.3 million envelopes and packages a night to vast sorting arenas with names like the Primary Matrix Area. Inside these stadium-sized rooms there are rows and rows of speeding conveyor belts and rushing envelope trays. Little devices push or tip individual packages into one of the thousands of chutes and slides and ramps. If you stand on a catwalk over the conveyers and look down at the pulsing motion below, you feel that same disorienting, perilous sensation you get on a bridge staring down into a waterfall.

It was the last image that caught my attention: the waterfall. After all, Kant had something to say about waterfalls:

…the high waterfall of some night river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more [end of 110] attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.

Waterfalls were for Kant, and not only Kant, one of the things in nature that demand we reckon with a scale larger than the paltry human one. The sublime was one of the moments in which we find our powers of comprehension tested. The sublime presented a vastness that exploded one’s sense of scale.

There is a little of this in the Brooks quote. The FED EX operation, with its planes stacked over head, all that technology on the ground, 1.3 million packages in transit! To see this from above, Brooks says, is to experience a “disorienting, perilous sensation.” This is a world too large, too dynamic, at once so orderly and disorderly that it threatens our sense of scale. It is in Tambiah’s famous phrase, not just “hard to think.” It sits on the edge of what is thinkable.

As Jack Greene tell us, European intellectuals and visitors were inclined to regard America and the new world in general as the locus of much that was sublime. As Greene says, “awareness of the seeming boundlessness of America penetrated more deeply into European consciousness.”

And of course that’s now utterly over. Nature in America isn’t sublime, any longer. It’s not even “wild.” It is now thoroughly “cowed,” but which I mean, of course, domesticated.

If the sublime operates still in the new world, it is at the FED EX plant in Memphis. And of course FED EX is merely a toy compared to the internet which has 5 – 10 gigabytes coursing through it at any given moment. (1.3 million packages, hah!)

Science will not be outdone. We soothe our sense of outraged scale with reassurances that “6 degrees” bring order to this new world. But a little voice carries on. We stand on the catwalk of contemporary culture and think, “oh!” a cartoon character suffering a blow to the solar plexus.

One little question we can answer. Did Brooks mean to evoke Kant? I think he probably did. He was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago where reading Kant is part of the punishment of everyday life. When I was a graduate student there, there was a joke circulating: “how can you tell an undergraduate from a graduate student? The undergraduate is the one talking to himself.” Thank goodness Brook now talks to the rest of us.

Op-Ed Columnist: Scanning for Success

Kant, Immanuel. 1952. The Critique of Judgement. translator James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 110-111.

Greene, Jack P. 1993. The Intellectual Construction of America: exceptionalism and identity from 1492-1800. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, p. 25.

Japanese housewives

Are Japanese housewives no longer on strike?

The NYT today tells us that household spending is up. And it is widely understood that Japanese housewives control the household budget.

The most intriguing explanation for the long-standing downturn in the Japanese economy I ever heard is from Alan Middleton who teaches marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. (And to be fair to Alan, he was not insisting that this was the only factor nor that it was a certain one. He suggested it as a possibility only. It’s also worth pointing out that Alan ran an advertising agency in Tokyo some years ago and continues to have very good contacts there.)

Alan says that he thought it was possible that the downturn was created in part by a version of Japanese feminism. Japan has embraced many cultural innovations, but it is not clear that feminism is one of them. In fact, it looks like the cultural division that once prevailed, more or less, in the West prevails there still.

Women control the domestic space, men the world outside the home. Women do participate in the world of work, but very often they are confined to the role of secretaries and assistants. What is worse, men continue to treat women with a high hand and a presumption of superiority.

I caught a glimpse of this when I was doing research for Kodak a couple of years ago in Tokyo. As one interview began, there was a long exchange between the head of the household and the translator. As we were leaving the home, I asked her what it was about.

“Oh, he was asking me why I was not yet married. He was mocking me.”

I waited. It sounded like there was more coming.

Fnally, she said, with great feeling, in a quiet but unmistakeable voice addressed a little to me but mostly to the world.

“What I didn’t say was that if I was married I would have to live with a pig like him.”

She was, it should be said, about 35, intelligent, attractive, presentable, and very, very clear.

This is just one data point, but it spoke volumes. In cases like this, anthropologists, and for many of them this may be the only time they do so, play a statistical game. This woman, as I got to know her over a week of constant company, with the opportunity to watch her interacting with households, in every respect a conventional creature. The chances that this feminist sentiment should have taken hold in her and not in some substantial part of the educated, middle class, was remote. Single remarks from single individuals can speak volumes for the rest of the community.

So several things are possible: 1) that feminist sentiment is alive and well in many Japanese homes, 2) that there has been almost no movement in the larger culture and economy to accomodate it, and 3) that Japanese women began to use the last weapon at their disposal. They controlled the household economy and to this extent some part of the domestic consumer economy…and they went on strike.

Clearly, there were many other things at work in the economic downturn, including a banking crisis and an economy that has in some respects, especially to do with channels of distribution, not very much changed since the middle of the 20th century. But this factor, if it is a factor, would be a very interesting one, not least because it will take more than banking or channel reform to fix it.

This is where anthropology meets economics in the most conventional way. Economics is very good at making numbers matter. Most of the things that are wrong with the Japanese economy can be indexed, charted, graphed and otherwise made manifest in the data that comes to economists from Dow Jones and the Bloomberg system.

What will never show in these numbers is the way Japanese women think about themselves, their husbands, their households and their economy. This factor, if it is a factor, will play like a shadow on a spread sheet. It may somehow have changed, and changing, made the new upturn possible. But it is more likely that Japan continues to refuse feminism and that the “housewive boycott” will live on to make itself felt another day.

Japanese Household Spending Rises for 4th Month in a Row

Interviewing Lou Reed

Simon Hattenstone interviews Lou Reed in this week’s Guardian (link below). Hattenstone goes into the article thinking of Reed as a hero, and comes out regarding him as an arrogant, uncooperative bully.

The result is an artifact that displays several competing ideas in our endlessly complicated culture.

First, it’s clear that Reed is not only uncooperative. He is refusing the conventional idea of rock journalism that supposes, according to some now ancient Romantic idea, that art is an expression of the artist’s rich and complicated personal life. According to this cultural convention, it is the journalist’s right and responsibility to search out the connection between art and life. Reed is having none of this. He will talk about the music, but not about his life. In what may or not be a punk gesture, he bullies Hattenstone everytime personal matters are asked for.

Second, Hattenstone is engaged in a Romantic gesture of his own. According to the new journalism, it is the journalist’s right and responsibility to insinuate himself into the proceedings. He too has a precious creative self, and this must be displayed in his journalism, as surely as the artist displays it in his art. He goes into the interview with his heart, and a certain celebrity adoration, on his sleeve and is wounded by Reed’s rude treatment of his “gift.”

What’s odd is that neither party seems to get what the other party is doing. Hattenstone doesn’t seem to see that Reed is insisting on by now pretty well conventionalized terms of engagement. But this makes you wonder how he can be a music critic for the Guardian. What, he’s never interviewed a punk before? (This is not to say Reed is a punk, merely that he draws from, and helped create, the same cultural well).

And it’s not clear that Reed sees, in any formal way, what Hattenstone is asking for. One way to have made this an interesting interview would have been to challenge the assumptions of the interview, instead of the questions that sprang from them. It wouldn’t have been the interview Hattenstone wanted but it would have been one he would have gladly taken. And readers would have been better served.

There are other ideas in collision here: including a spectacular one between English civility and American candor, but I leave those for other readers and writers.,3604,958676,00.html