Tag Archives: Mad Men

Secrets of digital celebrity: how to get famous the easy way

When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say.  You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic.  Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.

But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all.  They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email.  They got digital celebrity the easy way.

So what’s the easy way?  Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most. 

As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper.  He gave us an insider’s view of the agency.  The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was.  Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show.  (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.)  Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do.  What, in effect, it was for.  For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.

With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear.  Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.  

Talk about ROI.  Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.  

Jonah Peretti won fame a different way.  He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused.  An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden.  Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality.  This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new.  And cheap.  And forget answering all your email.  Just publish the interesting ones.  

This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.”  Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.

Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”  

There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.”  Your heart and your head is glad.  Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other.  (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.

Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns.  We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s.  Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.”  There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.

Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about.  I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough.  I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity.  If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi.  People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless.  Highly profitable but almost entirely costless. 

We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb.  You take a really great idea.  Coat it in just enough materials to get it started.  And then hurl it into the world.  And stand clear.  Actually, stand close.  You are about to be covered in glory.  

For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.

post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.

“Don’t Peggy Olson me, mother f-ckers”

Peggy_Olson_Wiki

I have been doing ethnographies in London for a couple of weeks.  And the great thing about ethnographies is that things do pour in.

In one interview, the respondent told me about a phrase now poised to serve as a rallying cry in contemporary culture and the corporation.

Here’s the background.

Neko Case, the singer from the Pacific Northwest, was given an award recently.  Playboy congratulated her in a patronizing way and Case let fly.  Someone rebuffed her and Case rebuffed them.

Here it is play by play, tweet by tweet:

Ember

See the fuller context here.

My respondent says she hears the “Don’t Peggy Olson Me” phrase at work more and more.

What a thoroughly contemporary artifact.  A show appears called Mad Men.  It’s an old media contemplation of an age gone by.  It features a character who comes to stand for the status of women in the present day.  An artist used the character’s name as a verb to object to her treatment.  Hey presto, a new media meme is born, and spoken language is a phrase richer.  An issue (feminism) that has lost some of its standing in the public agenda is returned to visibility.  The heat of people’s anger is reregistered, reemphasized.

This is contemporary culture, and its various wheels within wheels spinning as usual ferociously, with meaning skipping from old media to new media and back into the public eye.

One anthropological, the chief culture officer, question is how far will this phrase spread?  At the moment, it is too small to show on Google Trends.  I have asked a couple of people in London to let me know if it reaches them.

But I think we can still use Google Trends as a diffusion monitor.  It is possible when searching a term to subscribe to a weekly report on the term.  In this case, there is no report, but subscribing will, I hope, alert to me if and when the numbers for this phrase get more robust.

Ember

I can’t find a way to draw on an image within WordPress, but see “Subscribe” in bold in the upper-right-hand corner of this clip.

It’s never occurred to me before to treat people as detectors, as trip wires, and ask them to report when they first hear a phrase.  That plus a Google Trend, should help a little to show us how fast this social innovation is traveling.

I would be grateful if readers who’ve heard the phrase would let us know when and where they did.  If you haven’t heard the phrase, it would be great if you could report back when you do.

Difficult Men. Gifted Women (Young writers, start your engines)

I just downloaded the new book by Brett Martin.  It gives an insider’s view of how cable transformed television with shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield.  (This transformation matters to an anthropologist because as TV goes so goes American culture.)

In particular, this is the story of “difficult men” like David Chase, David Simon, Ed Burns, Matthew Weiner, David Milch and Alan Ball.  The implication is that it takes some unholy alliance of the cantankerous and a deep, enduring oddity to foment a revolution of this order.  

As the publisher puts it on Amazon, these men gave us shows that gave us

“narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.”

Well, that and better television.  Way better television.  Helmut Minnow’s “wasteland” is now producing something remarkable, and several intellectuals (below) owe us an apology.  

But Martin’s book raises a question.  Some of the new TV is being written and produced by women. Ann Biderman gave us Southland and most recently Ray Donovan.  Shonda Rhimes isn’t “cable” but with shows like Scandal she takes advantage of (and pushes) the creative liberties the cable revolution makes possible.  And then there is Bonnie Hammer now consumed, one guesses, by administrative responsibilities but in her day a creative force to be reckoned with.  There are many others, I’m sure.  (My memory stack holds three and no more.)

We need a companion piece, a gendered view.  We need a look at the revolution in TV and American culture driven by the rest of the industry.  There may be absolutely no difference between male and female creatives in this industry.  And that would be a fantastic finding. Yes, but what are the chances.  Almost surely there are tons of differences.  And they await the young writer prepared to dive in and phone home.  

Bibliography

Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fussell, Paul. 1991. Bad, or the Dumbing of America. New York: Summit Books.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1967. The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Klein, Naomi. 2000. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Picador.

Leavis, F. R. 1930. Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture. Cambridge: The Minority Press.

Minow, Newton. 1961. “Television and the Public Interest: An Address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C.” American Rhetoric. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm (September 27, 2010).

Postman, Neil. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness. New York: Penguin.

Seabrook, John. 2001. Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture. Vintage.

Sennett, Richard. 1978. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Vintage Books.

Trow, George W.S. 1997. Within the Context of No Context. Atlantic Monthly Press.

The Counter Argument may be found here:

Carey, John. 2002. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Academy Chicago Publishers.

Johnson, Steven. 2005. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Riverhead Books.

Nussbaum, Emily. 2009. “Emily Nussbaum on When TV Became Art: Good-bye Boob Tube, Hello Brain Food.” New York Magazine. http://nymag.com/arts/all/aughts/62513/ (August 7, 2010).

Poniewozik, James. 2003. “Why Reality TV Is Good for Us.” Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,421047-1,00.html (August 1, 2010).

Steinberg, Brian. 2010. “TV Crime Does Pay — the More Complex the Better.” Advertising Age. http://adage.com/mediaworks/article?article_id=147203 (November 23, 2010).
 

Get Difficult Men here at Amazon.  

Suits

Suits, the USA Network show (Thursday at 10:00), deputed it’s second season this week. It’s promises to be as good as last year and then some.  

I think it’s fair to say that this show has better scripts and acting than Mad Men.  It certainly does more interesting things with the law than Mad Men does with advertising.  

The thing that strikes me most about this show is the casting.  None of the actors here come from big projects or grand careers. It took someone with a particular gift to see the greatness (ok, goodness) of which they were capable.  (Greatness will leave for season 3.) 

Hats off to Rachel Rose Oginsky and the following producers and executive producers:

David Bartis
Gavin Barclay
Nathan Perkins
Jon Cowan
Chevy Chen
Igor Srubshchik
Aaron Korsh
Doug Liman
Gene Klein

Post script.

This scene will show you how Mike got this job.  He is chased into an interview room by men looking for the pot in his briefcase.  And so a new life, and show, begins. CLICK HERE.

Bjork and Tina Brown: sisters of innovation

Björk and Tina Brown have many differences but one common problem: They are watching the boat beneath them sink. Their print and music industries are being disintermediated by the digital revolution. They are struggling to respond to the blue-ocean and white-space and black-swan disruption that besets us all.

For more of this post, please go to the full post on the Harvard Business Review blog by clicking HERE.

Ida Blankenship R.I.P.

Ida Blankenship died on Sunday.  At her desk at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  She will be remembered as Don Draper’s secretary. As one her colleagues put, it "She died as she lived–surrounded by the people she answered phones for."

The good news is that Ida is a fictional character.  Her death was therefore a fictional event. No mourning is called for. Unless of course you had grown to love her contribution to Mad Men, as many of us had.  

(It tells you how absolutely, effortlessly creative the Mad Men team is that they could kill off Ida so casually and so early. Most TV shows would thrill to have a character half as rich and funny.  Having created her, they would have given her up only with the greatest reluctance. The Mad Men team evidence a certain arrogance.  As if to say, "Oh, there are plenty more where she came from.  She was easy as anything.")

That Ida is a fictional character didn’t stop the Daily Beast from running a eulogy for her. Which is pretty charming.  I think.

For starters, it plays out the Mad Men fiction.  It pretends Ida Blankenship were the real thing.  It’s a small act of cocreation.

But it’s more than cocreation.  It’s witty.  It attributes the honor given real humans to a pretend human.  "Ah," we think, "clever."

Lots of wit has this quality.  We take the properties of one thing and we assign them to another thing.  When we say Roger, the family poodle, is considering an advance degree in opthalmology,we suppose…  Well for starters we are acting as if Roger has a first degree. This is a cultural act of transposition or relocation.  We are moving cultural meanings around.  We are reassigning them.   (Witness relocation, kinda.)  

We may also think of the Ida eulogy as simple play.  It’s a little "what if."  As in, "what if we treated Ida is if she were a real person."  As in, "let’s act as if Roger isn’t a dog."  And this gets us a little closer to the mechanics of the transposition.

This movement of meanings is successful when it fails.  If we attribute something to Roger that does work, "Roger is a good doggie woggie" for instance, it’s like "so?" It’s only when we say Roger is a) thinking , b) about an advanced degree, that we begin to get somewhere humor wise.  

This cultural act is designed to make a small buzzer sound in our brain.  It designed to forces us to say "that doesn’t go there.  Roger is a dog."  It’s only when we think of Roger otherwise that it’s drole (drool?).

I’m surprised.  Apparently, we don’t mind it when meanings are reassigned.  Apparently, we actually quite like when culture is corrupted.  (Well, not stupid people.  Stupid people get confused and then they blame the rest of us for their confusion.)  But the rest of the world, and that’s most of the world, love this kind of play.

Maybe this is just the kind of thing that bothers an anthropologist.  (It is after all only linguists who do not groan at puns.  They just fall into a reverential silence.)  I guess when you spend your life looking at how we build culture up, there is something astonishing at looking at the pleasure we take when someone ever so briefly tears it down.   

It could also be that I am writing this at 31,000 feet courtesy of American Airlines and Go Go In Flight.  It’s the oxygen debt talking.  But it is weird.  No?  Just me?  Ok, it’s just me.  

Acknowledgements

To Pam DeCesare for giving me the head’s up on the Daily Beast article.  

To Randee Heller, the very gifted actress who helped invent Ida.  

References

Anonymous.  2010.  A Eulogy for Don Draper’s secretary.  The Daily Beast.  

http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-09-20/mad-mens-miss-blankenship-a-eulogy-for-don-drapers-secretary/

Sapir, J. David, and Jon Christopher Crocker, editors. 1977. The Social use of metaphor: essays on the anthropology of rhetoric. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
 

Calling all journalists (ok, some journalists)

If you were 22, recently graduated from the college of your choice, and fizzing with literary talent, where would you be headed?  Novels? Broadway? Off Broadway? Television?

Exactly. You would be headed for TV. This is where the action is.  (Let me read the following programs into evidence:

House, Modern Family, Mad Men, The Good Wife, Glee, Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, Dexter, Fringe, The Closer, Weeds, The Office, The Big C, The Simpsons, Psych. Just for starters

TV is where people as vastly talented as Aaron Sorkin and David Milch now ply their trades. This is the Globe of the moment.  This is our London in the 16th century.  This is our Paris of the first half of the 20th century.  LA is it.  

A couple of days ago, when I was noting the sheer volume of good programs on TV, I failed to see there is no culture without structure.  It just didn’t occur to me that for Hollywood and Burbank to be turning out good TV, there has to be an influx of talent of every kind (writing, directing, acting, casting, etc.).  

Hence my image, here, of Hurricane Fred.  This is meant to represent talent being pulled from all directions into Los Angeles.  (Yes, I know, Hurricane Fred had nothing to do with LA.  Work with me.)

You say hurricane.  I say virtuous cycle.  The better TV gets, the more talented people come, and the better TV gets and the more talented people come…and so on.  

Which means at this very moment there has to be a 22 year old getting off the bus in LA preparing to make his or her fortune in this the great center of popular culture, make that American culture.  

Which means that there is one whopping story to be written here for Rolling Stone or someone, the story of great talent pouring into a city now prepared, sometimes, to make it welcome.  This means there are bars where aspiring writers meet to aspire.  There have to be places in town where talent eddies.  There has to be a whole lot of networking going on.  

If I were not preoccupied with other things, (the proposal for the new book is as of this evening officially done. Publishers, start your engines), I would fly to LA and start an anthropological investigation of LA and its literary subcultures.   So, I can’t.  How about you?