Tag Archives: Netflix

comics on culture on Charlie Rose

IMG_6204Yesterday, the Charlie Rose Show repeated interviews with comics Billy Eichner, Amy Pohler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh, and Seth Meyers.

A couple of comments jumped out.

Matt Besser: “You don’t have to appeal to 30 million people anymore.”

Ian Roberts: [the stuff we do can be] “a little rougher, more radical, more experimental.”

So what does that mean for popular culture?

Samantha Bee has an answer (at least for Full Frontal):

“We just do the material that appeals to us, the sort of thing we want to see.”

Does this mark the beginning of the decline of TV as a mass medium? Is TV, at least comedy on TV, now the artist’s playground, a place where artists can satisfy their own creative agenda?

This would spell the end of that glassy, packaged, patronizing, anti-improvisational work that popular culture produced in the 1950s, the stuff that made comedy look like an airshow: “Here comes a joke, this is the joke, how great was that joke!”

But have we moved to the far extreme? Let’s call this the Samantha Bee extreme (hold all jokes to the end of the essay, please) where it’s all about the cultural producer, and no longer about the cultural consumer. At all. (There’s another possibility: that Ms. Bee has become tragically self indulgent, the Nic Pizzolatto of late night, and not long for that. I ignore this option.)

Seth Meyers had an answer. Audiences are getting smarter, he said. They have all the comedy ever recorded at their disposal on YouTube and they are “self educating.”

So, yes, apparently we are moving to the Samantha Bee extreme. Comedy producers and consumers are less different. They are growing closer. What a change this is! Comedians were once aliens who infiltrated the human community by manifesting on a standup stage, there to outrage and delight the sensibilities of people who really had no idea what comedy was or where it came from. Not now. Now more and more comedic producers and consumers make up one community.

This changes the comedian. She was once a tortured soul, torn between the popular success that came from “safe” comedy and the professional esteem that could only come from “daring” comedy. To use that airspace metaphor again (hold your applause to the end of the essay, please) comedy producers and consumers occupy the same airspace. The comics can just do better stunts.

It also changes the audience. They are no longer yokels at a country fair marveling at the ingenuity of these city slickers. (“Dang, how’d he do that!”) They are more likely to scrutinize the architecture of the joke, wondering if Samantha Bee “didn’t maybe put a little too much stress on the last word. I feel.” and then taking (or as Henry Jenkins would say, “poaching”) the joke for their own personal purposes, to make themselves funnier Saturday night at the bar.

This is all great news for some purposes. It’s good for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. It’s good for Comedy Central, Funny or Die, and Seeso. It’s good for aspiring comics. Most of all, it’s good for contemporary culture, which gets funnier the more producers and consumers drive one another onwards and upwards. Call this the Apollo Theater effect, where the audience is so discerning, it forces entertainers to raise their game. (But now of course the effect is reciprocal.)

But it’s not all great news.

As two comedic worlds close, two cultural worlds tear apart.

As comedy producers and consumers get ever chummier, they take their leave of a large group of fellow Americans. I say, “fellow,” but of course that’s the point. As comedy gets better and pulls away, these Americans are less “fellow.” There are now millions of Americans who couldn’t find the funny in an Upright Citizens Brigade’s routine if their lives depended on it. They can’t actually see the point of it. And there are few things quite as alienating as this. You look a fool. You feel a fool.

There are two choices when this happens. You can accuse yourself of being witless and wanting. Or you can attack the person who has threatened you with this judgement, and call them an elite bent on taking your culture away from you. The only way to escape the “fool” judgement is to turn it on someone else.

And that’s where politicians like Donald Trump come in. And not just Trump, but an entire industry of pundits, experts, talk show hosts, religious leaders and other politicians have seized upon the “culture wars” as an opportunity to fan the flames of unrest, to mobilize dissent, to coax dollars out of pockets.

That’s where we are. Driven by technological innovations and cultural ones, there is now a dynamic driving groups of Americans apart, destroying shared assumptions, and putting at risk the hope that an always heterogeneous America can remain, in the words of Alan Wolfe, one nation after all.

This is not an accusation. There’s no obvious enemy. And there’s no obvious answer. No party, ideology, or interest can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We may self correct. We may not. But chances are slim that this cultural divide will make no difference, not as long as certain interests keep hammering away at it.

But it is a confession. I wrote a book in the late 1980s called Plenitude in which I argued that the coming cultural diversity would be a good thing and that we would survive it without descending into a tower of babel or a world of conflicting assumptions. And now it’s beginning to look like I was wrong.

You can hear something tearing.

Creator brands: Brands that make culture

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At their most powerful, brands actually make culture. Creator brands, let’s call them.

Nike changed the way we thought about exercise, fitness, bodies and diet in the 1970s and 80s. Most of us look different and feel different for the work that came from this brand and those brilliant meaning-makers at Wieden + Kennedy.

A cluster of brands and industries after World War II helped create “mid century modernism” which in turn shaped how Americans lived and thought of themselves in a very fluid moment. Brands were minting fundamental ideas of who were we were, what we cared about, and how we lived.

In the present day, Uber and AirBnb are changing the way we think about travel and tourism. Netflix is changing the way we think about TV and storytelling.

More often, of course, brands are fellow travelers. They identify what’s happening in the culture and put themselves “in tune” with it.

Subaru and the agency Carmichael Lynch are now brilliantly in tune with culture. They continue to speak to (and speak for) a new feeling for community and family. Now that competitive individualism is in retreat, this is the way Subaru made itself a “brand of the moment.” (This is exceptional work and I hope the brand and agency are being showered with awards. And enjoy them. Principal Financial Group and agency TBWA now threatens to do still better work.)

Sometimes the brand resonates with culture in a painful, unconvincing way, as when a big processed food companies struggles unconvincingly to show us how “artisanal” they are. No one’s buying it, figuratively or literally. The brands of the consumer packaged goods world are really under challenge at the moment. It’s sad because they were so perfectly in tune in the first few decades after World War II.

Getting in touch with culture is hard. Creating culture is harder still. It’s not for the faint of heart or mind. It takes intelligence, imagination, a virtuoso control of the organization, the message, and the moment.

The rewards, on the other hand, are immense. The brand that creates culture becomes a kind of navigational satellite in our world. It becomes one of the places from which we draw our ideas of selfhood and in the Herman Miller case, the work place. Most brands are “meanings made.” Creator brands are meaning makers. They help make the meanings that in turn make us.

With this in mind, I read with interest a wonderful essay in FastCo Design by Diana Budds about Herman Miller and its plan to change our culture.  In the words of CEO Brian Walker, the firm has undertaken a

“shift from being just a contract company or just an industry brand to truly be a powerful lifestyle and consumer lifestyle brand.”

This is the language corporations use when it setting about to change culture. They talk about becoming a lifestyle brand. They are now embarked on styling life.

The trouble with this approach is that many people want to style life but they have no clue about what culture is or how to change it. And you can’t style life unless you are prepared to reckon with culture.

Too often, “lifestyle brand” means slapping a new coat of paint on the brand. Too often lifestyle branding is all “style “and no “life.” The brand remains an PET plastic soda bottle sitting on the surface of the Atlantic, incapable of any sort of real contact (thank goodness). It’s just another contribution to the detritus that flows from the land of bad marketing.

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The good news is that Herman Miller hired a guy called Ben Watson (pictured here with his muse, a beautiful Burmese). Ben is a designer and, at their best, designers are good at helping connect the brand to culture. The best of them have an extraordinary combination of intelligence, imagination, strategy, craft, cunning. They grasp cultural foundations and the cultural moment. They can see culture in all it’s manifestations, intellectual, aesthetic, emotional, material and emergent, and they have a way make these manifest in the brand in a way that points us in new directions, in this case away from old concepts of work and work place to new concepts of work and work place. This makes them a precious, possibly irreplaceably precious, resource. This makes them seerers where the rest of us are blind.

But it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes designers just don’t get culture. Pepsi and Tropicana hired Peter Arnell to “rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture,” and Arnell promptly engaged in what BusinessWeek called a “five week world tour of trend design houses.” (More details in Chief Culture Officer, pp. 161 and following).

This is a little like asking an astronomer to look for uncharted planets only to discover that he’s spend his time touring observatories chatting up other astronomers. Yes, of course, you can learn a lot this way, but at some point you have actually have to leave the design world bubble and talk to people who aren’t wearing really cool glasses.  Anything else is threatens to deliver the provincial and parochial. Anything else is an echo chamber.

I don’t know Ben. Let me point out that there is no criticism implied or intended. For all I know, he is absolutely the most gifted “astronomer” in play and Herman Miller’s best chance to change culture. Fingers crossed! (I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have done several projects for Herman Miller. For all I know Ben is drawing on my work. In which case, god speed!)

Ben has an extraordinary Nike-esque opportunity. We are in a moment of real cultural confusion. There are several big questions in play. What is “work?” What’s a “workplace?” These things used to be defined by several pretty clear distinctions: work and home, work and play, work and life, public and private, instrumental and expressive, pragmatic and recreational, men and women, hierarchical distinctions of rank, exquisitely clear divisions of labor. nice, neat boundaries of inside and outside, them and us. These cultural meridians once so helpful in defining social life are now well blurred. Blurred? They are thoroughly tangled.

Ben could bring clarity here. He could create a space that accommodates these confusions, that enables what we hope for, and helps to “edit out” what we wish to escape. Ben can made a contribution to Herman Miller and through Herman Miller to us. He can actually clarify our culture. He can humpty-dumpty us back together again. He can help make us ready for a postmodern existence.

What’s especially interesting about Budds’ essay is the attention it gives to the way Herman Miller intends to use retail and display spaces to define the brand and through the brand the rest of us. Designers control the manifestations of culture in the world. And when we give them Herman Miller spaces (and furniture) we give them something with which to work.

Will Ben transform us? Will Herman Miller become a creator brand? It depends to some extent on how well Ben and Herman Miller understand culture. And if manifestations are designers’ strength, culture is, by and large, their weakness.

Post script.

I think we are seeing public space and public events used more and more to stage the brand. Even as we avail ourselves of social media and digital content, we like to make the brand live in the “real world.” (Note to self…and anyone else who’s interested: we need a model that distinguishes all the media and messages at our disposal and shows how we can divide branding work across them.)

I was interested to see the work being done by a Canadian bank called Mojo. Here’s a photo of their interior. As a Canadian I can say with confidence that this is the first time any message even remotely like “IS U REALLY BOUT UR MONEY OR NAH” has even been by a Canadian bank.

Ember Library Mediator

Normally, Canadian banks prefer to look like this:

bank_montreal_detail2_lge.jpg (450×301)

Which to be fair is it’s own very particular symbolic statement, and in its moment superbly in tune with Canadian culture.

Thanks to Gerald Forster for the photo of Ben Watson. Gerald is the founder of Here We Go Now.

For more on culture, try this.

CCO cover 1 breathing

 

 

Dark Value, a new book published today

Ember Library Mediator

Here’s the abstract for my new book:

Innovators like Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are creating dark value. They are creating features and benefits they didn’t  intend and don’t always grasp. And because this value is hard to see, it’s hard to monetize. I believe dark value is a chronic problem in the innovation and sharing economies. To observe one implication of the dark value argument: Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are charging too little.

We will examine dark value created by AirBnb, Uber, Netflix, Evernote, Fitbit, and Facebook. We will show how to make dark value visible in three steps: 1. discover, 2. determine, and 3. declare. Ethnographers, designers, VCs, creatives, planners, PR professionals, marketers, story tellers, curators, programmers, content creators, and social media experts all have a part to play. For all of them, Dark value represents a new professional opportunity and a new revenue stream.

You can buy Dark Value on Amazon here.

Why buy it? If you are a culture creative in design, marketing, planning, ethnography, advertising, curation, this is a treasure map. It will also help you find new revenue streams, as you find dark value for others.  (It now occurs to me that “A Treasure Map” should have been my subtitle.)

What will it cost you? The price is $2.99. It will take you about 30 minutes to read. If you buy a copy, please send me an email and I will put you on a mailing list for updates. I’m thinking about a Keynote deck, and you would get this for free.

 

Culture Camp London June 13 (and an apology)

men on brooklyn bridgeApologies for the radio silence.  I have been running flat out.

I just presented some of my work in Washington.  I can’t talk about this and it’s just killing me.   This anthropologist has never presented in circumstances  so exalted.   I hope I will some day be free to give you the details.  Stay tuned

The work for Netflix continues.  And it’s absorbing.  And really interesting.  On Thursday I’m going to Austin for the ATX conference.  I’ll be hosting a panel.  Please drop by and day “hi.”

I am also working on the Culture Camp for London.   That’s Friday  June 13th.

First, a note of apology.  For reasons that are now lost in the mists of time, I chose to describe the camp as something designed for “cultural creatives” and to some English readers this suggested that this course was designed for creatives who make advertising.

My mistake.  This course is for students of culture, planners, strategists, innovators and ethnographers.  And yes, in the second half we will talk about how we can use your knowledge of culture to make culture.

The First Half: Mapping Culture

The first half of the Camp will review of the big trends reshaping our lives, markets, and culture.  We will look at the transformation of house, home, and family, the artisanal revolution in the world of food, what happened to “status” and “cool” as drivers of our culture (specifically, how they got extinguished and what replaces them), the revolution in the way we define women, the rise and role of old media and new.

You know those programs on PBS that shows us the coast line of Scotland from a low flying plane.  That’s what the first half is going to be like, American and Western culture as if from a Piper Cub aircraft traveling at 12,000 feet.  The whole thing (more or less) laid out before you.  We will talk about how you can build your own “radar” to track changes in this culture.

The Second Half:  Making Culture

The second half of the Camp is going to be really hands on.  It is one thing to know about our culture.  It’s another to begin making culture, in the form of design, advertising, innovation, story telling.

As far as I know, there is no handbook that shows what we do when we act as “meaning makers.”  And this is a pity, because what the ad person has learned about creating culture in the form of an ad can serve the designer who is creating culture in the form of a brand.

We will talk about cultural arbitrage, and here we will talk about a recent video by Ingrid Michaelson, the comedy by Amy Schumer, the TV of Beau Willimon, the design work of Warby Parker, and the  advertising by Carmichael Lynch for Subaru.

We will be talking about the meaning making, the meme making of Old Spice, Pharrell, Volvo, Apple, Oreo, Microsoft and others.

And we will be talking about the new rules of storytelling.  TV is effectively become a laboratory for the reinvention of story telling.  This gives me a chance to draw on my Netflix work to show how story telling is changing and what the new rules are.

This is a “vista” opportunity, a chance to see the what and the how of culture in a new, more systematic way.

So, please do come join us.  Here’s the link.

Church, state, and the new rules of marketing

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selbst fotografiert

Buzzfeed has leaked an internal report from the New York Times.

I was struck by this passage:

“The very first step … should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the report says. […]

“It’s the old world where the publisher and the editor work together,” senior editor Sam Sifton, who worked on the cooking project, told the report’s authors. “It’s not lions lying down with lambs. It’s a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship.”

I just finished working a project for Netflix and Wired, and I got to see collaboration up close.

Certainly, this project represents a repudiation of the old “church and state” distinction.  The “state” called Netflix paid for content that appeared in the “church” called Wired.   (And I wrote the “copy.”)

Some people will accept this as the kind of break-through that Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed has been arguing for for some time.  Others will decry it as the invasion of capital into journalism.  Still others (AdAge’s Michael Sebastian, to be exact) suggested that this story might give us a glimpse of the future in some of the ways that NYT’s Snowfall did.

But there is an anthropological observation to make, and that is none of us (and by “us,” I mean Netflix, Conde Nast and me) appeared to be looking to make this content shill for the sponsor.  More to the point, we were not conflating church and state.  If anything we were being at least as fastidious as the old order.

None of us was looking to amp up the pitch.  No one said, “Grant, can you dial up the emphasis on Netflix, please.”  In fact, the only editorial intervention was the removal of the names of shows that I had used to illustrate the power of the new TV, and this was occasioned by the fact that non-Netflix properties did not want to have their shows appear in a piece sponsored by Netflix.

Why were we being so fastidious?  I think there is a simple marketing answer here.  Any marketing exercise that shills now actually diminishes the power of the communication.  Consumers just dial that stuff out.

We have entered a new era in which viewers, consumers take intelligence and imagination as the necessary condition for their attention.  Shilling is clumsy and overbearing.  It disqualifies itself.   

This is what happens when popular culture, driven by commerce, becomes culture plain and simple.  It has to stop acting like a shilling exercise, or suffer the consequences…and these are immediately exclusion from readerly interest.

“Oh, it’s only an ad.  Next!”

The new rule of marketing says you can’t buy your way into people’s lives.  If you make marketing with scant regard for the way this marketing draws on and contributes to culture, you provoke an instantaneous push back from the consumer.

This must qualify as good news.  Even as the “grey lady” (aka NYT) wonders whether she can risk the conflation of church and state, the world of marketing is finding that it is obliged to be fastidious.  Whew.

Acknowledgements

Thanks Rick Liebling for the head’s up.

My London talk in June

design_management_instituteIn June, I am
giving a keynote in London for the Design Management Institute.

Here’s the title and the abstract.

Title:

A revolution in the works
how design leaders can master the coming cultural disruption

Abstract:

Some 40 years ago, Robert Venturi asked the design community to decide whether it could “learn something from Las Vegas.”  In this talk, Grant McCracken will ask whether there is something to be learned from television (of all things).  Based in research he did for Netflix in the fall, McCracken will argue there is a revolution brewing in popular culture that will transform design and design leaders in a fundamental way.   This is perhaps the trend of all trends, the most disruptive change in our midst: popular culture is becoming culture.  No creatives or creativity will remain untouched.  Our question: How can design leaders use this change to make change?