Gruesome TV: dumb culture returns?

screenshotThe thing that strikes you about The Frankenstein Chronicles is how gruesome it is.

This was true too of The Alienist.

In both cases, the series begins with a child who has been tortured and murdered.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is especially grim. The child is pieced together out of other dead children.

I think this is a case of TV struggling to find its way, and, in this case, failing. This might be a sign that dumb TV is once more in the works.

The TV revolution broke the old rules of TV.

Here are five of these rules:

1. bad things must not happen to good people
2. a TV scene must never require a second look
3. if you have to choose between a beautiful actor and a talented one, choose the former.
4. TV must be modulated, not raw (i.e., the showrunner must pull her punches)
5. TV must be convention bound, not free (i.e., when there is a genre convention, you must use it)

The Frankenstine Chronicles and The Alienist appear to be exploring yet another rule.

6. There are some non combatants in TV story-telling, especially the weak, the defenseless, and children.

And now TV goes even there.

This has been some of the excitement of the new TV, looking to see what happens when you break the Aaron Spelling rules of entertainment and make TV more like literary fiction and less like pulp fiction.

When TV breaks a taboo, every showrunner has something new to work with, a new dramatic wheel to add to their narrative clockwork.

And for awhile, the new convention is raw and remarkable. But eventually the new and unruly gets domesticated. It’s gets ruly.

The expressive world of TV is bigger. The experience of TV is less predictable and laborious. But things are settling down.

But the anti-gruesome rule isn’t like this. Dead children will never be tolerable. We will never get used to them. We will never go, “Oh, ok, I get how this works dramatically.” We will never what to go there.

Sometimes, rules exist for a reason. Sometimes, nothing is gained by breaking them. In this case, the art of TV doesn’t get bigger. Sometimes, the medium is diminished.

Here’s what I worry about. Showrunners are now engaged in an arms race. They are now going to want to break even the rules that should be left alone. There are only so many viewers. And at some point, a new level of competition forces a new level of gruesomeness.

I happened to like Penny Dreadful. But this too seemed to exhibit an inflationary pressure. One monster was not enough. No, the writers ransacked every Victorian imagination for every monster.

Showrunners, here’s the thing about the new TV. You have vast new creative territories at your disposal. You have at least two generations of fantastically alert and thoughtful viewers. Perhaps most important you have access to a very larger community of gifted actors. They can do much more with much less.

Showrunners, heal thyself. Stow the gruesome effects. Scale down the canvas. Work small, delicate and subtle. Take that actors out of their Dracula make-up and see what they can do with story telling that’s taut, disciplined and thoughtful.

Gruesome TV is in some ways a return to the old TV. It feels like a daring bid for something unprecedented. But really, and let’s be honest, it’s just lazy showrunning. As if someone said, “Dead child made up of other dead children? This has to get their attention!”

I leave to others this question: why is Victorian London the place where showrunners like to go for horror?

Craft fatigue / Artisanal exhaustion?

screenshotOne of the things we are watching at Culturematic HQ is whether the artisanal theme is beginning to run out of steam.

Leo Burnett London offers us this lovely repudiation of the theme for McCafe / McDonald’s UK.

A single ad playing in the UK does not a summer make.

But clearly this would be big news for a lot of CPG players.

We need more evidence. Let’s keep a “weather eye” open.

Perhaps best to file this under “early / earliest possible warning.”

p.s. fly high with your dreams!

Hat’s off to the Leo Burnett London team:

Creative director: Matt Lee, Pete Hayes

Art director: Matt Lee, Pete Hayes

Copywriter: Matt Lee, Pete Hayes

Board account director: Simon Hewitt

Account director: Sam Houltson

Senior account manager: Emily Reed

Account executive: Gracie Smith

Agency producer: David Riley

Director/Production company: Tony Barry/Knucklehead

Producer: Sara Cummins

Culture when it takes us captive

[This post was originally published on Medium.]

Every organization operates out of an idea of itself. (We call this idea several things: our “business model,” our “value proposition,” our “core mission.”)

Of course, we would like to think this idea is perfectly adapted to reality, that it is the best, most sensible, way of extracting value from the world.

But sometimes our idea falls out of its “match” with the world. And now that the world changes so often and so fast, this happens a lot. “Idea” and “world” are no longer dance partners.

Part of the work of management is detecting these moments of disconnect and restoring the connection between our idea and the world.

If, on the other hand, we neglect (or refuse) to restore the connection, something bad happens. We are taken captive by our culture.

This makes for a grand sounding generality. So I was interested this morning to find an example from the Spotify boardroom.

Thanks to the magnificent curatorial work by Jason Hirschhorn at REDEF, I read this essay from Track Record. It describes a confrontation at Spotify between Blake Morgan and Spotify executives.

There are lots of issues here. I will focus only on the cultural one.

Here is Blake Morgan’s account of his meeting at Spotify.

I was a vocal participant in the meeting, and when it was over I found myself surrounded by several Spotify executives.
One said, “Blake, I just don’t think you understand, our users love our product because it’s such an amazing one.”
Another added, “You have to look past just numbers, our product is so great it’s actually turning the industry around.”
This went on for a while, until I finally said to one of the executives, “You keep using that word, ‘product.’ I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m really asking you: what do you think your product is?”
The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly and said, “What do you mean? Our product is Spotify.”
There it was. It was a shocking admission to me, in earshot of everyone, and one he obviously didn’t think was an admission at all.
“No no…sorry,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Your product isn’t ‘Spotify.’” He continued to stare at me. I said, “Sir, your product is music.” The emboldened musicians standing around us started laughing. The exec smiled and backed away, “Well okay, if you’re going to be like that.”

I especially like the line:

“The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly.”

That’s when you know someone is the captive of their culture. They cannot “compute” the question that challenges it. They are “deep in.”

Cultural captivity is dangerous. It may be the single most reliable way to expose the organization to disruption.

What’s the best way to escape cultural captivity? Make sure that your ideas are not assumptions. Make them vivid and present. Make them visible. Work on your ideas as if they were the first and most precious of your “intellectual properties.”

Culture is your friend or it’s your captivity.

Why you could move from Word to Pages

[This post originally appeared on Medium.]

Logo_Pages○ Word is expensive, Pages is free.

○ Pages used to be bad at footnotes (while Word was always superb). Now it’s fine.

○ Word used to have a brilliant “selection” feature for sentences (Command + Click) that many writers found indispensable. Microsoft eliminated it. Then they put it back. (But by that time I was gone. Please, Apple programmers, could we have one of these for Pages.)

○ Pages is better than Word at producing well behaved PDFs. Images in the PDF are more stationary. The PDFs produced by Pages are higher resolution than those produced by Word.

○ Pages is not quite as good as Word at giving us a “map” of chapter headings. But its “bookmarks” feature is catching up. (Apple only need to look at “sidebar” then “navigation” to see why the Word version is stronger. It’s more compact and it distinguishes between chapters and subchapters.)

○ Pages handles Tables of Content more elegantly (and more automatically). Word TOC needed to be refreshed with each change to headings in the manuscript. This was a pain.

○ Pages handles the “find” function more efficiently.

○ Pages converts Word documents faultlessly, as nearly as I can tell.

○ Pages feels simpler and smarter. Less feature bloat. More “all but only” the features we need. By this time, Word is a bit of a Frankenstein. Microsoft has been “adding to” instead of “starting again” for years now.

Some big changes start small. I have written over a million words with Word. This made me what you might call a loyal user, or at least a habitual one. Then Word withdrew that “sentence selection” feature. Clearly it was an oversight because eventually they put it back.

But this sudden, apparently thoughtless, change started a cascade.

I began searching for another word processor and I auditioned several, including Mellel, Byword, Scrivener, Pages, iA Writer Pro and Ulysses. (I love Scrivener, but the lack of WYSIWYG, and the need to fiddle with output, drives me crazy.)

Once Pages demonstrated new skill with footnotes and PDFs, I signed on.

And now that I was done with Word, I began to think about leaving Powerpoint. I was already using Keynote some of the time.

And now that I was out of Word and Powerpoint, I could consider dumping Excel.
All of a sudden, I was post-Microsoft.

Microsoft has never made the best software. It has relied on an installed base, and the lethargy of people like me. But eventually, at least for me, their cynicism and/or indifference caught up with them.

And things slid away. No black swan. No radical disruption. No act of competitor innovation.

Just a self inflicted wound.

And one user escapes his Office captivity. How about you?

Google’s early warning of the rise of Trump

[This post first appeared on Medium, October 23, 2017]

screenshotAll social observers should (still) be asking themselves, “How did we miss it? How did we miss the rise of Trump?”

In a perfect world, we would have had some sort of “early warning.”

We would have detected “faint signals” that put us on notice.

I want to examine one strategy or tactic that we could classify as “early warning from big data.” I will attempt to show how Google helps twice, once with the autocomplete function and again with Google Trends.

Net worth

Some time around 2010, years before Trump was a presidential hopeful, something dramatic happened to the search term “net worth.”

(Much of what follows is speculative. Hang on to your hat.)

I think you have probably seen “net worth” pop up as a Google autocomplete suggestion. You are putting in the name of an actor, say, and Google anticipates that the object of your curiosity is how much money this actor has made.

And I think (here comes the anthropological speculation) there was a time when people loved their celebrities generously and without qualification. They didn’t care about net worth. They didn’t think about it.

And then around 2010 this changed. (Possibly.) According to Google Trends (see the image above), some people began to care what celebrities were worth…not as celebrities, where their value is, to a real fan, inestimable… but in an economic sense.

Now, to be sure, some of these inquiries might have been admiring. Net worth might have served as an additional measure of the celebrity, outsized not just in their beauty and accomplishments, but in their economic standing.

But some of these Google Search queries may have sprung from another motive. It is possible, now to engage in still more speculation, that “net worth curiosity” was an expression of incipient resentment. People were asking because they were no longer unqualified in their adoration. The attitude was something closer to, “Let’s have a look at how this guy managed to get himself paid.” Admiration was turning to scrutiny. Adoration to skepticism.

There may be a zero-sum thinking in evidence here. The searcher was asking, effectively, “how much value has gone to you that did not come to me.” Or still more inquisitively, “how much value has gone to you that came from me. How much did you profit from my adoration?” This is truly zero sum. Your win was my loss. Your celebrity came at my expense.

All speculative. We would need to do the ethnography and talk to people who are using the search term. If resentment is at work here, it will surface soon enough and we will have a chance to map its origins and logic and imagine its outcomes.

[Let me just say that the big data players are, some of them, still inclined to suppose that their data are so big as to be self sufficient. All we need, they seem to say, is quantitative data. We can detect, infer and/or extrapolate the rest. This is sad. All you need to do is ask. And if you are a trained anthropologist (or other scientist) and even if you’re not, you can get straight at motive and logic. It’s there for the asking.]

But back to the larger methodological, future-casting opportunity here. Google gives us two instruments for early warning. One is the auto-complete function which is itself a statistically driven exercise. Google is playing back what people are using as a search term. And this makes it a window for those of us in need of continuous illumination. I have to say it would never have occurred to me to consider the possibility that people were asking this question. Auto-complete worked for me as a kind of “head’s up display.” I was asking about one thing and the Google data flashed before my eyes. This happens with every search we make. We dismiss most of the autocompletes. But sometimes we say, “Wow, that’s interesting. Why are people asking that?” We have just had one, fleeting, glimpse of a possible future.

There is a kind of serendipity function here. As a student of American culture and as a forecaster of American futures, I can’t possibly anticipate all the things I should be looking for. And in this event, it makes sense to have some device that peppers me with data points. Google’s auto-complete works just this way. It serves as a kind of “head’s up display.” Over the course of a day of Google searches, I will get, say, 50 opportunities to see something I would never have thought to go looking for. Effectively, Google’s autocomplete function is working as my “desktop dashboard,” a flow of messages from the deep space of the Google data sphere.

The second instrument is Google Trends. I enter “net worth” there and the results are very interesting. There is (see the image above) a clear starting point. So this is not a chronic, low level curiosity. It starts. And then it rises. We are looking at a social trend or cultural movement that erupts and then scales. Our attention is arrested. Am I right to think that these data can be read as early warning of a change in attitude towards the celebrity world and, perhaps, the creative class and coastal elites? Who knows? It would take a lot more research to know. But I am put on notice that there might be something “out there.” In a world filled with black swans, that’s valuable, especially when one of the swans is Donald J. Trump.

In the case of the ascendency of a Donald J. Trump, this “something out there” is a matter for something more than idle curiosity. Every strategist, marketer, design thinker, pollster and political party would have been well served by early notice. If there was something happening to the bed rock of American attitude and opinion, if there was a new order of alienation “out there,” we needed to know and the sooner the better.

Post script: Over the weekend I participated in an event on “Design, futures and happiness” at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Thanks to Bruce Tharp and Stuart Candy for including me in a very stimulating series of discussions. Thanks also to Hal Varian and John Deighton for conversations over the longer term on Google as a window on the future.

Goat Rodeo vs. dumpster fire

screenshotOne of the pleasures of American English is its gift for new and pungent metaphors.

My new favorite: goat rodeo.

I used it often while driving with my wife today. It is surprising how many opportunities presented themselves. Traffic jams, strip malls, bad drivers, urban blight, the back seat. I am sure I was overdoing it, but that’s how you learn.

Goat rodeo replaces my recent favorite: the dumpster fire.

The great thing about dumpster fire is how contemptuous it is. To call something a “dumpster fire,” I think, is to say that it is vivid, alarming, but, for all that, harmless. A dumpster fire looks bad but, hey, what’s the worst that can happen? The guys working in the kitchen at Denny’s gather in the parking lot to see what the commotion is and one of them says, “that’s gonna burn itself out.” And everyone loses interest immediately and goes back inside.

Which is to say, I get why “dumpster fire” enjoyed such a nice long run.

What is it that’s so appealing about “goat rodeo?”

Certainly, there is a standing American hostility for badly organized situations. This is expressed in words like SNAFU, herding cats, and cluster f***. Now that we live in a digital era and the world is so much less disorderly, anything that remains chaotic is a special offense. So we are, presumably, on the look out for new terms of scorn.

“Dumpster fire” doesn’t carry any class hostility, but goat rodeo really does evoke that old fashioned contempt that city folk used to love to cultivate for anyone who had committed the unpardonable sin of being a “hayseed.” So we are brushing off an age-old prejudice to stage this act of criticism.

Plus, there is some slight implication that the people running a goat rodeo may not actually grasp how far off standard they actually are. “What? Horses? They wanted horses?” This would make the phrase a way of saying that the situation was wrong from the beginning. and that this tells us that it’s in the hands of idiots, and that this tells us it is utterly intractable. A goat rodeo stays a goat rodeo. (Even as a dumpster fire burns itself out.)

And then there is the choice of “goat.” Herding cats is sweet because cats are such dozy anarchists. They really just want to find a place to fall asleep in the sun. No harm, no foul. Goats on the other hand are, I believe, much more willful, and aggressive, and they really smell. And they will eat your shoes. Cats will never eat your shoes.

Finally, there is something so self flattering about the phrase. When you call a situation a goat rodeo you are saying that it wouldn’t be so if you were in charge. This is a bad situation, but only for people who are too dim or rural and clueless to put it right. The speaker elevates himself. And I love elevating myself. Someone has to.


Thanks to Charles Dan for the photo. See his article here.

How to make a good ad

There are two DNA ads running at the moment. They illuminate the art of advertising today.

The first is called Testimonial: Livie and it’s for This is perfect serviceable. And that’s a problem.

This gives us a woman, Livie, living a safe, tidy life. Her DNA results come as a revelation. It turns out she is, as she puts it, “everything.” She now checks “other.”

An entire world opens up, and, and, and Livie checks a new box. Good lord.

This is identity as ornament. This is that girl who cornered you at a party in college to say she is 1/32 Choctaw. This is identity as a cocktail chatter, a party favor, a way of showing how absolutely fascinating you are.

And never mind the hair raising assumptions being made about the difference genetic origins make to who we are. (We love to think they do, but the science is of course stubbornly unromantic on this score. We are made by our upbringing and the culture in place. That “Choctaw difference” makes no identity difference.)

Ok, now have a look at %100 Nicole.

The music! So splendidly wrong and antique and odd. Perfect. This is how we make some of the best culture now. We run things together that don’t go together…until they do…sort of, but not quite.  These culture meanings deliberately act as what Weinberger might call, to borrow the title of his book, “small pieces loosely joined.”

The sunglasses and helmet of the second scene. So completely “what?” Here too the ad maker (in this case Diego Contreras of [or for] Venables Bell and Partners LA) is asking us to pay attention. This is not culture served up according to genre. This is culture flushed out of its conventional categories. We are driven up out of our couch potato stupor to ask the ancient’s immortal question “huh?”

In the place of Livie’s perfect sitting room, we have Nicole plunged into the world, seizing her DNA connections has an occasion to engage with the world. (Here too, sitting in the background there are troubling assumptions. We hope we are not being asked to assume that Nicole has some essential connection to East Asia or West Africa. Right?) In a more perfect world, we would all travel often and with Nicole’s joy to countries and cultures to which we have no DNA “connection.” Right?

So many details are arresting. The joy of that dance. The shock of that fiord. The delicacy of soccer. The animation of this actress.

Livie ticks boxes. Nicole embraces life. Livie looks for identity in the old fashioned way, by adding badges to her sleeve. Nicole finds it by taking the world by storm.

Hat’s off to the agency in question:

23 and Me
Venables Bell and Partners
Los Angeles
Diego Contreras
Martin Leroy