Rocket Science III

Note III from an interview with David Altschul, CEO of Character.

Yesterday, we noted the “middle space” strategy engaged by David as a way of addressing the problem of cultural wear out.

Today, we will take up the larger issue here: an imbalance of trade between culture and commerce. I am on the road, so this will have to be brief.

Commerce has, made substantial contributions to contemporary culture. Coca-cola shaped our notion of Santa Claus and Christmas in the 19th century. Nike helped define and drive the fitness trend of the 1990s. Starbucks, with its contribution of the notion of a ‘third space” between home and work, has helped change the way North Americans think about the possibility of social life in the public sphere. (See the notes on “clams” in this blog for a more extended argument of a fourth case in point.) There isn’t the time here to make these arguments in any detailed way. I do wish to note, contra Naomi Klein and many others, that commerce has had something more than an appropriating, exploitative relationship to North American culture.

But for all of these contributions, commerce has been a “net importer” of cultural meanings, which is to say, it takes more than it gives.

And this is, I think, one of the interesting implications of David’s contribution of a ‘third space.” As more and more marketers are obliged to engage in third space marketing, they become, necessarily, the makers of culture, not merely the users of it. As we noted yesterday, David engages in third space marketing for a strategic reason, to give the client more control and greater depth. But it is clear that what marketers may do for strategic purposes has important implications for the relationship between culture and commerce.

To put the matter too summarily (and more on this on my return), marketers engaged in third space marketing could help to make commerce a “net exporter” of meanings or at least to diminish the asymmetry that now exists between culture and commerce.

2 thoughts on “Rocket Science III

  1. Jim

    I question whether there can ever be any more or less “meanings” out there. At turns, marketers have magnified and brought to the front meanings. Yes they/we borrow sometimes; but the best try to reflect an “inner truth”. Not to delve too deeply backward, it has been argued, I think persuasively, that there achetypal meanings. (Let’s forget whether they come from culture or some other mythical place.) It would seem that there are a fairly limited number of core meanings that repeat across societies and over time. While new ones may be arise, (out of culture), they are likely to be few and far between. We do tend to relive the same meanings, different ones fall in and out of vogue.

    Nike is the hero archetype and attached itself to fitness in a way that had a huge positive impact making us feel like heros… New meaning was created for Nike, they transformed many joe blows into heroes, they gave something positive to culture, (I believe, shameful marketer that I am); but did not create meaning.

    “Third space” – wonderful, but the English pubs had it a long time ago. “Refreshment” = re-birth, go visit the spa in Bath, you get my point.

    If commerce is a net importer of culture, does that mean we will run out of culture soon, that commerce is sucking it up. What we need is for commerce to reflect/magnify the real meanings of culture in a way that supports the positive parts of culture instead of sucking us into our weakness. David’s characters are positive reflections of our culture – probably Mr. Regular Guy looking to be a little more cool in a light-hearted not too serious kind of way, (I’d be happy if I could pull that off). Pick your own contrast.

  2. Grant



    I guess I disagree on three points:

    I think that cultures do not have the universal aspect you believe they do.

    Second, I think our culture is going places no culture has ever gone before.

    Third, as to culture wear out. I think this is just what the critics of a commercial culture believe is happening. Certainly the postmodernists believe this to a man and a woman. I don’t want to posit a simple “steady state” notion here that says that commerce must replace the meanings it takes from culture. But I wonder whether, for it’s own purposes, it shouldn’t be getting closer to the action.



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