So much for holidays. I spend a week on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “Long Beach has waves that come ashore all the way from China, some of them ridden the last 30 feet by wet-suited surfers. I am rich in sand dollars and completely untanned.
Long Beach was fine, but a little dull. Working as an anthropologist in a First
World culture is a little like being a naturalist in the Galapagos islands. There is always plenty of everything. And if you dont like whats on offer, you only have to wait a while.
Long Beach, by contrast, was a little under-populated. Both the natural world and the social one scaled way back, mostly walkers in Lands End anoraks and surfers. The surfers showed some evidence of evolutionary activity, with a new, busy school for women called “Surf Sister. But that was it, really.
So it was nice to be back “in the world. Todays Wall Street Journal offers two glimpses of our feverish mutability: Carmen Electra, one of our “it girls, and Red Wing boots. These two creatures exist at the two extremes of a commercial culture, one too contemporary, the other not nearly contemporary enough. Both are struggling to sustain themselves. Both are in peril.
Carmen is famous for being famous. She came to public notice through Bay Watch and she has sustained herself by remaining famous, not least through the escapades of her rock star husband. The WSJ worries that Electra might be risking overexposure. She has hired herself out to lots of brands.
Normally, we posit a straight forward relationship here. The celebrity becomes famous through dramatic or real world accomplishment, and then lends his or her celebrity to the commercial world in a zero-sum game. At some point, unless replenished, the celebritys celebrity is mined out and used up. The last days of celebrity are spent offering up confessions of abuse and recovery. And the last moment comes in the Oscar parking lot, to which the celebrity comes early in hope of an interview.
Electra is also “spending her private life. She must remain in the public eye with appearances and episodes that replenish the brand creature. She must be seen with the right kind of person in the right kind of places. But this is a difficult game. Life in the fast lane is punishing and you have to hope that the latest publicity capturing stunt does not cost you private emotion funds (clarity, stability) on which long term survival depends.
But this model could be wrong. Properly deployed, Carmen could use the commercial work to sustain the brand and the private shenanigans to make a life. This would mean that we are looking at an interesting evolutionary development: the arrival of a creature that has actually turned adaptive challenges to adaptive advantage. The environment that extinguishes some species makes her thrive.
And then theres Red Wing boots. This has been a favorite brand of the construction site. Red Wings are expensive, but they last and last and last. On the construction site, they become a marker of seriousness and maturity. Kids and other newcomers wear lesser boots. The real players wear Red Wings “877.
The “877 boot is an iconic product if ever there were one. It is deeply rooted in American culture. But the WSJ says the pressure to “update is tremendous. Red Wing is made in the US and it has higher labor costs. It is subject to new competition from Timberland and store brands. But updating? Move away from the brand equity for which most companies would happily surrender their chief executive and all his children? Somehow this seems a perilous adaptive strategy, too. Maybe, Red Wing needs to do what Carmen may be doing, working the niche not abandoning it.
In sum, perhaps these two creatures should diverge, not converge. Maybe advantage lies with those that forsake the traits that generalize adaptive capacity. Maybe it comes to those who work into the specialized position, not away from it.
This would have some interesting implications. It would break with the “work to the middle strategy that continues to dominate commerce. Now commerce would be blossoming the way culture does. If Carmen and Red Wings were more like themselves and less like the middle, what would happen then?