Tag Archives: Clay Shirky

Ralph Lauren, the 80s called, they want their ad back

Here’s a recent ad for Ralph Lauren’s fragrance Polo.

It’s a cultural antique. This is what advertising used to look like when designed to flatter male egos and sell goods that were designed to flatter male egos in a cultural moment designed to flatter male egos. These days, its “Really? Get over yourself.”

Ralph Lauren has not been superbly in touch with the cultural moment. (Not since the 1980s when he helped define the cultural movement.) But this is really egregiously out of touch. I guess he doesn’t have a Chief Culture Officer.

What looks and feels more contemporary?  Have a look at this Fitbit ad.

The difference?

It’s not about one person.  It’s about lots and lots of people.

It’s not about young males. It’s about a variety of people.  Because some years ago, advertising and branding learned it had to let in everyone, not just the Young and Beautiful…and Male.  Who gets the credit here?  Sylvia Lagnado and Dove? Who else?

And it’s not about someone with that terrible look of self congratulation, that overweening red speedboat of an ego.

It’s not about speedboats but the diversity of ways people have found to entertain and exert themselves. This is plenitude in action.

Yes, this ad is an exercise in diversity because the Fitbit is designed to capture data generate by any activity. But notice the tone, the reckless, frenetic charm of this spot. It’s not about anyone’s ego. There are no beautiful people here. No celebrities. It’s a “Here Comes Everybody” exercise, to use Shirky’s phrase. There are a variety of deep cultural reasons why diversity is so important when crafting cultural meanings.

We are on the verge of a season that shows a relentless stream of James Bond movies, and with each season, Bond looks a little stranger, a man so besotted with himself that it’s hard to imagine rooting for him.  How do we identify with a monster of vanity? Those days have passed. This is where you are, Mr. Lauren, on the wrong side of history.

Will Digital Culture ever invent a Homer Simpson?

First Observation:

Entertainment Weekly recently gave us the "100 greatest characters of the last 20 years."  The list includes Buffy, Jack Sparrow, Rachel from Friends, Harry Potter, John Locke, Miranda Priestly, and Ron Burgundy.   

Second Observation:

In his latest book, Clay Shirky suggests that we now have around 1 trillion hours of creative surplus at our disposal.  We use this time variously, offering Lolcats and, yes, blog posts.

The question:

Will Shirky’s surplus ever create a character that will appear on the Entertainment Weekly list?  Will we ever create our own Homer?

Some thoughts:

I am not being argumentative.  This is an open question. The answer could be "soon" or it could be "never," and I’ll be happy.  However we answer this question, we will have improved our anthropological understanding of contemporary culture.

There is a general presumption, I think, that we are sitting on a gusher.  Shirky’s surplus is so vast, so inexorable that the creation of an EW "100 winner" can’t be far off.  And it’s not that we are talking about the proverbial 100 monkeys.  It won’t happen by evolutionary accident.  It will happen because our use of the Shirky surplus gets better and better. This argument says "soon."

Some will say our surplus is already in evidence on the EW list.  They will say that these creatures are the result of user participation, consumer cocreation, the agency and activity of fans, transmedia assembly, textual poaching, and a liberal borrowing from the cultural commons. Homer Simpson is all about borrowing and, like any bard, his standing depends finally on our consent. This argument says "already."

But there is an argument that says "never."  The red neck version of the argument rehearses the idea that popular culture is a waste land.  Thus speak Keen and Bauerlein. But there’s a more sophisticated approach that says the creativity of the internet is a derivative creativity, that mashup culture must begin with something first to mash.  Our culture may be in the direction of the consumer-producer but it will always depend on the producer-producer as a kind of "first mover." 

Let’s push things a little further.  (And again I do this for the sake of argument only.  Living at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics, I can be ecumenical on a question like this.) What if the people who make Homers and Buffys must be funded by something other than the "creative surplus."  Must there be an enterprise that engages people to invest financial and creative capitals in a (relatively) expensive and therefore risky productions which then compete in some cultural marketplace.  

By this reckoning, the EW 100 list will not exist without the intervention of commerce (of some pretty literal kind that goes well beyond the gift economies of the cultural commons.)  

I’m just asking.  

The Upshot:

This would make a dandy topic for a Futures of Entertainment session, with Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dan Snierson, Jeff Jensen, and several other thinkers.  With Sam Ford moderating, of course.


Anonymous.  n.d.  "Lolcats" entry on Wikipedia here.

Bauerlein, Mark.  2009.  The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future.  Tarcher.  

Carey, John.  1992.  The Intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939.  Faber and Faber.  (For an argument that anticipates and, I believe, dispatches the kind of argument made by Bauerlein and Keen)

Jenkins, Henry.2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.  NYU 

Keen, Andrew.  2008.  The Culture of the Amateur: how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.  Broadway Business.  

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press. 

Snierson, Dan, Jeff Jensen, and many others.  2010. The 100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 years. Entertainment Weekly.  Double Issue.  No. 1105 and 1106.  June 4 and June 11.  here.


Thanks to Gareth Kay for telling me about Shirky’s new book.