Friday, May 23, 2014

why the 'sharing' economy is 'keeping up with the joneses'

For an explanation of the current infatuation with the so-called 'sharing economy' then it's worth considering some of the ideas of Thorstein Veblen outlined in 'The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions'.

Published in 1899 it's a detailed social critique of 'conspicuous consumption', as a function of social-class consumerism.

Veblen was probably one of the great grandfathers of behavioural economics.

His view of people was generally one of 'irrational creatures who relentlessly pursue social status with little regard to their own happiness'.

This was clearly counter to the dominant classical economic theory.

When Veblen describes nineteenth-century aristocrats as spending their 'leisure' time fox hunting or learning obscure languages he says; that in order to be successful (as a signal), the signs of this conspicuous display needed to portray themselves as at least superficially useful or socially beneficial.

That is, it needs to pretend to be something other than what it really is.

Eg: fox hunting as some sort of duty to protect the livelihoods of serfs/farmers.
The learning of obscure languages is probably the 19thC equivalent of our reading of self-help books.

Perhaps compare these 19th century aristo behaviours with some of today’s celebrities.

Bono has accrued considerable wealth but - as he is not likely to trouble the pop charts again and therefore bugger-all to do all day - turning up at the UN to save the world is helping to resolve some sort of cognitive dissonance around leisure and privilege.

Don't even get me started on royals.

The language of this sharing (or collaborative) economy manifests in terms like 'empowered people', 'co-creation', 'peers' and 'crowdfunding', yet this movement's poster child - AirBnB - closed its latest round of funding with an injection of $500 million, led by private equity firm TPG.

Because these imagined socially beneficial properties of the so-called collaborative economy serve to solve a cognitive dissonance for buyers of those services.

It disguises the real motivation - which is, of course, status-seeking.

In other words, it’s marketing.

The idea of a 'sharing economy' is simply an extension of our culture's other dominant marketing idea - conspicuous authenticity.

When the big supermarkets joined in the ‘organic’ game a few years back one would have imagined that those who truly believed in the benefits of organic produce would have welcomed this as a good thing.

Now that ordinary shoppers could have access to organic produce then surely that would mean we would all have the opportunity to eat healthier and live in a better environment, right?

But the more organic became available to the mass of ordinary consumers, the less it is serves as a source of distinction for the status seekers.

Hence the original organic brigade moved on to ‘local diet’ as the next logical step. Then when that caught-on then ‘artisanal’ became the next expression of more-authentic-than-thou. (8 dollar toast, anyone?)

In ‘The Authenticity Hoax’, author Andrew Potter describes a ‘basic fusion of the two ideals of the privately beneficial and the morally praiseworthy’ as the ‘bait-and switch’ (or cognitive dissonance) at the heart of ‘the authenticity hoax.’

‘This desire for the personal and the public to align explains why so much of what passes for authentic living has a do-gooder spin to it. Yet the essentially status-oriented nature of the activity always reveals itself eventually.‘

This same bait and switch is at the very core of the collaborative economy.

Which is fine, as long as we recognise this.

The collaborative economy is no revolution. It is ordinary consumerism, built on the same economic system and appealing to the same ‘irrational creatures who relentlessly pursue social status with little regard to their own happiness’ as described by Veblen in 1899.

The the collaborative economy is pure marketing of a kind of fake authenticity that solves a cognitive dissonance problem for status-seeking consumers – their (pseudo) anti-consumerism hipster beliefs clash with their regular consumerist behaviours, so using the likes of Airbnb or LeftoverSwap allows them to tell themselves a story about authentic living with a do-gooder spin.

To paraphrase Potter, we live in the world of bullshit, but as long as you know it is bullshit, and as long as they know that you know it is bullshit, then it's a game we can all play.

As the bottom inevitably fell out of social media marketing as a thing a whole slew of social media analysts and such like have had to move on somewhere in order to dodge the rubble falling down around them.

A new shiny object was required.

Enter stage right; the sharing economy. But don’t go lighting the campfires and singing Kumbaya just yet.

The sharing economy is simply the new keeping up with the Joneses and the good old branding and consumer capitalism that we advertisers love.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

acausal connecting principles in the swing era

The pop stars of big-band years, the period from the mid-30's to mid 40's and often described as the 'swing era', were the band leaders.

These were usually virtuoso instrumentalists and 'conductors' of sorts.

Yer Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey among some of the most well known.

For the most part the singers in the big bands had to make do with being of secondary importance to the band leaders.

For example, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra’s vocal chores were handled some semi-anonymous young fella by the name of Frank Sinatra.

The natural order of things was disrupted, however, in part due to a somewhat random event.

A strike in 1942 by the US musicians’ union, in a dispute over royalty payments led to a temporary stop on any new recordings being made, as union musicians halted recording for any record company.

Live performances were still permitted, but this posed problems for both the radio stations (who had only just got their heads around playing records in the first place) and, of course, the record companies themselves.

Among the workarounds that the radio dj's employed were importing new records from outside the US, and staging a wholesale revival of pre-40s recordings.

Things were not so simple for the record companies, however.

For a start, early developments in the emerging and popular new jazz style known later as bebop - being honed by the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - were never properly recorded. We can still lament this today.

Around the same time as the strike Frank Sinatra was becoming one of the first vocalists to emerge in their own right and had signed a solo deal with Columbia Records. Columbia wanted to get Sinatra product out as fast as possible, so, to get round the no-musicians rule, Sinatra suggested that they hire master arranger Alec Wilder and vocal group the Bobby Tucker Singers as back up.

Very soon the rest of the industry noticed that the musicians strike didn’t apply to the singers in the band.

The MU just represented players of instruments so the labels quickly put together vocal only groups featuring the big band back up singers - mimicking instrumental arrangements acapella - and the main vocalists pushed up front.

Not only was a new genre born but when the strike ended the market had moved on and those other vocalists who had previously had to stand in the shadow the band leaders were following Frank's lead and becoming the new stars.

While this flip would have probably happened anyway it's not much of a stretch to speculate that the situation perhaps brought the singers' day forward somewhat.

It's best described as a synchronicity - a ‘meaningful' coincidence.

A sequence of events that cannot be fully explained by simple cause and effect but are still connected.

And an example of a swift and nifty bit of innovation (by copying) in the face of necessity on behalf of the record industry.
And set the tone for all manner of Elvisness and James Brown et al to come.

The story of how the record industry were slow to recognise how digital distribution etc would impact their business model, and the consequences that followed, is well documented.

But its worth noting that, frankly, this was not always the way.

Monday, May 12, 2014

there’s the first ad

Every agency I have worked with has used their own template variant of what we call the creative brief.

Some will mandate adherence to a specific template more than others.

Either way, the creatives receiving said brief are somewhat more uniform in their response.

They generally give a cursory glance to everything else and jump straight to the proposition/point of view/key idea section (whatever you want to call it).

On more than one occasion, and with different creative directors, it's been pointed out to me that the brief I have provided contained the same problem for them - namely the proposition.

As a 'former' creative that then shuffled over to the other (planner) side my tendency is still to describe the proposition/point of view as though it were a line or an ad idea, and it is written as such.

For some creatives this was not a popular approach.

Their argument being that they now have to work backwards to go forwards, dismantling this 'creative' proposition back into something non-idea-ish, in order to then take it forward into a legitimate creative idea.

That's one way of looking at it, I suppose.

Another way is to adopt the approach of John Hegarty - creative legend and the H in BBH.

We are re-reading John Steel's Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning at the moment and in one chapter Steel reports on how Hegarty, too, headed straight for the proposition and similarly looked for a very simple, singleminded idea.

But Hegarty's next habit is described as this.

'[Hegarty would] take that one sentence and write it on a large piece of paper, above or below a picture of the product, almost as if the line from the brief were a headline.

Then he would pin it up above his desk and ask himself first whether the juxtaposition of that line and that product made some rational sense, and second, whether it also started to suggest something interesting on an emotional level'.

If there was something interesting there then...

'There’s the first ad in the campaign. It’s my job to create something better.'

That's endorsement enough for me to continue to write the brief as the ad for the ad.