April 2, 2009
"Consumers" or "Multipliers"
By: Grant McCracken
The term consumer is a fixture of the marketing, media and cultural worlds. It is hard to imagine certain conversations without it. Lucky little term. Consumer is coin of the realm.
On the other hand, as Marshall Sahlins says, every term is a bargain with reality. It helps us think some things. It discourages us from thinking others.
On the whole, consumer was a better term than the alternatives, customer, or buyer. It evoked the distinction between producer and consumer, reminding the corporation that capitalism is not about the art of the possible, but the art of the desirable. It doesn't matter what the corporation does. It will sell only what the consumer wants.
Parlin made this paradigmatic shift official when in 1912 he offered the slogan the "consumer is king." AG Lafley, the CEO of P&G, renews the terms' centrality when he reminds his staff, as he often does, the "consumer is boss." The term consumer has helped capitalism take the larger view.
On the other hand, not everyone likes the term consumer. Some think it's anti-ecological. Consumers sound like ravening beasts who must destroy what they buy instead of renting it from the recycler.
Others dislike the term consumer because it suggests that the consumer always destroys value, and can't actually ever participate in its creation.
There's a third reason to question the term consumer. When it comes to the tech sector, information economies, the software and internet user, the term consumer is simply odd.
Jerry Michalski and David Isenberg have both spoken out against the term consumer, noting that the term forces us to participate in the assumptions we are now called upon to question. At the very least, and this is the Sahlinsian wisdom again, consumer prevents us from seeing the consumer in new ways.
My preferred term is multiplier. Consider this sentence: "American mutlipliers spend more than $8 trillion a year on everything from popcorn to Porsches and eye exams to electricity." (WSJ amended) Or consider this conversational fragment from the corridors of a branding firm: "Let's run it up the flagpole and see what the multiplier thinks."
A multiplier is someone who will treat the consumer good, service or experience as a starting point. The multiplier will build in some of their own intelligence and imagination. The multiplier will take possession of a cultural artifact and add make it more detailed, more contextually responsive, more culturally nuanced, and, lest we forget the point of the exercise, more valuable. Using a term like multiplier will help the meaning maker keep new realities front and center. If there is nothing in the product, service or experience that can not be built upon, well, then it's back to the drawing board.
There is a diffusion angle here as well. The multiplier will add value by involving others. They will multiply the value in collective acts of construction. Furthermore, the multiplier will use his or her instruments and networks to publicize the innovation. And now the term has the advantage of evoking Henry Jenkins' remark: it doesn't spread, it's dead.
Finally, the term multiplier may help cultural creatives acknowledge more forthrightly that their work is is in a sense out of their control. All they can do, and what they must do, is to invite the multiplier to participate in the construction of the meaning by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. Only thus is success made possible.
The term consumer treats meaning manufacture as an end game. The term multiplier suggests, on the other hand, that what the cultural creative does is merely the beginning of a larger cultural process.
Bartels, Robert. 1976. The History of Marketing Thought. publisher unknown.
Grant McCracken holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in cultural anthropology. He is the author of Big Hair, Culture and Consumption, Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning and Brand Management, Flock and Flow, The Long Interview, Plenitude: Culture by Commotion, and the forthcoming Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. He has been the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge and he is now an adjunct professor at McGill University. He has consulted widely in the corporate world, including the Coca-Cola Company, IKEA, Chrysler, Kraft, Kodak, and Kimberly Clark. He is a member of the IBM Social Networking Advisory Board.
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Applying Media Industry Studies Concepts to Spreadable Media
By: Amanda Lotz
While it may be the case that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, the question remains whether that old dog can teach a new dog anything useful from its existing repertoire. Or, in terms of spreadable media, can the "old," or I prefer, established, media industries teach those in the industry endeavoring upon the creation of spreadable media anything of value. In the over-inflated rhetoric of new media, media revolutions, and change, too often we lose track of basics and fail to consider that most of what seems new and different isn't really either. In the following section, I'll identify some of the characteristics of established media industries that remain relevant in an era of spreadable media and explore how some of the strategies media industries have developed to deal with their particularities do or do not apply to the spreadable media context.
A key starting point for understanding media industries is acknowledging that they are different from most other industries - often in particularly frustrating ways for their practitioners. This "difference" of media industries means that the rules and practices that hold for and prove productive to the commercialization practices of many other industries simply don't work, or at least don't work as effectively. One of these key differences is captured in the maxim "nobody knows," also expressed sometimes as the acknowledgement that media industries are "risky businesses." This sense that nobody knows results from the fickleness of audiences when it comes to creative and entertainment goods and the manner in which conventional focus group testing or the combination of known "successful" features tend not to be particularly predictive of success in the design of a new media good. In other words, you can't test or engineer your way to a hit with any certainty.
Given the spreadable media successes of the past few years, I suspect the nobody knows maxim is likely to be true of spreadable media to the same degree it is for established media. Try as we might to identify common features or characteristics, we fool ourselves if we think we can anticipate a formula for producing media content likely to catch the cultural fancy of any particular audience at any given moment. But all is not lost, as established media industries have developed a number of strategies designed to counter some of the uncertainty of their businesses, and some of these strategies might prove productive for those interested in making spreadable media as well.
The primary strategy for dealing with the uncertainty of success is intentional overproduction. Television, film, and recording industry executives all work in a universe in which they know full well that more than 80 percent of what they develop and create will fail commercially, and the key problem is that they don't know which 10 to 20 percent might actually succeed. So while it is painful from a resource allocation standpoint, the strategy has been to produce far more creative goods than might succeed and then see what works. The lesson here for spreadable media then is not to get too caught up in trying to design the next big new thing by carefully drawing on the lessons of those that have spread before, but to be willing to try many different things.
Spreadable media have the advantage relative to established media of generally not requiring the extensive sunk costs that challenge creative development in established media (the high-first copy costs of established media arguably present as challenging a characteristic of this industry as the fact that nobody knows). To be more precise, in the case of spreadable media, many costs must be sunk before turning it loose on the world, but users don't have the same high- production budget expectations that hobble established media. The fact that spreadable media is characterized by its circumvention of paid distribution reduces costs and also allows creators to release preliminary content and then follow up on successes with sequels or extensions.
The mention of sequels and extensions brings us to the most readily used strategy in the established media industries for dealing with the nobody knows dilemma: formatting. Whether the use of known stars or creative talent, or known genres or textual forms, replicating known or previous success is often banked upon as the most likely way to predict new success. While this provides a viable strategy for spreadable media, creators here must walk the same tightrope as established media creators in avoiding goods that are obviously derivative and being intricately engaged with cultural shifts and trends to be aware of ever-shifting fancies.
Certainly, just as in the case of established media, creators of spreadable media have a variety of motivations and desires that span a continuum from explicitly artistic to explicitly commercial. This variation leads different characteristics of media industry operation and strategies for dealing with them to have more or less relevance depending on the context - so certainly one size or strategy does not fit all. It remains to be seen whether what economist Richard Caves refers to as matters of the A-list/B-list (the inadequacy of purely economic rationale for the perceived variation in quality among those involved in creative production) will be relevant to spreadable media. In some cases, the inclusion of "A-list" talent (Will Ferrell's involvement in funnyordie.com videos, for example) reasonably seems to play a role in the sampling and spreading of content, but just as many cases of "B-list" spreadable media successes exist (if not the Z-list talent of precocious pets and unknown children). Likewise, some strategies of established media-such as the creation of artificial scarcity in accessing content-simply have no place in the spreadable media world.
Amanda Lotz is an Associate Professor Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York University Press, 2007), in which she examines the institutional adjustments of the U.S. television industry since the 1980s on the medium's role as a cultural institution and Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era (University of Illinois Press, 2006), which explores the rise of female-centered dramas and cable networks targeted toward women in the late 1990s as they relate to changes in the U.S. television industry. She also has published articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, Feminist Media Studies, Media, Culture & Society, Communication Theory, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Television & New Media, Screen, Journal of Popular Film and Television, and Women and Language.