Attention economics: sub-prime celebrities

Paul Raven @ 06-07-2010

There’s sometimes deep truth in flippant analogies. Well, there is in my world, anyway… and here’s an example, as The Guardian‘s Aditya Chakrabortty compares celebrity to shonky mortgages: if you sell too many of the latter masquerading as the real thing, the whole system ends up collapsing in the wake of the (admittedly huge) short-term gains you make from it.

As for the assertion that fame is sought only by a desperate few wannabes, think again. Extrapolating from surveys, the developmental psychologist Orville Gilbert Brim estimates that 4 million American adults (out of a total of 200 million) describe fame as their most important life goal. The proportions are only slightly lower in Germany and urban China.

[…]

If you define fame as being known by strangers, then newspapers, cinema and especially TV have always driven the spread of celebrity. Yet, until very recently, that attention has customarily been at a gradient: the public used to look up to their stars; now they are minded to look down.

[…]

Think back to Wall Street’s sub-prime crisis. That was a story of lenders so desperate for market share and quick profit that they were chucking big sums at people who didn’t warrant it. The tale is very similar in the celebrity-media industry.

Your TV used to be the equivalent of a rating-agency, exposing you only to AAA-rated talent. Now however, it asks you to keep up with the Kardashians; watch a Hilton or an Osborne muddle through the real world, and, yes, be a guest at Katie Price’s latest wedding. The fundamentals of all these celebs are, frankly, ropey, and yet viewers are invited to invest time and emotional equity in them.

Resonances there with our ongoing discussion about gatekeepers and experts in the world of publishing; gatekeeper failure really can collapse a thriving market.

More pertinently, I think I’ve always viewed social currencies like fame (or its more localised little brother, popularity) in economic terms, even long before I knew what economics actually was*. Chakrabortty’s model would need to factor in some of fame’s more curious properties, though: the way it can in circumstances be gifted to another without any loss of personal worth, for instance, or the way one can collapse one’s own federal reserve completely without any help or interference from others, or any intended expense on your part.

Shorter version: anyone who wants to code a detailed version of Whuffie has a whole lot of work ahead of them. But the human brain, jacked into the cyborg extension of ourselves we call the media, can run those insanely complex calculations without knowing consciously how they work… score one up for the meat. 😉

[ * This is a not-too-subtly coded way of saying that I wasn’t hugely popular at school, and spent a lot of time trying to rationalise why that was. I’d have doubtless been better served by not thinking about it, hence appearing to have been less of a massive nerd, and hence becoming more popular. Ah, hindsight… 🙂 ]


The scent of dead stardom – Eau de Jacko

Paul Raven @ 02-12-2009

Michael Jackson statueAh, December – time to crank out the ‘silly season’ media stories to fill the gaps in between the “best of the decade” posts. So here’s a way-out weird  news article for you: an LA-based company called My DNA Fragrance (there’s a clue in the name) has joined forces with a collector of celebrity hair and started making perfumes based on DNA extracted from snippets of the barnets of superstars. [via The Daily Swarm; image by Sjors Provoost]

No, apparently this is a true story. But I hope you’ll excuse me the levity of slicing a quote from the coverage and using it out of context (purely for the lulz, you understand):

“The biggest seller is Elvis, but MJ is selling very well too. It’s a powerful fragrance and there is no alcohol in it.

Oh, the irony. 🙂

We’ll leave aside the speculations about our bizarre obsession with celebrity (after all, is this so different from touching relics of the saints and other such Medieval behaviours?), and leap instead straight to the copyright problem. What happens if my hair is harvested without my knowledge, while I’m treading the red carpet somewhere*? Don’t I or my descendants have a right to the profit from perfume based on my DNA? How many changes would need to be made to a DNA string to make it legally ‘different’ to the originating source?

And most importantly, what the hell does Eau de Michael Jackson smell like?

[ * Hey, this is a speculative website, okay? ]


One-click celebrity endorsements!

Paul Raven @ 21-10-2009

As much as I have high hopes for the future, sometimes it seems that “the future” is just a place where you can buy a wider and weirder range of things more quickly and conveniently than before. This doesn’t just apply to us consumer types, either; the mechanics of business are being shortened and tightened and streamlined constantly. Speed is everything. We need it yesterday!

So, you’re building a new model of car (or cooker, or genetically modified guard-armadillo), and you need to get some instant credibility for it before your product launch next week. You need a celebrity endorsement, stat! But don’t they take ages to arrange? Not any more…

Brand Affinity’s goal is to automate the process by which marketers offer contracts to athletes, along with the process by which ads featuring those endorsers are created and produced. The Web site promises that those transactions will take no more than 96 hours.

It provides “a quick turnaround for something that would normally take months,” Mr. Brees said. “A company can contact a player, come to an agreement and the next day the ads could be up.”

That fast pace, said Brian Bos, senior vice president and convergence director at Team Detroit — the alliance of WPP agencies that work for Ford Motor — “reduces risk and provides flexibility, because you’re not tied into long-term deals.”

[…]

Athletes are “human capital brands,” said Ryan Steelberg, president and chief executive at Brand Affinity in Irvine, Calif., who share in an estimated $3 billion paid each year to celebrity endorsers.

Although “the days of someone right out of the draft getting a multimillion-dollar shoe deal are over,” Mr. Steelberg said, large sums are being spent on the handful of big sports names, active and retired, who appear in multiple campaigns.

“Relative to the cost of the superstars, you could potentially activate 5, 10, 25” players who are popular in local or regional markets, he added.

Now, that’s a strong modern business model right there. You’re trading in the currency of celebrity, which (sadly) shows little sign of decaying in perceived value, despite being based on a nebulous social concept whose hollowness is revealed on a daily basis; you’re using the web for swift brokerage and expediting; you’re offering a national service tailored to localised needs. You’ve bolted yourself as middleman onto the Long Tail of celebrity. [via TechDirt]

As pointed out in the article there, the biggest plus point of Brand Affinity’s service is its fine-grain duration scale. No need to risk a lot of money and kudos on a season-long campaign with a particular jock or clothes-horse; keep an eye on trending topics for rising names, jump on ’em when they’ve got enough cachet to give your product a boost, and drop ’em like a hot potato when their star slips out of the ascendant. In a world where fame burns brighter for ever shorter periods of time, that’s a system with a lot of appeal for the marketing and branding wonks… the sort of thing Leggy Starlitz might have stumbled into had he spent longer in the States, perhaps.


Tombstone2.0: the Grief Olympics move online

Paul Raven @ 08-10-2009

remembering the deadThe Guardian has an interesting article about the recent rise of memorial websites and online tributes to the dead – a phenomenon which, until now, I was largely unaware of. Perhaps because it’s a fairly new thing… [image by kevindooley]

The blossoming of memorial websites is a relatively new phenomenon. “I think there were two things that happened,” says Jonathan Davies, who founded memorial site Much Loved.”The death of Diana brought about a change in how we grieve publicly, and then the internet connected people and provided a place for it. Two or three years ago, when we launched, we were quite unusual.” Now there are lots of host sites, he points out, as well as families and friends starting their own pages.

Davies set up his site, which currently has around 12,000 memorials, in 2007, 12 years after his brother died suddenly at the age of 21. “It was a drugs-related death and I think this was one of the reasons why his friends didn’t get in touch with our family – there was a police investigation, and I think his friends were worried about how we would react, which led to this wall of silence,” he says. “I think that actually made our grieving period worse. I felt a website would have opened up the channels of communication.”

So far, so reasonable – setting up a website to honour a deceased relative is surely no weirder than setting one up for your hobby or community group. Far cheaper and more accessible than a physical memorial, too, when you consider that Joe Average is unlikely to have thousands of people wanting to pay tribute at his final resting place, digital or otherwise… but that mention of the Princess Di episode flicked the edge of my alarm bell. Back to Davies:

Does it say something about us as a society, that something so private as grief is now often done so publicly? “I do think grief is becoming embraced more by communities – by that I mean people outside the immediate family. I remember in the mid-90s, when my brother died, people would ignore us because they didn’t know what to say. That’s beginning to change now.”

[…]

But is this outpouring of grief, often for celebrities, but also for those in the news, such as Lafferty and Rowe, people the mourners might never have met, actually genuine? “It is, absolutely,” says clinical psychologist Oliver James, “because they are talking about themselves. What is happening is that instead of gaining insight, they are acting out. Instead of properly apprehending their own difficulties, a large proportion of the people who leave these messages are identifying with the difficulties of someone else and emoting. Although the feeling is authentic and truly felt, there is a histrionic dimension to it.

No kidding. People have always been weird about celebrity deaths, but the whole Diana business marked a sort of sea change or tipping point whereby it became fashionable to don one’s hair-shirt. And while I stand to be accused of cynicism, I’m resolute in my belief that this is less a manifestation of increasing compassion in the general public than it is a carefully developed and sustained type of media-generated hysteria.

There’s always been ways to make money out of the dead and those who mourn them, but modern communications media makes it easier to amplify and sustain the perfectly reasonable sadness felt when a person you admire from a distance shuffles off this mortal coil – and the longer you can sustain that grief, the more special edition newspapers you can sell. It seems I’m not alone in my cynicism:

Much Loved is run as a registered charity, aimed at helping families to set up their own sites, but you can’t escape the feeling that other sites might have more cynical motives. On Lasting Tribute, which is owned by the Daily Mail newspaper group, there is a shop where you can buy personalised candles, benches and jewellery. For £1, you can also leave a virtual “gift” on people’s pages – these include pictures of teddy bears, flags, a pint of beer or a heart. The site set up for Georgia Rowe – which, at the time of writing did not have any tributes, includes a link to the local newspaper’s report on her death. A newspaper owned by the Daily Mail group.

Well, what do you know…newspapers have always profited from the misery of others, so I guess it’s no great surprise to see the Grief Olympics moving online as print withers and television fragments. And while it’s nice to think that families and friends can find a way to express their feelings about the dead, the prospect of the web becoming increasingly clogged with cloying sentiment and histrionic wailing over the deaths of marginal and/or faded celebrities is not one that fills me with contentment. There’s something grotesque about it, something vicarious and hollow… but maybe that’s just me seeing my own faults in others.

Can you think of any science fiction stories that have dealt with this topic? The only one that leaps to mind for me is”The Grave of My Beloved” by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia, which wryly highlights the financial trap of renting a digital memorial before trekking off into traditionally Watsonian weirdness…


Who owns the dead? Guitar Hero, Kurt Cobain and publicity rights in a digital era

Paul Raven @ 16-09-2009

Screenshot of Kurt Cobain avatar from Guitar HeroI’m guessing you’ve probably caught wind of Courtney Love’s lawsuit against Activision regarding their reanimation of the image of Kurt Cobain in the latest edition of Guitar Hero. I’ve not seen it myself, but friends have told me it’s a bit tasteless, and this particular lawsuit may be one of the more sane things Love has done in some time (even though there are protestations from Activision that she actually signed off on a contract that gave them permission to do it). [image ganked from Kotaku post under Fair Use terms; contact for immediate takedown if required]

Specifics aside, though, this raises the spectre of an issue that is only set to become more complicated – the use of someone’s image for marketing purposes when they’re no longer around to give their permission. Take it away, TechDirt:

[…] that issue is getting more and more complicated as technology gets better and better. In the last few decades, for example, there’s been a growing trend to use famous dead people, such as John Wayne, Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire in commercials. But those mostly involved taking clips of those actors from existing films/TV and splicing them into a commercial (with permission from their estates). However, as some lawyers have been noting, with better and better digital technologies, this issue is becoming more important as it’s now possible to digitally recreate someone for the purpose of film. Or, say, a video game.

Or, say, a life-size photorealistic face-mask. I’d be the first to concede that making money from the dead is a bit crass – especially from as tragic a figure as Cobain – but is Activision being any more crass than Love and the Cobain holding companies she controls? Who gets to decide what’s appropriate, what’s tasteful?

There’s always going to be a price at which someone’s moral stance becomes less rigid, after all, and the dead can’t hang around to complain… not until we’ve cracked personality uploads or Turing-compliant simulations, anyway. And even then, would the electronic personality be considered legally the same person as the no-longer-living meat-machine?

And just to add an extra fillip of weirdness, consider the results of a recent experiment at Warwick University here in the UK, which shows that doctored video footage can easily persuade eyewitnesses that they saw something which never actually occurred. [via FuturePundit]

The legal implications are a bit nasty – especially in a country as saturated in CCTV cameras as this one – but let’s look at the light side: how much fun would it be to convince your best friend that he was so steaming drunk at his own birthday party that he missed Kurt Cobain wandering through the front room trying to bum cigarettes from people playing Guitar Hero?


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