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It takes a cyber-village: The business of pop culture
by Jack Cashill
Courtesy of the Cashill Newsletter - July 28, 1999
The United States is a big place. It is home to diverse groups having their own traditions, ideas and religious orientations. A free society that has welcomed all.
We live longer now. More generations share the same area than ever before. And while that brings the opportunity for continuity among families, our country has changed so much and so often since the "Roaring Twenties" it is hard to fathom.
It is quaint to hear that raising our children takes a "Village". That suggests a close-knit society where we all know and understand each others families, successes and challenges. If that were true, pop culture would not be what it is today.
The overwhelming dominance of pop culture in today's world suggests that to cope with present day realities it takes a "Cyber-Village".
Some simple universal truths still permeate our American culture:
1. Private markets rule; 2. Families establish adult attitudes and pre-dispositions; 3. Science continues to improve our lives and change our world; 4. People in America are lonely and need to feel connected.
The need to feel connected in an entrepreneurial country where television and video games are central to many peoples' lives, creates an environment well-suited for the proliferation of what we call "pop culture". Images are more important than ever in filling the needs of an unfulfilled, yet semi-well-educated society.
The release of the new Star Wars movie, "Return of the Phantom Menace" was significant in that it helped bring into focus who we are and what we want. It brought back to our screens a popular story with familiar characters who, using future scientific advancements, lead exciting "lives" and achieve happy endings. And, out of necessity, money was made so the saga could continue.
Nostalgia, hope, excitement, scientific wonders and happiness. Not a bad way to go if you are stuck on the third rock from the sun.
George Lucas says that "The Force" surrounds us and binds us. I say it is pop culture. We are so large and diverse as a country that this is not unexpected nor necessarily bad. Pop culture happens.
The tragic death of John Kennedy, Jr. has held our country's attention, more or less, for over a week. Not bad for a bunch of ADD sufferers. His death brought back the media mythology of his father, unbothered by more recent revelations, and gave news folks something that they could talk about to a cyber village they had trained to listen.
When topics are found by the mass media that captivates a national audience, a collective "Hallelujah" can be heard from the media moguls because that sells their air time to companies who sell products nation-wide. A perfect alignment of the stars, if you will. Disconnected people can share well-established images by the technological miracle of television. All paid for by private companies who seek to sell their products.
The added dimension of the "Kennedy" name added fuel to the pop culture fire. It gave millions the chance to re-explore the successes, faults and failures of a political family of great privilege. But the more interesting angle was that pop culture works best when it does not become immersed in partisan politics. You see, businesses want to sell their products to everyone, not just members of one political party.
John, Jr. crossed political lines. He was so damn good-looking, wealthy, independent and unsullied, that he appealed to everyone. We saw Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and other Democrats desperately try to claim him for their own, but it never took. The connection that our lonely citizens made with John, Jr. had more to do with the humble manner in which he handled his celebrity--and the 15 times he was on the cover of People--than with the fact that the old man was a Democrat.
John, Jr. liked Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Reformers, you name it. He reached out like only a first-rate marketer could. This, by the way, has nothing to do with the substance of John, Jr.'s accomplishments. It has to do with the business of pop culture. The successful mass marketing of a brand name. In this instance the brand is known as "Kennedy."
For all the sorrowful hype that accompanied the death of a pop culture icon this last week, the other owners of the Kennedy brand name need to heed the lessons of the marketplace. One lesson in particular is that of over-exposure. Yes, even a well-known brand name can be over-exposed. We've all experienced the miscalculation of a radio station that played your favorite song one too many times. Or the celebrity who pitched one too many products. Well, I think I experienced that same feeling this last Sunday.
I heard the Kennedy name and the saw the well-rehearsed mourning one too many times. The Kennedy's, I believe, have just witnessed their last, best hour. Their most marketable and most decent family member has passed. And with his passing goes the Kennedy "magic." John, Jr. was a true pop culture icon, much more so than the date-raping or baby sitter-bonking cousins for instance.
Advertisers know it and consumers know it. What follows will be dictated by the business of pop culture. Those who invest in future Kennedy products, beware. All others can never measure up to John, Jr. That's a business reality and a pop culture fact of life.
Our "cyber-village" is kind, but it isn't stupid. And it's all business when if comes to marketing decisions about our pop icons. Just watch.
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