March 31, 2006

Interesting Books on American Culture: Mark Twain, Madonna, and Jesus

While looking through the latest version of the American Culture Association's Journal of American Culture, I found reviews for a few good books that have just come out which might be useful for the work we're doing here at C3 or for people interested in related matters.

Tsuyoshi Ishihara published Mark Twain in Japan: The Cultural Reception of an American Icon in 2005. With all of our talk about a global international culture, influential Asian markets, and pop cosmopolitanism, it's sometimes easy to look only at film, television, and new media and not think back to what has traditionally been the most open cultural expression of ideas--the translation of literary texts. The well-known popular culture scholar Ray B. Browne provides a review that makes the book sound very applicable for those interested in understanding both the traditional and the contemporary problems with international markets and particularly American/Japanese cultural translations.

Another heavyweight in popular culture studies, Marshall Fishwick, provides an in-depth review of Karlene Faith's 2004 book Madonna: Bawdy and Soul. Faith's book looks at the way Madonna crafted her star image, both extrapolating from and breaking the molds of previous performers. She has been one of the most talked-about and studied modern musical performers, but there is much to learn about all her culutral metamorphoses, both for the student of popular culture as well as the marketer. For Madonna to remain relevant in American culture and to survive as a performer from generation to generation provides an effective case study for how a star image must adapt and change with the times.

But the master of an adaptable star image has to be Jesus Christ, which is the subject of Stephen Prothero's 2003 book American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. Jesus has become a relevant figure to all strands of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, as well as Judiasm, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a variety of other religions. I've said it before and will say it many times over--understanding the marketing power of Christianity and studying it throughout history may be the most powerful way to grasp an understanding of basic marketing principles as anything I've seen, and Kelly Baker's review of American Jesus indicates that this book provides an in-depth analysis at how the use of Jesus Christ as an image has changed throughout American history.

The three books might be worth a look at if you are interested in the issues they touch on, and The Journal of American Culture is always a great place to go to find some of the books academia has to offer on issues currently relevant to American culture and entertainment.

March 26, 2006

iTunes Gets Smart re: Music Videos

(Via Lost Remote)

Ever since Apple began selling hour-long TV shows on the iTunes store for $1.99, the willingness of customers to buy five-minute music videos for the exact same price dropped off quite a bit. This was understandable, as from the customer's point of view, the prices for music videos were an unconscionable ripoff. (I won't get into the behind-the-scenes realities of pricing structures, except to note that most customers really don't care if a music video cost as much to make as a TV episode.)

While I'd still be a little leery of the perceived value equivalency between a TV show and a "vingle" (a music video bundled with its associated single), the decision to bundle videos with music tracks is definitely a step in the right direction on Apple's part, as are the higher-margin music video bundles they're offering. Sending conflicting messages in media pricing has the potential to undermine the whole business, which is why Apple's move towards sanity in music video prices is a good thing, and the record industry's rent-seeking push to raise song prices to $1.49 (or whatever the market will bear) would almost certainly be bad for business.

March 21, 2006

New Volvo Advertisement

Volvo has launched a new television spot parodying a broadcast news report about how the population is expanding and people are living longer. What's to blame? Volvo, of course, becuase of the safety features of their cars.

I first saw the ad while watching a rerun episode of Saturday Night Live and thought it was an SNL-produced commercial for a little while until I realized that it was from Volvo.

I personally found it pretty engaging and creative, a great way to catch the viewer with an entertaining commercial clearly linked the product, so as to avoid the problem that shows like this often run into by having a creative commercial that people remember without the product itself being an essential part of the message.

On the downside--I've always considered Volvo a car whose price isn't accessible to everyone, so the idea that people are living longer becuase Volvo is protecting the life of the population does undermine one message that Volvo has often sent--that of being a car to aspire to, a car that not everyone can own. Maybe they are trying to change their image in that regard, to be considered a more mainstream car than before.

But, overall, an effective campaign. Anyone else have any thoughts on it?

Talk Shows and Soap Operas Make You Stupid? Or Do They Just Indicate That You Are Losing Your Cognitive Abilities?

For those of you who follow my posts here on the C3 site regarding soap opera, and for those of you who care about the way television is viewed in general, you'll love this gem that was published yesterday evening in a story by Amy Norton on Reuters about an upcoming study to be published in the Southern Medical Journal.

A test proves that watching talk shows and soap operas is somehow tied to "poorer mental scores" in the elderly. Although a causal relationship can not yet be identified, the test indicates that those elderly people who chose "talk shows and soap operas" as their favorite programs tended to have lower cognative abilities than those who chose news programs, for instance.

I don't even think I have to respond for you to know what I think, but I wonder how "talk shows and soap operas" can be considered a category of television in the first place, or if a lot of other factors should be taken into consideration--for instance, as has happened with wrestling in the past, many viewers with a higher education level are less likely to admit their passion for genres like soap opera and talk shows (two separate genres, again, which the study does not distinguish between), even if they are, in actuality, one of their favorite shows.

Among my favorite quotes:

Dr. Fogel, who led the study, says that a preference for talk shows and soap operas "is a marker of something suspicious" in the health of patients and encourages doctors to ask elderly female patients about what might be their favorite TV shows as a way to indicate potential cognitive decline.

Considering, the constant switches, the intricate plots, and the sheer number of characters you have to keep up with, I have a hard time believing that mastering a soap opera can lead to cognitive decline. But I guess we should be happy that people have found such a great new use for television--as a way of proving a lack of brainpower depending on what people's favorite programs are.

Dr. Fogel hypothesizes that elderly people who are losing their thinking power watch soaps and talk shows because of the "parasocial relationships" that the shows encourage, so that people who can't think as clearly can revel in the emotional connection they feel with soap characters and talk shows and can thus pay attention, despite their diminished mental capabilities.

Fogel says that this doesn't mean these shows are bad for you but rather than they could signal "a possible problem."

But don't worry. Fogel finds that, while watching talk shows and soap operas might indicate diminished mental capacities, there might be some television programming out there that can benefit the intellect and help viewers manage stress.

Good. I was starting to get concerned that all our studies were for naught.

Thanks to Jenny on the As the World Turns Media Domain message board for posting the link to this story there.

March 16, 2006

Japan in The Simpsons

Just a quick note this morning after reading through the latest edition of The Journal of Popular Culture. I found an intriguing article on recurring images of Japan in The Simpsons.

The essay, "Mister Sparkle Meets the Yakuza: Depictions of Japan in The Simpsons, written by Hugo Dobson from the University of Sheffield in England, provides an intriguing case study into some of the very aspects of pop cosmopolitanism my colleagues and I have mentioned here on this site before. The Simpsons actually seems very interested in depictions of international culture throughout its run, and its an international popular culture phenomenon.

For Dobson, this means that tracking the way Japan has been depicted throughout the run of the show has all sorts of implications, on images of Japan in America. Considering the influx of Japanese animation in America, how might this relationship to Japanese characters in American animation be compared?

Pop cosmopolitanism has multi-directional flow, both import and export, and these have implications that are not always directly economic, although everything is an economic factor it seems. Hugo Dobson, a self-admitted Simpsons fan and a scholar on Japanese culture, is interested in the cultural implications and accusations of racism in The Simpsons, but his insights have a wide variety of implications on pop cosmopolitanism (especially juxtaposed with all the articles several months ago about The Simpsons' launch into Arabic-speaking countries).

It's well worth a look if you're interested in these issues, and I would love to spark up some debate about the essay here, if anyone else has a chance to look it over.

March 13, 2006

Soap Actor Reaches Out to Daytime Fans to Lobby Together

People within almost any industry often debate the value of the online fan community and the fan clubs of a particular show. A few weeks ago, I posted an argument on the Procter & Gamble Productions message board between moderators with PGP and fans on the board regarding the importance of the hardcore fan base versus obtaining general viewer impressions.

One actress that seems to be convinced of the importance of the most ardent fans of a show is Ellen Dolan with As the World Turns. Last week, Ellen sent a letter to the ATWT Fan Club explaining her problems with the way the character had been written and female characters more broadly on the PGP soap over the past year or two. Ellen's letter was quickly posted on message boards dedicated to ATWT across the net and became the talk of the fan community this past week.

In her letter, instead of taking the line others have that active fans represent such a miniscule number (although a number that far outweighs the Nielsen's, eh?) that they don't matter, Dolan points to the prior successes of the fan club. She points out that Trent Dawson, who was one of the favorite recurring actors on ATWT, was given a contract after being cheered on at the last annual fan club gathering.

She also makes the case that her character was originally one of the few female detectives on daytime but her professional duties have been stripped from her character, in a trend she seems to find where daytime, while once progressive with putting women in the workforce, is actually scaling back now that primetime is offering up female detectives and business leaders.

"Do you remember when Margo was a strong, independent woman and not a sniveling,cat fighting, high school girl craving for a football hero?" she asks before further asking why longtime ATWT actor and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Tamara Tunie can't seem to get a story of her own and longtime character Lucinda Walsh, a powerful businesswoman in town, never gets any stories about her professional life on the show these days.

"The character is being dismantled. These characters are your characters and I think valuable to the show. I need your support. I need you to help save Margo Hughes! I need you to write and ask for Margo back. I have attached a list of names and addresses for you to write to. Tell them how you feel about this character. Please guys, 'cus I love Margo and I want to keep giving her to you. Not to mention that my kid is only six, I've got many years to go."

ATWT is one of the best written shows on daytime television, but it doesn't mean that Dolan hasn't found one of the points that online fans constantly bring up as their frustration with the soap's content--the lack of workplace stories. While the show's producers can't be happy that what would essentially be a backstage argument has disseminated throughout the fan message boards, the direct plea and the grassroots campaign Dolan is trying to begin shows some recognition of the most active fans having the most power and the most investment in the show.

And Ellen hits on a very powerful message regarding the moral economy surrounding the characters, the feeling on behalf of the fan community that they have ownership of the characters, when she says, "These characters are your characters" and implies a fan duty at protecting the quality of the show by doing their duty and writing in.

Following this situation and the response of PGP should provide an interesting window into where things stand with the company's view of the fan community.

WWE Attempting to Expand Brand to "Cool Hunter" For Young Men

It's no surprise that the WWE wants to expand their brand. In the 1990s, it was the failed World Bodybuilding Federation that they tried to expand with, followed by the XFL at the turn of the millennium. The WWE has since realized that the "WWE" brand name is an important part of expansion of the product and has cut down on their expansion. They nixed a WWE Records idea and are expanding slowly on the WWE Films project, primarily with films that star wrestlers on their roster.

Now, the company is planning a WWE men's lifestyle magazine to complement their WWE RAW and WWE Smackdown monthly magazines they currently published. Since WWE courts the young adult male category and those who aspire to keep up with the trends in that category, even if they are older, the magazine may hit the core demographic in a powerful way. Since I have heard very little about the project so far, I'm not yet sure what this means. But it should be an interesting story to follow.

In the 27 February 2006 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer points out that the company must be careful with ventures
into building brand awareness if they don't have a strong enough economic impact on their main product--selling pro wrestling. "A few years back, the WWE did its own Super Bowl commercial with the same thing in mind. In hindsight, the results of those adds were that they added nothing to company business, nor did they end up building any noticeable long-term awareness for the companies that purchased them. In many cases, tests showed consumers would remember the best ads, but would have no memory of who the ads were for and the companies gained nothing from them. Tons of research done to prove what should have been obvious from the start."

So this brings up the very real question at the heart of what we're doing here at C3...How do you build brand awareness, be creative, reach out to the fans, expand your product, etc., yet in a way that doesn't waste away major capital with no economic upside. In the case of the men's lifestyle magazine, it will likely be all in the handling. As Dave points out, the product must expand well beyond their core product of pro wrestling but contain enough markers back to their product that it makes it acceptable to their core base. This may be where WWE learned their lesson with failures such as the XFL and are hoping to improve by making WWE Films about smaller budget with WWE stars making appearances in the movie. The key is to find ways of expanding the convince the current fan base to be willing to expand along with the company, even while bringing in new fans with these expanding ventures.

March 10, 2006

Product Placement Backlash!

A handful of events seem to reveal a growing objection to product placement as a survival strategy in the entertainment industry.

Via TV Squad, a report that actors and writers are protesting product placement:

"Both groups are pushing for regulations, or a 'code of conduct' on product placement in television and movies. At the very least, they want more money for not only being storytellers but also advertising copywriters.

While Pepsi cans and Fed Ex trucks in the background are all strategically placed, the writers and actors have a problem when the powers-that-be require them to work products into a story or even write an entire story around a product."

Add to that an NYT article which C3 Advisor William Uricchio just passed us ("In Parody Video, Writers Ridicule Placing Products"):

A Hollywood union is stepping up its campaign against the embedding of brands and products in entertainment and, as they say in the movies, this time it's personal.

The Writers Guild of America, West, is making fun of the interweaving of sponsors' wares into films and TV shows with a so-called viral video that is scheduled to appear this week on a union-sponsored Web site ( The video mocks Tyra Banks, the host of the popular reality series America's Next Top Model, which features in its episodes the Cover Girl brand of cosmetics sold by the Procter & Gamble Company.

Tough times for the advertising industry?

March 8, 2006

Daily Show subscriptions available through iTunes

(Via Lost Remote)

Okay, so some marketing genius decided to call it a "multi-pass", but you can now buy the next 16 episodes of the Daily Show on iTunes for $9.99, and new episodes (not including re-runs) will automatically be downloaded as they become available. Once again, MTV Networks and their subsidiaries are further ahead on the development curve than their competitors.

Update: My colleague Ivan Askwith makes some very cogent points about this decision in comments. Check them out.

March 6, 2006

Control your PC with your Nintendo DS

(Via Gizmodo)

Well, this is interesting: Apparently someone's managed to connect their desktop PC to their Nintendo DS via Wifi, allowing them to remotely control the computer via the touch-screen.

Whether this is a gimmick or a sign of things to come is debateable, but it goes to show that even a dedicated handheld gaming device like the DS is capable of becoming something much more in a few years time. Only time will tell if these advances will eventually result in memory prosthetics and mobile computing along the lines of what science fiction authors like Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge, and Charles Stross have been imagining (the link leads to a chapter in Stross's novel Accelerando that's an interesting example of what I'm talking about).

March 5, 2006

MTV2 partners with YouTube

Via Lost Remote, we hear that MTV2 is partnering with YouTube to promote two of their TV shows, "The Andy Milonakis Show" and "Wonder Showzen", which have new seasons and DVD sets coming out this month.

This is absolutely a move in the right direction on the part of MTV, and a perfect example of the kind of steps that media companies will need to take to prosper in the age of viral media and social networking software. The key point to keep in mind is that when a network produces a clip with viral value (like NBC's "Lazy Sunday"), that's more than just content - it's a marketing asset which should be used to maximum advantage. Right now the networks take large audience sizes for granted, which is why they can afford to send sites like YouTube takedown notices, but with the proliferation of content across hundreds of cable channels and the internet, this kind of high-handed behavior makes them run the risk of becoming culturally irrelevant in the long term.

March 3, 2006

My Alma Mater Getting (Unwanted) National Attention

All right...I've stayed silent on this one long enough.

For those of you who don't know, I am a proud graduate of Western Kentucky University. The school has a highly respected journalism program, a top-notch communication department and an English and film studies faculty that includes many of the brightest and most discerning minds I have ever known. And there are scores of other talented folks at Western who have been doing everything they can to foster the growing national reputation of the university, including President Gary Ransdell, who I have personally seen in action, dedicating both day and night to preaching the good deeds of WKU and doing more good for the university than anyone could have imagined.

And, then, there's the school's Alpha Chi chapter of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity who made national news while I was visiting Kentucky when police searched their fraternity house during a party and found a goat locked in the closet, the victim of several animal rights abuses--some obvious and some alleged. The goat is believed to have been used in hazing, although the extent of use is up for debate.

I don't feel like repeating the story again for the sake of all of us in the WKU community who are hanging our heads in shame and also those of us who are sensitive to animal rights issues. For those interested in knowing the full story, the multiple-time Hearst winner WKU College Heights Herald has given this story the most extensive and balanced coverage of anything I've seen, and those stories are available here (you may have to register with the site to view them).

As Andrew McNamara records, those at WKU feel that this is just the story that comedians are always waiting for to deride "The Bluegrass State" as being full of hillbillies who love on their sisters and their farm animals. And everyone--from late night talk show hosts to news sites around the world--have picked up on the story. Bloggers are having a field day as well. See this post from Sensible Erection, this post from Jesus' General and Bob Reno's Dumbass Daily. These are only a few of many examples of the blogs written in response to this story.

University officials have been scrambling to cover this the best that they can, and I don't post it in this venue to try to further the mockery of a great school like WKU but rather to bring the discussion to a community of branding experts. What do you do in this situation, when something happens that does nothing but reinforce the very worst stereotypes about a place you are trying hard to build up? So far, they have made it clear to distance themselves from and punish the fraternity involved and have otherwise kept their mouths shut. But this is the type of story that will stick in people's minds.

Sure, the story is already starting to die down to some degree, but it is not going to go away and will lie at the back of the public's memory because of the way it has been spun and because of the stereotypes it feeds off of. The fact that the goat was used for hazing in the first place is an example of a local group trying to play off their own stereotype--AGR was (not surprisingly, based on their initials) an agriculture fraternity.

The local AGR chapter is obviously all but done for and doesn't deserve saving. They have been suspended and denounced by the national AGR organization and suspended for three years as a fraternity by WKU. But the larger question is, from a branding perspective, where does WKU go from here?

C3 Mourns Loss of Faithful Weblog Reader

The Convergence Culture Consortium would like to extend its sympathies to the family and friends of Larry Robinson, who passed away last Sunday. Robinson, an Owensboro, Ky., based CPA, and his wife Marianna have been dedicated readers of the C3 Weblog during the past few months and have even sent our entries to family and friends for further discussion. We are saddened by his death and wish Marianna and his family the best during this trying time.

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