Marketing Communication Anthropology: Social Branding, Media Machines, Netnography The blog of Robert Kozinets, USC communication/marketing professor

April 4, 2009

Why the G20 Protests Matter

One of the blogs about the G20 (, posted on, argued that “The G20 needs better protestesters.”

The author, Edward Hadas, argues that in the current time of great need we are lacking badly-needed insights.

“The global mismanagement of the financial system has led to a deep recession. Intellectual paralysis has gripped the authorities and their policy response has been risky. After such failure, the political leaders gathered in London for the G-20 conference deserve a serious challenge. Sadly, all they are getting are the senseless slogans of a hippie festival.”

There’s the logical leap. Mr. Hadas decries the “intellectual paralysis” and the risky policies of governments who really don’t have any precedent for the current sociocultural-economic conditions. I agree wholeheartedly, and have been writing about those conditions for a while now.

But expecting protesters to offer up “a serious challenge” to politicians engaged at the conference is entirely missing the point. Are they going to present a serious policy recommendation? It would be wonderful and terrific is they would. Gathered together under a single banner, represented by a single articulate voice, the protesters could say “here’s the way out, implement these policies and you will save they world.” But how likely is that?

But the authors insists on looking for the unlikely, and then chiding the protesters when he doesn’t find it. So, taking a look at whether there is anything substantial or comprehensive being protested, Hadas argues that there isn’t anything meaningful there. It’s naive. It’s vacuous. It’s full of simplistic sloganeering. It lacks “a new intellectual framework.”

The author concludes: “Protesters who look like they just want a street party aren’t likely to be up to the challenge. Sadly, the more intellectually sophisticated Left seems to be hardly more capable of helping out. Any protester who can articulate a coherent alternative to the establishment’s tattered notions really could change the world.

Mr. Hadas, I wonder, is that what protests are for? Is that how social movements begin: the protesters articulate a coherent ideology, a new social vision, and then present it to the government, who enacts it?

Of course not. That’s ridiculous, and even more naive that the actions ascribed to the G20 protests. Why is Mr. Hadas insisting (and why do so many others insist) on judging the success of a protest based on what it “looks like”? The WTO Seattle Protests were a success based not on what they looked like, certainly not on their use of violence, but, I believe, because they showed a discontent underground, a cultural and subcultural current, that there are still people out there who don’t like the current system and who are organizing to try to change it.

One fascinating thing that these protests show, and one big reason why they matter, is their use of new technology. CNN ran a very interesting story about the use of information and communications technology tools by protesters at the G20 in London, and how authorities tried to use the same technologies to stay ahead of the protesters (thanks to Ece Ilhan for sending this to me). This protest, like Seattle before it, and others, was a manifestation of Net guru Howard Rheingold’s idea of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, a type of Smart Mobilization of mobs-within-crowds.

Do these protests matter? Are they significant?

Protests are symbolic acts of systemic resistance. They are groups of people who are displaying their unhappiness with entire social systems. They aren’t meant to articulate detailed policy recommendations or ideological statements. Their cultural contribution is images of angry crowds, of “the people” acting against hegemonic power in a general way, sounds bites and placards and images.

What we get are images. And images are powerful. In our culture, they are probably the most powerful articulations of all.

Look at these G20 images.


With the double peace sign (face-ainted in eco-green, of course), I guess it’s easy to see how this group could be linked to tthe generation of the hippies and the 1960s. But that simple fact isn’t enough to dismiss this protest, or these protesters. Instead, we might note, as a number of intellectuals have already noted, the lasting impact of the 1960s and the types of resistance that were pioneered during that time, the many social movements that have changed, and continue to change, the world. Images of hippies? Yes. Is that a problem? Only if you judge using kneejerk reactions, rather than carefully understanding why the metaphors and tropes of ’60s radicalism still hold power over four decades later. Read the sign, not just the signs.


Here’s another trope that leads to the “Street Party” dismissal. We see nudity and body emphasis, masks and drumming and dance at a lot of these protests. Why? Because they are about over-civilization. They are about machine culture. They are about ideology, and one of modern activism’s greatest weapons is the invocation of primitivism. It is primitivism that gives protest a lot of its power (and its appeal). I’ve written about this under the guise of tribes, and in my research on Burning Man. This is a very important relationship.


Here’s another powerful, ubiquotous protests image: good versus evil, and the demons among us. As Jay Handelman and I wrote in our 2004 JCR on Consumer Activism, the roots of a lot of consumer activism (and of social movements and activism in general in America) draw from religious, moral roots. This image creates a spectral, haunting, looming demon out of American dollar bills, to try to draw attention to that ancient root of all evils in the world: money, capital, and the systems that sustain it. Channeling fear, hatred, and anger in this way doesn’t follow a logical, intellectual process. Instead, it draws on instinctive reactions, to try to mobilize and to shock into a new form of (moral) awareness. Images like this, which are artistic, religious, and visceral, show that this is not a “mere” street party or hippie celebration.

Its about the Visualization, Stupid

Here’s a key visual. It’s an image. It says something is wrong. It says the system isn’t working. It is encouraging us not to simply patch up or fix the current system, but to thing about what could be. To envision another world. The world of the possible. This is the essence of social movements. Images of discontent. Intimations of a better way.

First, come the protests. Then comes the organizing, the consensus building, the ideology construction, the alternative-weighing, and finally the policy recommending and politicking and movement making. It doesn’t happen all at once.

We’re seeing the front end of the wave. Don’t expect finished work. But it is up to all of us to take these initial forays and work on them. We can ask ourselves if the system is working or not. And if it isn’t, then we need to ask ourselves what each of us can do to imagine a possible world that is better.

February 7, 2009

Article Summaries and Word Clouds: Comparing Texts

We got some great comments and suggestions following those word cloud postings. Thank you, Lois, Pablo, Magda, Domen and Bob. If you, Gentle BlogReader and Devoted Brandthroposophist, are interested in this topic, you may want to check out these comments for some excellent sites, software, and truly fascinating (and very *kewl,* too….) things that people are doing with word clouds.

I was continuing my curious curiousity, investigating to see how we might be able to get a textual snapshop, a visual-verbal comparison of comparable texts if the texts were articles (not, as before, inauguration speeches)? So just for fun, I plugged in three of my more well-known articles. Those articles are the one on online communities I wrote for the European Management Journal, the one I wrote about netnography for the Journal of Marketing Research, and the one I wrote about Burning Man for the Journal of Consumer Research.

Let’s look at the abstracts of the articles first. If you are interested in digging further into these and don’t have access, I also provide the citation and a link to a pdf copy of the article so that you can read it.

  • Kozinets, Robert V. (1999), “E-Tribalized Marketing? The Strategic Implications of Virtual Communities of Consumption,” European Management Journal, 17 (3), 252-264. I’ve already linked to this one from this prior posting.
    • Abstract: On the Internet, virtual communities structured around consumer interests have been growing rapidly. To be effective in this new environment, managers must consider the strategic implications of the existence of different types of both virtual community and community participation. Contrasted with database-driven relationship marketing, marketers seeking success with consumers in virtual communities should consider that that they: (1) are more active and discerning; (2) are less accessible to one-one-one processes, and (3) provide a wealth of valuable cultural information. Strategies for effectively targeting more desirable types of virtual communities and types of community members include: interaction-based segmentation, fragmentation-based segmentation, co-opting communities, paying-for-attention, and building networks by giving products away.
  • Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “The Field Behind the Screen: Using Netnography for Marketing Research in Online Communities,” Journal of Marketing Research, 39 (February), 61-72.
    • Abstract: This article develops netnography as an online marketing research technique for providing consumer insight. Netnography is market-oriented ethnography conducted on virtual communities dedicated to marketing-relevant topics. As a method, netnography is faster, simpler, and less expensive than ethnography, and more naturalistic and unobtrusive than focus groups or interviews. It provides information on the symbolism, meanings, and consumption patterns of online consumer groups. Guidelines are provided that acknowledge the online environment, respect the inherent flexibility and openness of ethnography, and provide rigor and ethics in the conduct of marketing research. As an illustrative example, a netnography of an online coffee newsgroup is provided and its marketing implications discussed.
  • Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 20-38.
    • Abstract: This ethnography explores the emancipatory dynamics of the Burning Man project, a one-week long anti-market event. Practices used at Burning Man to distance consumers from the market include discourses supporting communality and disparaging market logics, alternative exchange practices, and positioning consumption as self-expressive art. Findings reveal several communal practices that distance consumption from broader rhetorics of efficiency and rationality. Although Burning Man’s participants materially support the market, they successfully construct a temporary hypercommunity from which to practice divergent social logics. Escape from the market, if possible at all, must be conceived of as similarly temporary and local.

And here are are word clouds:

e-tribalized cloud

I think it’s pretty easy at a glance to tell which article is which.

Is this proof of ‘face validity’? Cloud validity?

Field cloud

Which one could that be?

burning cloud

Now, these are all solo-authored pieces that I wrote while I was an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. You would think that my style wouldn’t change that much between them. The different journals and their editorial stances and policies, even their copy-editors, of course, would have an impact on the word choices. I know that EMJ kept my dradt mainly intact, without adding or taking away very much at all. With the netnography article for JMR, there were a lot of “helpful” ‘suggestions’ by reviewers (I think I will post about the process for this article soon), and in the end they insisted that I put the word “netnography” in quotes throughout the entire article, which seemed pretty intrusive to me (I’m surprised those quotation marks aren’t the biggest things in the word cloud!). The key seems to be in the topic matter, which was quite different, and those nouns, that topical content, does seem to be what “floats to the top” with this method.

Playing and thinking with these word clouds has been interesting and it’s delightful visual fun, too. It’s cool that you can almost see my “research stream” and focal theoretical concerns–community, culture, social, consumption– in the common words among the three clouds. The differences come out, too–emancipation, marketing, research, relationship. I wish I’d had this insight (and the tool that brought it) when I was struggling to write my research statement.

I welcome your analyses of these article clouds. Bring em on. Are there silver linings, or even ‘golden nuggets,’ in these clouds, do you think? Or are we just ‘cloud-gazing’?

August 18, 2008

Synchronistic Science: Ilium and Me

Jung, Zeus, or God–take your pick

I’m still planning to write some stuff about the CCT conference last month, but I just wanted to share something strange with you. As some of you know, I started this blog, and named it, based on the sense that what is missing from a lot of the discussions about marketing and consumer culture is a deeper appreciation for the sacred, even mystical, elements of marketplaces and consumption.

I’ve been writing a lot about this lately in my own idea journals, and will have a lot more of this topic to share with you in future blog postings and other writings. I think something is in the air. A number of my colleagues in England and Italy are researching and writing about the connection between magic (as in nature magic, paganism, witchcraft) and marketing. John Sherry and I have written a bit about neo-paganism and neo-shamanism, building on the work of anthropologists like Graham St. John (whose excellent blog is here).

We have barely even begun raising the topic of the mystical and magical side of markets, marketing, and consumption. Not in the “symbolic” or “consumers think this is sacred” sense, but in the way that Jung would write about the Mystical-as a genuine Force operating in the world.

This brings me to my little story.

Do you remember over a year ago I posted the original story that I wrote for the Brown and Sherry “Time, Space and the Market: Retroscapes Rising” volume? An unpublished science fiction story that combined my ethnographic research on Burning Man, but developed it within the literary framework of a science fiction story? Here’s an internal link to the beginning of that post on Super Hyper Ultra Post-postmodern Primitives.

Now, I had posted that post (and written that chapter, originally) as an illustration of the variety of resonant forms of representation that were possible in marketing and consumer research.

But something really pretty freakishly weird just happened.

In that story, written and submitted in December of 2001 (as John Sherry and Stephen Brown would attest), I set myself up autobiographically, as myself a professor in a Midwestern university (Northwestern’s Kellogg), but I cast the tale in the far future. I had been forcefully reincarnated using future technology, my consciousness and memory brought back into a physical body by people in the future who had need of my scholarly ability. These people, future groups of warring tribes, in fact, had need of my knowledge of Burning Man. Which sets up the tale and allow me to position my ethnographic reflections on Burning Man as a retroscape, a place that evokes the primitive past even though it also partakes in a timeless sense of the future.

Okay, that was kind of fun and I liked the result. Here’s the weird part.

Ilium by Dan Simmons–with altered colorschemeI recently started reading the book Ilium by one of my favorite science fiction authors, Dan Simmons. In the book, godlike people in the future forcefully reincarnate a Midwestern professor in order to use his scholarly abilities for their own purposes.

Reading that was totally strange. It was almost the exact same idea of using professors from the past and bringing them into the future for the purposes of these future people. I was really struck by that Jungian synchronicity, that unexpected concordance.

Synchronicity, if you aren’t aware of the concept, was Carl Jung’s word for coincidences that are just too strange to be coincidences. Too weird, or repeating, patterned, or just so weirdly impossible that they give us a sense that everything in reality (“reality” or, maybe, Reality?) is connected somehow by forces larger than ourselves (cue Twilight Zone music, right?). It suggests a different notion of causality, a causality linked by meaning rather than brute physical elements.

The story gets odder.

As I’m reading this book about the reincarnated professor in the far future, I come across page 76. Some of the characters are trying to locate a strange, ancient woman, and are asking one character, named Daeman, about her.

“Where did you meet her?” asked Ada.

“The last Burning Man. A year and a half ago….Lost Age ceremonies never interested me very much, but there were many fascinating young women at this gathering.”

“I was there” Hannah said, her eyes bright. “About ten thousand people came.”

Burning Man? In the far future? I did a double, then a triple take when I read that, my heartbeat loud in my ears.

What the heck was going on here?

This was just a pileup of coincidences. A causal connection and concordance of meaning. Consider these facts:

  1. Both science fiction stories are set in the far, far future.
  2. The central character in the book is Thomas Hockenberry, a future-science reincarnated professor from the Midwest. My story’s central character is Robert Kozinets, a future science-reincarnated professor from the Midwest.
  3. Both stories involve the idea of “posts.” In my story this is a post-postmodern primitivism that deeply involves the sacred. In Ilium “posts” are post-humans who sponsor a type of primitivism involving ancient gods.
  4. Burning Man plays a peripheral role in Ilium, but a central role in my story. But this book is probably the only major science fiction book I know of that involve Burning Man at all. Burning Man in the far, far future. AND for some strange reason it occurs alongside the reincarnated Midwestern professor thing, just like my story.
  5. The Ilium book was first published in 2003. That is two years after I wrote my story. There was no way I could have seen it before. The Retroscapes book was finally published in 2003 as well (with the edited, amended chapter, which had the science fiction elements excised.

Maybe the creepiest thing, the creepy coup de grace that sent a shiver down my spine is this. I started reading this book during the Olympics. Not intentionally, really, but maybe all of the Greek references in the book made it a bit more attractive to me during this time. It has lots of Olympian references, because it is about Greek gods living on Olympos Mons on Mars and an incredible re-enactment of the Homer’s Iliad.

I just went back to bookmark and re-read the sections on the story that I posted on the blog. And then I find Renan Wagner’s old comment post at the end of my story where he talk about being “in ancient Olympia” taking a course on “Olympic Studies.” And then he links up the Olympic Games, a giant burn, the lack of a marketplace, and Burning Man. Just like the book does.

This is just too weird.

Now, if you believe me that I did indeed write this story in 2001, and that I didn’t read Ilium before I wrote it, how would you explain these convergences? Doesn’t this seem to be too much intersection and patterning of meaning to be a random coincidence?

What’s your explanation? Am I missing something? Or is this just the way the universe winks at us and tells us that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye?

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