Monthly Archives: August 2007

Burning Man Gets Bocked!

Holy Smoke! Some trickster torched Burning Man last night. The SF Chronicle apparently picked up the story first. And now it’s making its way through the national and international press.

Paul David Addis, a 35-year old “artist” and resident of San Francisco started the blaze at 2:58am last night, according to the Chronicle. Said dude was booked on felony charges of arson and destruction of property. He also was booked for resisting a public officer. And, my fave, for possession of fireworks. He posted $25,632 bail and was released Tuesday afternoon from the Pershing County Jail in Lovelock, Nevada (whose mugshot appears to the left here). He has one of the better mug shots, I must admit. How did they allow him to pose like this?

Now, what happened here?

Some of the best reportage on the story I’ve seen is by RU Sirius on the 10ZenMonkeys blog. RU interviewed the arsonist in question on the blog several weeks ago, and even quotes him today dissing Burning Man as “toothless and wallowing in its own muck and irrelevant to anyone or anything” So why go to the time and trouble of going to the event? And getting arrested at it. Usually, sane people ignore things they consider irrelevant. They torch things that they consider relevant, and despicable.

The 10ZenMonkeys story seems to link up the recent decision of Larry Harvey and the Burning Man organization to allow corporate demonstrations with protests of the event this year (apparently, like Addis’s). Addis also apparently had a history of dissing the restrictiveness of the principles and rules governing the event and Larry Harvey’s management of the event. So the story suggests that maybe maybe there was a mistrust of the marketizing of Burning Man this year that motivated this act of resistance and arson?

A Burning Man ranger with the hairy name of Ranger Sasquatch is widely quotes as saying that this is an act of “an attention whore has made a plea for attention.” Hey, it’s an attention economy. Prematurely burning down the man is good for a big what of publicity.

Then, there’s the kicker. The 10ZenMonkeys story features and details Addis’ new one-man show where he portrays, wait for it, that great gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson. The story ends with a cryptic statement: “Then again, it is also true that Addis’ one-man show is poised for a West Coast tour.” RU, RU serious? RU ever? Are you really suggesting that this guy did this act as a promotional stunt? To make himself famous? To market his one-man show? Hmmmm.

A few years ago, my colleagues Sven Bergvall and Jacob Östberg made a film called “Burning Bock” that chronicles the annual burning of a goat-shaped straw figure in Gavle Sweden. The problem with the event in recent years is that it has turned into a contest between official organizers and the public to see who can manage to burn the goat first. Repeatedly, people have simply been too tempted by the goat, and set it alight themselves before the official ceremony. Although everyone is bummed out when it happens, it makes for a lively drama, lots of guarding and covert watching of the goat, and lots of smirking and tongue-clicking when some new jackass sets the thing alight. And guess what? The person who burns it ends up with their name in the press, immortalized. Hey, it’s way less than murder rap. And it provides almost the full fame content. In th attention economy thats a cost-benefit ratio that’s hard to beat.

Burning Man just got Bocked. Bigtime. As in, “Hey, you bocked my candle!” or, “Be careful with that lighter, you nearly bocked that pack of cigarettes.” Or, maybe even more generally (use your imagination here), “Ooops, I bocked.”

The question now is whether this will turn into a pattern or not. Whether there will need to be a full-time Ranger force guarding the Man. Or whether there will be an electrified perimeter fence set up around the man. Or a plexiglass display case. Maybe the Man could be burnt in a remote and undisclosed location, and the image of the burn transmitted live by satellite to Black Rocky City. Or maybe there will be vigilante forces that will guard the man around the clock, or hunt down those who burn it. Or a set of spare Men could be constructed for such emergencies, so that when one Man burns another is simply pulled out of storage. I kind of like that image.

So there are lots of solutions. I’m resting assured that the good folks at BMOrg will opt for the less oppressive ones.

It’s certainly relevant that even before the ashes have cooled, Burning Man’s organizers have pledged to rebuild the effigy in two (count e’m, just two) days. Their news release, posted on their website, conspicuously depersonalizes the event, apparently seeking to minimize the potential fame accruing to the perp.

And I think that’s the even more interesting story. This isn’t just about individual fame. It’s about community in crisis. Challenges faced. Building the Man only to freshly burn him down again, officially, because that’s the point. The Eternal Return.

For those of you interested in further delving, I recommend the LaughingSquid’s coverage of the event, including the debates about how cool or uncool is this act that runs counter to the counterculture. Me? I’m with the side that sees this as an act of attention-getting vandalism plain and simple (I really hope it wasn’t intentional self-promotion). Burning Man isn’t about anything goes (although it came from that history). It’s often about creating a social movement that respects people, their communities, and their rights. It’s not really contrarian; it’s utopian. Destruction for the sake of destruction (or self-promotion) isn’t about any of these things. In the year when Burning Man is supposed to be contemplating how we treat the Earth, what does this act say about how we can collectively and individually behave ourselves to reverse the damage already done and the monumental destructive momentum we’ve built up?
Or maybe, just maybe it’s even more important to notice how we are responding to the act.

The Other Interstitial Marketing

The Dread Interstitial Dimension

In common ecommerce, webvertising parlance, “interstitial marketing” refers to an advertisement that loads between two content pages, such as a pop-up ad or those full-page ad that run on many sites before you want to watch a film or video. Interstitials are about interrupting your web experience, very similar to broadcast media interrupting your experience with advertising.

I’m not talking about those interstitial ads. The word interstices can refer to a small or narrow space or amount of time. I think in marketing our theorizing tends to stick with big, permanent structures far too much. I think we should start to think about the dynamism of marketing, seeing how things constantly change.

I’d like to suggest that a new Interstitial Marketing is Marketing that exploits the opportunities in rapidly closing gaps between needs and market structures. It is the filling in on the fly of a constantly moving gap. Oftentimes, that gap is created when market needs change, but larger corporations can’t act quickly enough to fill it. So often small companies do it. Or it may be created when legal or infrastructural elements are changing and only smaller or more rapidly moving entities can respond quickly enough to exploit it. Can you say Napster? Or google? Or wikipedia? And so on.

The idea of an “opportunity” or a “gap” is a bit deceiving here. It isn’t something that necessarily already exists “out there” for companies to jump into. It’s often a co-creation. The entrepreneurial company suggests. Consumer groups respond to it, and suggest changes. The small, quyick-moving company makes adaptations. The dance happens rapidly, sort of like the big, slow-moving guy watching the nimble footloose young kid steal his girl away at the prom. And before you know it, they’re dancing perfectly together, attuned for a glorious moment in time. And often, that’s all they get. And all they need.

My friend and colleague Graham St. John is an anthropologist who studies Interstices all over the world where dance, music, and protest combine. In socially unguarded spaces and in openings, such as the Australian outback, or Greek beaches, or the streets of Berlin, parties happen as people congregate into communal forms that are temporary, activist, and celebratory all at once. I’ve used some of Graham’s ideas and played with this notion of temporary but strongly-bound community in the past, calling the concept “hypercommunity.”

I recommend Graham’s blog and his work in general. He is a brilliant anthropologist and is working in a fascinating area. He wrote me recently and his comments midwifed this idea of a new view of Interstitial Marketing. He said that he suspects “that developers seek to profit from the window that opens between product availability and crack (and the latter often circulate within small communities of hackers for a long time) with companies keen to keep the whacked product/software under the rug at all costs.” I think he’s absolutely right with this specific observation, and with a more general extrapolation from it. Our theories of marketing and consumer behavior are not really attuned to these rapidly moving, temporal, chase and catch and new chase begins sorts of market behaviors, their vitality and dynamism. And in this age of Internet-based communal acceleration, they really should be.

Consumption Studies

Several years ago, I began writing about a new project that sought to re-envision some of what we do as consumer researchers. Although the way I did it may have been flawed and overly ambitious, I’m going to use this blog to try to reformulate some of those ideas, and I’d enjoy hearing any interesting thoughts and contributions to this l’il project. The central idea is to formulate a type of Consumption Studies that acknowledges the diversity of approaches to studying consumers and consumptions. The initial ideas came before the more theoretically-inclined reformulation of interpretive consumer behavior into Consumer Culture Theory, but they compatible with that orientation, although intentionally a bit broader.

My reformulation starts at the beginning of the field of consumer research. In the mid-1980s, the field of consumer research saw a flurry of new activity marking the appearance of anthropological (Sherry 1987), “naturalistic inquiry” (Hirschman 1986; Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988) and semiotic (Mick 1986) disciplines and methods, and other “alternative ways of knowing” (Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Over time, these have been developed and joined by existential-phenomenology (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989), various forms of literary criticism (Stern 1989, 1993, 1996; Scott 1994), introspection (Gould 1991, Holbrook 1995), autodriving (Heisley and Levy 1991) and other projective techniques (e.g., Heisley, Levy and McGrath 1993), critical theory (Hetrick and Lozada 1994, Murray and Ozanne 1991), historical methods (Smith and Lux 1993), feminist theory (e.g., Bristor and Fischer 1993, Fischer and Bristor 1994), postmodern perspectives (Firat and Venkatesh 1995) and hermeneutics (e.g., Arnold and Fischer 1994).

The successful development of this diverse group of analytic frameworks and methods within consumer research has generated its own set of problems. Although all were once (and by many, still are) viewed as “alternative” (Hudson and Ozanne 1991), each particular area contains diverse and complex discursive and investigative traditions. For instance, variants of ethnography within consumer research have included not only naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988) but impressionist (Sherry 1997), “critical” (Peñaloza 1994), and “retextualized” ethnography (Thompson, Stern and Arnould 1998). Under the rubric of apparently uniform doctrines such as semiotics lurk very different traditions, texts and techniques (Mick 1998).

If one digs deeper, one can find that even disparate ontologies and epistemologies can seek shelter under the same disciplinary bridge. It has become more and more difficult as these inquiries grow in popularity and complexity to identify commonalities across their disciplinary and discursive boundaries that can guide their coordination into multimethod research, so as to achieve truly interdisciplinary, rather than merely multidisciplinary, studies (Ferber 1977, Wells 1993).

That elusive quest for interdisciplinarity is important to consumer research. If knowledge claims exclude useful forms of understanding and methods that are not in their purview, stultification, debilitation and the lack of relevance will result (Wells 1993).

Interdisciplinarity provides increased opportunities for communication across scholarly fields, unexpected discoveries and tangible social benefits.

A philosophical argument might also be considered. Assume that there are different and equally relevant forms of knowledge into which different methods tap (and these are points that I will explore in depth as this argument unfolds). If we accept as true that other forms of knowledge offer relevant contributions, then a purist’s approach to methodological rigor is relativistically invalidated by equally relevant research approaches founded in different domains. It is surpassed, it would seem logical to assume, by those more multidimensional, multiperspectival and inclusive approaches that can meaningfully account for the types of knowledge elided by singularizing approaches. That’s the argument I’m going to further here—that broader views are better. Of course, the tradeoff is that broader may not necessarily be more accurate or replicable. But if the broader view can encompass the replicability of the narrower view, and expand on it, then it seems to be offering more towards the objective of understanding on every level.

The terrain whose interdisciplinarity this article seeks to explore is not the entire field proper of consumer research. Rather, it is focused on a more delimited territory of contextual inquiry which we might term Consumption Studies. Deploying Sherry’s (1995) useful terminology, we can unite the plenitude of above-mentioned studies by classifying them as forms of contextual inquiry.

Contextual inquiries examine and represent the complexity and plurality of the social and cultural world in a relatively non-reductive manner that attends to its realistic and naturalistic embedding in multiple contexts. Contextual inquiries specifically devoted to consumption-related topics could fall under the heading of Consumption Studies. The term is intended to indicate that these inquiries are not constrained by nomenclature to the overt behavior of individual consumers but drawn, instead, to the multifaceted, shared, and even contradictory sets of meanings, practices, consequences and identities that contemporary consumption –or perhaps, in more properly pluralistic fashion, consumptions—entails (see, e.g., duGay et al 1997, McCracken 1997, Thompson and Haytko 1997).

Consumption Studies, therefore, examines the cultural, societal, moral and phenomenological aspects of consumption. They explore, describe and analyze the rich content and linkages of cultural identities and consumption practices, of consumption objects and social meanings, of the macrosocial and ethical concerns associated with marketing and consumption in a commercial culture. They need not specify causal linkages, but they can, and often do.

It is well worth noting that I am going out of my way with this definition of contextual inquiry not to automatically exclude analyses based upon quantitative data, nor to automatically include all research based upon qualitative data. The focus here is on topic and orientation. I am being extremely inclusive and, again, those are treacherous waters for academics to be treading in. Particular methodologies and forms of data are more suited to and more commonly accompany particular research philosophies. However, if quantitative methods (such as, say multidimensional scales, causal models, and detailed survey analysis) were to focus upon the complexity and plurality of consumption contexts as they naturalistically occur, they clearly could be, or at least be a part of, the contextual inquiries of which I speak.

Currently, our multidisciplinary (but not, generally speaking, interdisciplinary) field operates without a thorough map of the sprawling subdivision of Consumption Studies. This is true more of its methods than of its topics, which I think are pretty thoroughly summed up in Arnould and Thompson’s (2005) amazing article on Consumer Culture Theory (or, as they later named it, Theoretics; see Arnould and Thompson 2007).

Researchers seem to be approaching contextual inquiry as if it were composed of numerous, methodologically distinct subdivisions, when in fact it can be viewed in an equally complex, but considerably more unified fashion. To facilitate the conjuncture of diverse contextual inquiry programs and methods, as this discuss proceeds I am going to aim for a generally comprehensive purview of this sub-field of Consumption Studies, but exclude other types of inquiry which do not attend to the richness of multiple contexts in naturalistic, cultural and phenomenological modes of inquiry.

Again, my goal is inclusion. The intention here is not to suggest any sort of hierarchization of Consumption Studies above other forms of consumer research, which are often extremely useful for establishing causal linkages and descriptions of processes (versus those of content). These other methods of investigation are equally worthwhile. They are excluded from the purview of this article because their linkage with Consumption Studies faces considerable epistemological obstacles.

An interdisciplinary Consumption Studies would provide for the theorizing of the consumption of research alongside the research of consumption, the business of research production alongside the research of business production and the meaning of consumption research alongside the research of consumption meaning (see, e.g., Peter and Olson 1983; this is one of my favorite marketing articles of all time).

It might signal a ripening within the field of consumer research, demonstrating a willingness to actively engage and combine the multiplicity of complex, contradictory and –even within their own native academic terrains—fragmented and hotly contested paradigmatic analytical frameworks and methods. It would seek not to water down theories and methods in order to merge them, but to sharpen them through critical awareness of their subtleties, oppositions and links. The result would be an outline not of the monologic convergence or brutal integration of methods, but the ways in which their most useful elements can be intentionally used to further understanding of consumption through contextual inquiry.

Seeking a more paradigmatically encompassing approach, Hudson and Ozanne (1988) have previously identified four alternative approaches for incorporating diverse research programs and methods within consumer research:

(1) a supremacy approach that seeks the superiority of one approach,
(2) a naïve synthesizing approach that ignores differences in underlying foundations,
(3) a dialectic approach which applies the methods with an appreciation for their divergent philosophical foundations, and
(4) a relativistic alternative.

Exemplifying a supremacy position, Shelby Hunt (1991) proposed “scientific realism” to amalgamate all consumer research –alternative or not—in a conceptual framework based in correspondence or triangulation with “objective reality.” Paul Anderson’s (1986) influential “critical relativism” outlined the logic for viewing scientific knowledge as consensual agreement among members of a research community and propounded that methodologically divergent consumer research approaches be considered “incommensurable,” and uniquely evaluated vis a vis “their unique modes of production and their methods of justification” (p. 156). Left underdeveloped and unrealized by this polarizing polemic was the abstruse yet obviously appealing option of a dialectic approach.

I want to see how far we can go in developing this dialectic option. In so doing, the arranged marriage of reluctant epistemic partners is a pragmatic necessity. In the days and probably weeks following, interspersed by whatever turns my crank enough to enter it into the blogosphere, I’m going to overview this conjugal arrangement in Consumption Studies by exploring the continuum-like properties of a range of ostensibly dichotomized polarities. First I want to apply a philosophical insight that dates from Plato’s time to identify three distinct but interrelated ways to investigate and understand consumptions. Then I want to explore corresponding methods and their intersections. Depending on how this goes, I may provide my original and somewhat lengthy (but still unpublished) example of an interdisciplinary contextual inquiry that examines the consumption meanings of high technology products in order to illustrate the approach. That example was later expanded into an article that is upcoming in JCR, quite an interesting expansion that I may elaborate a little bit. Finally, and hopefully with some assistance from other thinkers in (and out?) of our field, I’d like to offer up some implications for future research in Consumption Studies.

So that starts this little Consumption Studies ball a’rolling…..


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Bifurcating Religions in Star Wars Fandom

Jar Jar Fish

I don’t know how many of you are reading the comments to this blog, but some of them are really spectacular, and I’ve been commenting upon them myself a number of times.

Faithful reader and Marketing Professor Jeff Podoshen, of Franklin & Marshall College (…is that a place to study fandom or what?) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania recently wrote a short confessional in response to one of my blog entries about fandom. I thought it was great. So great that I’m going to excerpt some of it here. He is referring to a Journal of Marketing article in which my co-authors and I analyzed Star Wars fans who wrote about Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and absolutely skewered its authenticity.

    I’m probably one of those fans who postings you read. Now, up until SW Ep 1 I probably spent about $10k on the SW brand lifetime prior to Ep 1 launch. Yeah, its a lot. (FYI – my kitchen to this day features SW curtains) I waited in line for hours to see Ep 1 the night it opened. I thought it sucked Bantha poodoo. I went again the next morning just to make sure… yeah it sucked. After SW Ep 1, I was extremely upset and felt like hitting Lucas over the head with a shovel. He ripped my still beating heart right out of me…. like in Indiana Jones. I remember going home, looking at all my SW collection and feeling like a total sucker. Total dejection. Ep 2 was slightly better, but not great. Ep 3 was slightly better than 2 and lots better than 1, but still generally sucky. After Ep 3 I realized that there were really TWO SW brands. The first was the authentic SW brand – which featured characters and concepts from the original trilogy and there was also the “new” brand.In order to make peace with myself and not have the “magic” of SW ruined I decided to pretend that SW Eps 1-3 just plain didn’t exist. I purged myself of all Ep 1-3 merchandise (which nobody will actually buy – I took it all to a shelter… I wonder if they just tossed it) and decided to pretend that after Jedi – that was it. Quite honestly, I feel much better about it now. I still do buy new SW merchandise, but ONLY if it has no references to Eps 1-3. Today, on the brand community that I am a part of – there are places for those who collect only Original (OT) stuff, those who collect only New (PT) stuff and those who collect both. There is little interaction between the groups of collectors in the one community. In fact, when a PT person jumps into a OT thread, they’re immediately flamed – and the mod has to step in. The opposite is also true. The lines are pretty clear. Hasbro, the license holder of SW created a huge issue when the re-issued the Stormtrooper action figure with removable helmet. The Stormtrooper of course is OT – but the head under the helmet in this new fig was a clone head – from Ep 2. We were all torn as to whether or not to purchase this figure – it was a great sculpt, but sacreligious. Most of us agreed we could buy the fig, but never ever take the helmet off.

To me, this just smacks of the religion analogy. Fandom and hermeneutics have some much in common. In some of my earlier writings about Star Trek fandom, I used a great quote by legendary SF writer Frederick Pohl (1984) who compared fan culture to the culture of “Cellar Christians”

    It is very difficult to explain science-fiction [fandom] to anyone who has never experienced it. The closest analogy, perhaps, might be to the “cellar Christians” of pagan Rome, small, furtive groups of believers, meeting in secret, shunned or even attacked by outsiders, or as fans came to call them, the “mundanes.”

But this isn’t an insider versus outsider division that Jeff is talking about. It is the far-more-interesting insider-versus-insider division, and it also has a generational element to it. To me, this is the Old Testament believers and the New Testament believers. The New Testament believers see the New Testament as fulfilling the prophesies and promise of the Old Testament. The Old Testament believers see the New Testament as a recent work not actually bearing the sacred qualities of being written by God. As Jeff puts it, there is the old, sacred, perfect “authentic” brand, and then there’s the new brand. And never the two shall meet. Unless them meet across a sea of “flames” (which I find very satisfyingly Biblical as well).

His posting is wonderfully rich with Jeff’s emotional relation with the Star Wars text—it doesn’t get much more emotional than having the alleged Dark Creator (now sort of like a Phildickian evil god toying with his creations and the pawns in his universe) rip a still beating heart from the fan’s chest, a Dark Mayan sacrifice if ever there was one.

Buying the beautiful new figure, but keeping its helmet always on is just such a perfect, wonderful ritual gesture. It’s like a form of sacrament, a practice that marks one group of believers from another.

Jeff, you should really write about this stuff. It’s so evocative and powerful coming from you. But I also have to say that I wonder what the future holds for fans. My kids see no differences between the old and new texts at all. To them, they are all Star Wars. And I sense that as this generation moves through, that’s the New Order that will prevail. Those who hang onto the sanctity of the original Star Wars texts (even, gasp, those texts as they originally appeared before Dark Sacrifice-Demanding Mayan gods tampered with their scenes, special effects, and titles) are, quite probably, a dying breed. Yet another old religion, slowly fading to black….

Seven Reasons Why Burning Man is now at the Tipping Point

Is Burning Man fading out or about to hit the mainstream, selling out or growing up? It seems like this is the biggest year yet for debates about the (ir)relevance of the greatest countercultural events of our times. So I thought I’d continue to chime in with a little list.

I remember in the 1990s being fascinated with a field of science called “Catastrophe Theory” that often got lumped in with the (then) emerging science of Chaos and Complexity Theory . Malcolm Gladwell later used and popularized a lot of this material to write the monster bestseller The Tipping Point, but the basic idea was that at a certain point you would see a rare phenomenon become dramatically more common. In sociological terms, the tipping point is when a trend, belief, or practice moves from a small, underground, subcultural types of phenomenon to the mainstream. The idea of a tipping point is of course very interesting to marketers, who all want to take little brands and businesses and make them universally accepted. Word of mouth marketing is based on this idea of targeting influential or influencers and then riding the wave to mass acceptance.

With a lot of naysayers decrying that Burning Man has finally, truly, really-really jumped the shark this year, I’m going to go contrarian. This year might mark the biggest transition yet between Burning Man as an one-week long event, and Burning Man as a Utopian Social Project, as a cresting manifestation of a Social Movement or, even better, a New Social Movement in itself.

Here are the Reasons I think Burning Man is at the tipping point, heading for mainstream infiltration, and ready for prime time.

#1. Solid Ideology: 10 Principles. Forget memes, they are determinist and inflexible. Ideologies have always been the way to go: complex, compact, portable, contagious, and complete; ideologies are promiscuous and intermarry, but stay loyal to their bloodlines. Burning Man has a polished and solid ideology developed from a range of intellectual locales such as Situationism and Surrealism but branching it with different New Left Movements. Check it out. Ten internally consistent countercultural commandments “principles that guide our regional communities” but that were developed in the Black Rock desert crucible as if it were some sort of social R&D lab: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. These are values to guide behavioral change on the individual, small group, and communal level. From a social movement perspective, that’s a key ingredient.

#2. The Spores of Diaspora: The Regional Burn Network. How do you nail down ideology and make it come alive in daily life? With Rituals and Practices, dudes and dudessas. Burning Man is nothing if not ritualistic. There’s the honkin’ big Burn o’ the Man, but there’s also the more sombre and introspective Temple Burn. Then there are all the behaviors, the costuming and performance art and self-expression that bring to life the ideology. Burning Man participants have been linking up online since 1998, but also using that network strategically to connect physically in the meat world. There are 128 “regional contacts” worldwide. Many local contact and communities have organized events that bring the ethos of the Burning Man event to a local level. Often it involved a camping trip to a remote region, striving to leave no trace, some participative theme camp forms, and then a ritual burning of some object: a figure shaped like a chicken, a moose, a cow, whatever. Larry Harvey writes about “a new movement” involving regular local town meetings that organize particular ongoing local projects in cities like Portland and Seattle, and a mentoring of one region with another. Rituals combined with institutionalization. That makes the Burning Man event more than an isolated one-week-long event.

#3. Net Presence: The Burning Man Network. For a while, Burning Man was described as the Internet in physical space. The analogy worked for a while, in the time the Internet was new and different. As a creature of cyberspace and California culture, whose growth has been intimately tied to Silicon Valley and the Information Economy, Burning Man has always used and developed Internet presence to its advantage. Its web-page, contains all you need to know to get to the event, “survive” it, enjoy it, and connect with others on the “eplaya.” It’s a genuine community web-site that leads people seamlessly between where they are now and where Burning Man and its new values can take them. That makes it highly accessible to the mainstream. And an effective tool for keeping the disparate community together for the other 51 weeks of the year when they’re not in the desert. I’ll bet that the site gets a lot of traffic from people who have never been to the event. Burning Man’s DNA contains the new interface between cyberculture and culture-bearing.

#4: Mediated Disintermediation. Burning Man has always been media-friendly and known how to use and manage media contacts and contexts. That’s important for reaching the mainstream. Radio Free Burning Man and a zillion local stations are used locally at the event to broadcast Burning Man news. Now, they can podcast it to the world. Big uncontrollable media like MTV have been held at bay. But Current TV started up a netcast in 2006: TV Free Burning Man. As Larry Harvey said “We’re eager to communicate what we are doing.” Burning Man convinced Current TV to change their business model in order to work with them, further promoting their values out into the mainstream (the value, in case you’re interested, is biggie #3: Decommodification). Current TV gave Burning Man participants cameras so they controlled the content, they erased their logos, and they ran the programs commercial free. From private to communal enterprise, courtesy of Burning Man. And out into the public sphere via mass media distribution.

# 5. The Non-Profit Connection: Burners Without Borders. Taking their cue from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, the humanitarian NGO group of physicians and healthcare workers who practice medicine wherever it is needed regardless of political interests, Burners without Borders took the Burning Man ideals of civic responsibility and communal effort out into the world. In their first project, 299 volunteers spent six months rebuilding and helping to reconstruct some of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina. They also fashioned some of the storm debris into works of art, sculptures that they would later burn in bonfires. The ideals manifest; the rituals performed. See the pattern? Again, away from the event, in other locations. And providing volunteer humanitarian aid, assistance, and relief. The effort has spread: there are Burners without Borders groups now working in Chicago and Reno, and other places.

#6. The Controlled Corporate Experiment: Green Man Pavilion Project. As I’ve written about in another blog entry, Burning Man is experimenting this year with a new form of conceptual art: the repurposed corporation. There will be about 30 different individuals and organization involved contributing “installations” to the Green Man pavilion. Although the majority of these projects have no commercial profile, there are a few smaller entrepreneurs. These brave souls have agreed to bind themselves into a restrictive covenant that would have made The God of Abraham proud. No logos, no branding, no brochures or flyers, no sales reps of any kind. So, for example, people will be able to see a solar carport. The most high-falutin’ display sounds like it will be a huge solar array that is going to power the Man and the pavillion (to which I say: Yay! the alternative is burning a lot of fossil fuel to power them). After Burning Man concludes in fiery spectacle, the company and the Burning Man organization intend to install the solar array in the little Nevada towns of Gerlach and Lovelock to provide clean, renewable power to a public school and hospital, respectively. The little town of Gerlach might become the first American city to create more solar power than it actually consumes. Some have called this year’s experimentation a deal with the devil. It might be also seen as yet another way Burning Man is carefully building the institutional bridges that will move it from an event into a social movement.

#7. Google’s Burning Man Earth. Google and Burning Man have teamed up to bring to live a three-dimensional model of Black Rock City as it actually exists from year to year. You can find an early beta version of the project here that captures Burning Man 2006 in Google Earth format. The grand idea is to bring to life and make accessible to everyone, anywhere, any time, some of the Black Rock City experience. Digitally, people will be able to access and seem to travel down the streets (and presumably even into the portapotties) of Black Rock City. Here’s another interesting part/ They might also be able to make contact with every person who settles into the virtual Burning Man world. It sounds like Second Life, Burning Man style. And I have to note here that Second Life does indeed already have its very own Burning Man event that takes place annually (see pic below from Burning Life). The plan is, yet again, to make the Burning Man ethos, rituals, and even simulated digital experience open to all people everywhere, from a groups of 30 thousand or so in the desert, to something that millions and hundreds of millions of people worldwide can experience and learn from. And the idea within that is to allow direct contact, immediate contact between interested people to happen. And where contact and communication happen, community forms and culture is forged and shared. And then borne anew, like spores.

So that’s my list. Seven reason that the Burning Culture of Burning Man is spreading far beyond the desert, and why I think this year will be the most important year yet.

What Does DRM Really Stand For? Whack-a-Mole!

Here’s a call-out to all my former Kellogg School of Management students. I’ve heard from several of you lately (hi to Adam, Mark, and to Allison). If there are any of you out there, you can link up to me at Or drop me an email. I’d enjoy hearing how you’re doing.

In 1999, I started and taught the first Entertainment Marketing and Culture course at Kellogg. It was a great course, and I ran it in a manner similar to the GIM (Global Initiatives in Management) program courses that were already taking students on trips around the world. We did ten weeks of classes, mostly with entertainment industry people from music, movies, videogames, and TV, and then followed it up with a one week trip to Hollywood, California. In Los Angeles we would tour a variety of different studios and entertainment oriented businesses, including Disney, Viacom, Activision, Sony Pictures Imageworks (terrific people there!), Dreamworks, and Univision. We would also meet up with students and faculty from the Anderson School at UCLA. It was a memorable course. I don’t know if they are still running it at Kellogg. I started it and, as far as I know, it left when I left.

We had all heard about MP3s and MP3 players and this was the hot management topic we were always coming back to in class. Did they pose a threat to the music business? I said absolutely. No question about it. People feel ripped off and this gives them an opportunity to rip the music companies off right back. At the time, I had an ambitious young grad student visiting me from Germany (the inimitable Markus Giesler). Markus and I had talked about this topic a lot as he worked on his Master’s dissertation as a visiting student. We formulated a number of ideas together that he later developed further and wrote up.

I remember an early guest speaker in 1999, who flew in to talk about music marketing. In class, the executive passed around one of the early MP3 players. The thing was playing some blues song and as the students took the headphones, you could see them start to bob their heads and shrug their shoulders in time with the music. When everyone had listened, he asked the students if they thought that what they heard was a threat to the sale of recorded music. Most said yes.

He then proceeded to explain why it was not. “What you heard was a very compressed version of the music with very poor fidelity. When consumers hear how poor the sound quality is of MP3 files, they aren’t going to be willing to settle for it.” My jaw dropped. The evidence that people couldn’t hear the difference (or didn’t really care that much) was in front of this guy, but he wouldn’t see it. Students were bopping to the tune, but he was explaining from an audiofile connoisseur’s position why the compressed music format wasn’t good enough for the average consumer. He was weighting the costs in sound fidelity without concern to the benefits in terms of portability, conveinience, tradeability, storage, and cost.

I have seen the exact same sort of horse-with-blinders mentality in the entertainment industry ever since. Unfortunately, I have many more stories like that one, stories about entertainment industry execs refusing to believe that the dam is bursting, that people would actually share their precious digital properties with one another over the Internet. ‘How dare they? This must be stopped.’

Back in 2000, I started talking to my students about file sharing of videos and motion pictures, something with much larger financial ramifications than spilling the entire musical catalog out onto the Internet. I said back then that the genie for music was already out of the bottle. And there is no way it is going to go back in. I still enjoy thinking about later classes where we would usually have a few outspoken advocates of Apple’s iTunes, saying that now that there was a user-friendly legal interface, most of the file-sharing would go away. That was a common stance. P2P would gradually decline and be replaced by legal download and streaming methods like iTunes and Rhapsody. Statistics are hard to find, and I’d appreciate hearing from you if you have recent figures on P2P music & video traffic versus legal downloads. As it stands, I strongly believe that iTunes accounts for only a tiny fraction of the music exchanged online. A figure I’ve heard but not been able to validate is that there are over two billion songs exchanged using P2P in the average week. iTunes has sold just over that volume the entire 6 + years they have been operating. The model for the music industry has changed in ways that I predicted seven years ago, but surprisingly few people are talking or writing about it.

The reason that I’m writing about DRM (digital rights management, in other words, the software encryption that locks in the rights to use digitized entertainment like music or movies so that only paying customers have the right to hear and/or see it) is that I saw an interesting story in the news yesterday that only proves my point further. TV Squad (a great media blog) ran a story called Hackers discover how to download streaming video from Netflix. The funny thing is, I wrote a case about a company just like Netflix (called “Networked Flicks Inc.”), several years ago, in which one of the management alternatives being considered was a streaming video service. The big concern that we discussed in this case was DRM–would they be able to keep out hackers and keep the entertainment companies happy that their works were secure? Pretty prophetic, I guess.

In class my argument was that any code that can be encrypted is just a challenge to hackers. Hackers will break any encyrption, and they’ll do it pretty quickly. I still stand by my position and here’s why. Breaking codes is a challenge, it’s fun, it gets you free stuff like movies and music, and people admire you for it. Free crap and undying glory. How about those Norwegians who cracked the original encryption on the first DVDs. What did it take them, two weeks to do it?

The analogy I always used with my students for file-sharing services and for DRM hackers is the same. It’s the old carny game of Whack-a-Mole. One P2P service, like Napster or Kazaa, goes down and then another one, like Limewire or Morpheus or BitTorrent or eDonkey comes up. You encrypt your film with one DRM software service. It will get cracked, decrypted, and your stuff will get shared and copied. You encrypt it again with another service (even though it’s now all over the Internet distributed across file-sharing servers). It gets cracked and copied again.

Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a futile game (hmmm…what a “wiki” game to play).

Here’s another recent example. How many of you have HD-DVD or Blu-Ray players? Well, here’s good news for you, and bad news for believers in DRM “protection.” The rights management on both of these high def DVD formats have already been cracked and shared with the world online (here’s the story). And several groups of programmers are very likely working on user friendly GUI interfaces for shareware and freeware programs that will allow consumers to rip their high def DVDs and share them over P2P networks just as easily as they are now ripping their CDs and regular def DVDs. Ingenious and resourceful, aren’t they? But you know, when you think about it, that easy rippability makes the high def players that much more attractive to potential purchasers (and as I’ve blogged about previously, those purchasers have gotten off to a pretty slow start).

Entertainment executives (most of them, anyways) are still swimming against the tide or hiding their heads in the sand. They’re protecting and locking their properties up. But they can’t win. They are going against the collective intelligence of the crowd, and defying communal imagination and motivation. Even after all these year, entertainment companies haven’t even come close to getting it. When they do, they’ll learn to work with the trends and not against them. That’s going to be an interesting day.

Until then, I have a special educational tool for anyone who works or wants to work in the entertainment industry. I’m a great believer in computer simulations of business scenarios for management training. Click here and press play for your simulation of DRM and rights management work in the industry. Enjoy!

Lucky Charms Brand Managers: Here’s Some “Illumination” for You

Well, I explained yesterday’s blog entry on Lucky Charms to my son. I told him about all the mythological depth that had been gradually engineered into this forty-year-old brand. About how carefully it was being managed in order to build up its cultural resonance with the great Stories of Mankind that reside in our Collective Unconscious, the Heroes Tales that Joseph Campbell and the other great Mythologists of our time have written about, unpacked, and explained.

After listening patiently, he just shook his head.”Dad,” he said, “nobody pays attention to that stuff. They just eat the cereal because of the little marshmallows.”