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

March 30, 2009

Earth to NASA: Do NOT Name the Space Shuttle After Stephen Colbert

As Reuter’s reported today, NASA is in a bit of a pickle after they ran a contest to name the new space shuttle.

Supporters of Stephen Colbert (and nerdy pranksters of all stripes, I’d reckon), cast 230,539 write-in votes to name the new shuttle the “Colbert” after Colbert used his show to get the prank going. 230K votes = not bad organizing. NASA supported the name, “Serenity,” which finished a distant second. Peace, Prosperity, Liberty, and Victory all come to mind as equally yawn-inspiring. Serenity ran more than 40,000 votes behind. Um, Serenity is a brand of adult diapers.

But so what? NASA, have the guts to do what you want. Don’t be cowed by a silly online vote.

Does anyone else remember the 1976 write-in contest by Star Trek fans to name the first shuttle “Enterprise.” Then-President Ford interceded on behalf of the Trekkers and made it so. Amazing. Democracy in action. An unelected President casting another deciding vote. Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek stars on hand at the dedication ceremony. Cheers and euphoric spectacle-drenched imaginings all around.

But is this current case democracy, or another successful demonstration of the fan-power of the traditional media? It doesn’t seem all that different from the Star Trek case, to be honest, except that the Star Trek fans were really serious about NASA, technological utopianism, and the bright shiny space-faring future that the space shuttle was supposed to usher in. What does Stephen Colbert stand for? Right-wing political parody? Is that how the New NASA rolls?

Maybe a better exemplar for NASA would be Threadless, the online community t-shirt company. Although Threadless is pretty democratic, and promotes itself as listening to the voice of its community, every so often people organize to promote a t-shirt that is silly, violate Threadless’ rules, or is just way too damn ugly to have that many supporters naturally. Threadless management long ago gave up any slavish adherence to the outcome of their online voting. They use the results as a guide, but they make the final deicsion. The managers, whose careers are decided based on the sales of the shirts. The managers. Period.

NASA has the same option. They’ve already written into the contest rules that the outcome of the contest is non-binding. No duh. So, you mean, maybe they didn’t need to have named the first shuttle Enterprise after all?

NASA, think about the intention of the contest first, rather than simply the outcome.

Nevermind that a Congressman is calling for a “democratic” result that names the multi-billion dollar machine after a TV comic. Well, at least the contest is garnering publicity. With that mission accomplished, NASA now needs to show who’s boss.

So NASA, please, do the right thing. Use your power, use your integrity and name the shuttle properly.

Name it something catchy, something powerful. Maybe after a great astronomer or scientist. Or something high tech and wonderful.

I know, NASA. You can name it the Netnography.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession IV: Green Consumerism

Green Consumption

The third element in my little cogitative experiment that makes the current recession qualitatively different from past recessions is Green Consumerism.

By Green Consumerism I mean to point out that we’re living through a time where, finally, the average global consumer is fully aware of experts’ predictions of impending environmental catastrophe unless we make radical changes soon in our patterns of consumption (i.e., large parts of how we live). This awareness is currently almost unavoidable in North America, Oceania, Western Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Not only that, but this awareness is starting to have impacts on the real world of consumption in these places.

Now, I’m not talking only about the “shift” to “green products and services.” The move from Hummers to Hybrids. The rise of organic food and homeopathic medicine. The dramatic substitution of recycled toilet paper for softer-than-soft Charmins (hey, if you’re a tree, that’s pretty dramatic). Yes, there are shifts, but can be to higher cost products. So, if I shift all of my food consumption to organic, although that technically would be a shift over to the greener side, it would also move up GDP–organic food is costlier to product and it costs more at the till. That’s not true of all green consumption. But when that happens, it can look like Green Marketing is just another scammy way to shake out a few more shekels from Mrs. Jane Consumer.

I’m focusing more on the kind of awareness that events like Earth Day, and maybe more specifically the Earth Hour event which was huge here in Toronto (we played Scrabble by candlelight in my house, cool…). It’s about an awareness of waste. A careful contemplation of what’s unnecessary. At Burning Man, we encourage each other to think about what we can do without. Earth Hour, and Green Consumerism in its wider sense, does something very similar.

On the ground level, because of changes like this, consumers–i.e., people— are becoming more cautious about conspicuous, mindless, and endlessly-increasing consumption. The average person, the average consumer, is beginning to wake up to the fact that their children are going to inherit a huge pile of garbage and problems rather than the planet full of possibilities that all of our ancestors up to this point were granted.

It’s a sobering thought. And we’re beginning to think it.

And I think it’s beginning, just beginning, to be reflected in shopping malls, and boutiques, and stores. Not only should we buy green, we should make do with less. Much less. Reusable shopping bags and hybrids are just the beginning. Think biking, walking, growing your own food, making your own clothes and music, repairing instead of replacing. Can anyone say ‘Permaculture lite?’ Multiplied across the global economy, what kind of impact would that have?

In the face of recession, some of us are saying “less is good.”

So what impact on the economy we have with these three trends: Globalization, Digitalization, and Green Consumerism? You can probably see where I’m going with this….

March 29, 2009

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession III: Digitalization

Internet Map with your location clearly marked

In my discussion of the factors making this recession different from past recessions, I’m speculating that Digitalization is changing the nature of consumption and, through it, the marketplace.

Increasingly sophisticated information and communication technology, its mass production and mass diffusion means that we’re moving from a thing-and-place economy to a screen-and-energy economy. Across the globe. Sitting at home on our screens and keyboards changes and often reduces all sorts of consumption.

Anything that involves “the real world” such as restaurants and dining, or travel and tourism, can be expected to suffer. Newspapers die. With them, pulp and paper demand decrease. The music business gets eaten. The demand for plastics and papers that supply it decrease. To paraphrase Karl Marx, everything that was solid, in the digital world, melts into bits. It’s not a case of buggy whips being replaced by cars this time around. In our millennium, it’s things that were paid for and material being replaced by things that are free, digitally transmitted, and immaterial. That’s a big difference from the economic transformations of the past, that often increased “standard of living” by adding industrial complexity, increasing material use, and creating jobs.

Digitalization doesn’t happen to everything. We still need houses to live in and food to eat (but if we’re sitting Matrix-like at our computers living our Second Life, maybe we only need little bachelor pads, bottles of Pepsi, Doritos, and vitamins). But it does happen to media content. Big-time, as we’ve seen. Not just music and motion pictures, but watch what is going to happen with TV networks and YouTube, or Kindle and books. Will the folding of newspapers, and the increasingly tough times for book publishers have an impact on the production of pulp and paper? Wait and see. Or ask someone from Kodak how their sales of 35mm film are holding up.

And there’s another point. Related but different. That is that the increased information flows and organizational abilities of information technology allow consumers to get better deals and to push on retailers and wholesalers in ways that are unprecedented.

All of this translates into decreasing demand for, and increasing downward pressure on prices for, a number of items and services (although certainly not all).

And although technology decreases these different kinds of consumption, it’s also important to note that increasing technology doesn’t lessen our dependence on energy, it hides it. When we drive our cars, we are at least aware of the exhaust fumes pouring out the back. When we use our computers however, we don’t see the huge server farms, the coal-fired or nuclear backed power plants that are cranking out the energy to service them.

Which leads (sort of) to my third point of difference: Greenification.

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