Flickr Interlude

If you haven’t seen RedandJonny’s highly appealing Flickr images, I encourage you to do so now.

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MySpace aesthetics revisited

So the other day I asked: If “good design” is more important than ever, then why is (the basically hideous) MySpace so popular?

I got a variety of answers in the comments to the post, and having pondered them. One of the first responses was: Design isn’t how something looks, it’s how it works.

I understand this point. I should have used the word aesthetics. That’s what I was talking about. And I think it should be indisputable that design at least includes aesthetics, and I’m not aware of any example of something that it is said to be “good design” that is not also aesthetically pleasing, at least not in the consumer market. Correct me if I’m wrong.

I also want to clarify that the importance of aesthetics in the current marketplace isn’t a point of view that I made up, or even one that I necessarily hold. It’s one that is repeated almost constantly by a wide variety of commentators. (Virginia Postrel, to name maybe the most obvious example, makes a theme of pointing out new examples of businesses responding to the “aesthetic imperative.”) Stuff that is judged to be aesthetically beautiful sells well in many categories now, categories where that didn’t matter before, and this is widely taken to be evidence of improved design/aesthetic taste among masses of consumers. This isn’t something I’m declaring, it’s something I’m repeating.

Okay: So if aesthetics are important, why is MySpace successful?

To me there are basically two possible answers. One is that aesthetics are simply overrated. MySpace users don’t care that much about the look of MySpace, they just care about its functionality. Some comments suggested things along these lines. (And this line of thinking is bolstered by the idea that people are moving over to Facebook, if that’s actually true: Facebook is certainly more aesthetically pleasing to me, not because it’s anything special, but because it’s relatively clean and uncluttered.)

The second possible answer is that MySpace users like the way the site looks. Some comments also pointed in this direction, and it’s what I find most interesting.

When I first looked at MySpace, my reaction was: “What a mess. It’s just (visual) noise.” In fact I think I reacted to it much like parents reacted to some of the music I listened to when I was a kid: That it wasn’t music at all, just noise.

Now what’s interesting about that to me is that, from my point of view, it most certainly was music. It was not “noise” in the way they meant, at all. They just didn’t get it. We differed.

And since I first looked at MySpace, I’ve wondered if something analogous isn’t going on. It looks like visual noise to me, but maybe I just don’t get it. The people who made MySpace a hit originally were largely members of a generation that I’m not in. Maybe MySpace spoke to them in a graphic/visual language that not only made sense to them, but pleases them — the same way the Ramones or the Clash pleased me, but agitated my parents.

Given the size of the MySpace audience, the real answer is probably a combination of all of the above, and everything in the comments to an earlier post. But this last line of thought is the one that interests me the most. And of course it’s worth pointing out that the difference between me and my parents is that they did not end up listening to the Ramones on their own time in an attempt to “get” what I heard, whereas I gritted my teeth and got a MySpace account even though I hated looking at it. Draw your own conclusions on that one.

To Do in New Orleans: PhotoNOLA / Soldier Portraits

PhotoNOLA is “a monthlong celebration of photography in New Orleans.” Many interesting exhibitions at many venues, with events from November 30 through December 15.

I direct your attention in particular to:

Ellen Susan: Soldier Portraits

December 1, 2007 – February 7, 2008.
New Orleans Photo Alliance
1111 St. Mary Street, New Orleans, LA.
Opening Reception Dec 1st, 6 – 9 pm.
Gallery Talk Dec 2nd, 6 pm.

Ellen Susan is the person occasionally referred to on this site, as well as in Letters From New Orleans, as E; that is to say: my wife. The images in “Soldier Portraits” were made using 19th-century process called wet-plate collodion, and for this project has made images of soldiers mostly from the 3rd Infantry Division of the Army, which is partly based near where we now live, in Savannah. A number of these soldiers have since deployed to Iraq, in some cases for the second or third time.

Obviously we’ll be in New Orleans for this. You or your N.O. friends should stop by the show.

To Do in Houston: Amy Evans’ “The History of Objects”

“The History of Objects: New Paintings By Amy Evans,” November 29 through December 29, 2007. Opening reception November 29, 6-9 pm. Koelsch Gallery, 703 Yale Street in the Space City.

The case for too many cable channels

Joe Nocera had a quite interesting column in the NYT over the weekend, on the subject of cable channel choice. Specifically, he looked at the argument that most cable consumers would be happier if they didn’t have to pay for a huge bundle of channels, just to get the handful they really want.

I know this is something I’ve long believed. And earlier this year, a Nielsen study concluded that the average American household gets 104 channels — but watches only about 15 of them with any regularity. That number, 15, has held steady as the number of choices has climbed. So wouldn’t we be better off if we didn’t have to pay for scores of extra channels that seem to exist only so that we can flip past them?

But Nocera’s counter-argument is pretty interesting: Basically, he contends that an a la carte scenario would cost consumers more, and would end up limiting choice.

Take, for instance, ESPN, which charges the highest amount of any cable network: $3 per subscriber per month. … Suppose in an à la carte world, 25 percent of the nation’s cable subscribers take ESPN. If that were the case, the network would have to charge each subscriber not $3, but $12 a month to keep its revenue the same….

And that’s one of the most popular channels on cable….

For smaller networks, the cost per subscriber would be far higher. This would drive up the channels’ own promotional expenses, and (Nocera contends) force them to lower the price of admission to advertisers, as they would have smaller audiences and “lose the casual viewer — a.k.a. the channel flipper.” Many would likely fail.

So we’d end up with fewer overall choices — and probably higher cable bills anyway.

I found this surprisingly convincing.

But on the other hand … if it’s really true that lots of cable channels would die out if they weren’t buffered from the actual marketplace by cable-company bundling, well then, why shouldn’t we just let that happen? Why should this form of business get special treatment? It’s not like the Speed Channel or whatever is performing some kind of public service. The massive number of choices available to us on the cable dial implies significant niche-level demand — but maybe that’s not really the case. (In a related point, the variety disguises the fact that five or six huge companies control almost every single channel, and they all use their popular offerings as leverage to get their more dubious ones into cable packages.)

I also wonder if it necessarily follows that advertising rates would fall. Don’t advertisers balance the desire for a large audience against the desire for specific, targeted audiences? Isn’t that the whole payoff of cable advertising? How much do they really want channel flippers? Seems like those channels that really did have enough of a consumer following, when exposed to the actual marketplace, would be attractive to advertisers for precisely that reason.

Having thought about all this for a day or two, I still wonder if there isn’t some other solution that would involve giving the consumer more of a choice about which channels they’re paying for — maybe a bundle of 20 channels would cost $X, and 50 would cost $Y, but there would be flexibility about which 20 channels. (This could be tweaked so that something really popular like ESPN would count twice or something.)

It would be interesting to see what people would pick, and how much it might turn out that some might value the feeling of lots of choice (100 channels) even if they don’t actually exercise a lot of choice (that is, they still watch 15). There is that “you never know” factor — maybe there will be something great on the Speed Channel some day! Although the more we use DVRs, the less that’s really relevant, right?

Anyway, on those occasions when I do find myself flipping past the surprising number of televised poker matches and whatnot, I do find myself thinking that cable could use some Darwinian competition.

Black Friday bonding

Friend of Murketing John Sellers, apparently on holiday in Michigan, posts this:

In other news, I survived Black Friday. I’m not sure if Black Friday is the same in other parts of the country, but here in G.R. there is folly, folly everywhere. It was reported that more than 2,000 people were waiting outside the Best Buy here before it opened yesterday morning at 5 a.m., and that dozens of them had been in line since the previous afternoon. In temperatures that dipped below the freezing point.

From The Grand Rapids Press:

S—-r B———x, 31, of Lake Odessa, joined the line at 3:30 p.m. Thursday to get her hands on a Sony laptop, case and printer half-price at $499.99. Her 13 1/2-hour wait was ameliorated by the kindness of strangers in line who shared their tent and heater.

“It was just to be able to get the laptops and be with everybody, and we made some new friends,” B———x said.

Mr. Sellers concludes: “I just don’t understand this country anymore.”

The local news here in Savannah featured very similar reports. I listened in amazement to a guy who showed up with his family at 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving day to wait in the Best Buy parking lot for the store to open the next morning. He was something like 25th in line.

He said he enjoyed it, did the same thing last year — that it’s a great way to spend a lot of time with his kids, away from the TV and the Internet. (Earlier he’d mentioned that they were actually hoping to buy some more computers on special.)

A subsequent report on Saturday shopping included an interview with a man who said he and his family had spent 12 or 13 hours in the mall on Friday, and figured Saturday’s expedition would go another 10 hours or so.

Certainly this is all better than last year’s retail mayhem. But it is a little confusing. Is a big box parking lot the best place we have left for family bonding? And how does one go about finding a way to burn 20+ hours in a mall? I don’t think I could do that on a bet. Given all the gloomy economic news, you’d think shoppers would be approaching the season with grim determination, not upbeat tales of making new friends with fellow consumers.

Maybe what this is what Black Friday is really all about now, one of the last occasions for public gathering in a fragmented era, doing the one thing that unites the American masses — shopping as a way to, as the Grand Rapids shopper quoted above put it, “be with everybody.”

In Consumed: The Pretenders

Guitar Hero: A rock-star fantasy that demands a different set of skills.

It’s a familiar enough scene: The kid walks in, straps up and does his best to recreate some classic rock song. Maybe it’s the Rolling Stones, maybe the Sex Pistols. He makes mistakes, but still, as he bobs his head and appears to lose himself in the music, he looks like a rock star, and maybe even feels like one. Or he does these things to the extent possible while standing in the middle of a Best Buy, staring at a monitor, playing Guitar Hero III, the video game….

Continue reading at the NYT site.

UPDATE (11/27): Kottke reaction to the pretend factor: “If you don’t know the difference in the first place, does it matter?”

Flickr Interlude

shrek balloon
Originally uploaded by joiseyshowaa

“Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. NYC.”

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Flickr Interlude

Happy Black Friday
Originally uploaded by litherland

“Or, Happy Buy Nothing Day,” the caption adds.

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Consumed update-o-rama

In the most recent Journal of Murketing email newsletter, I had an update about recent-ish Consumed subject Crocs smacking down the creator of a Crocs fan site. I’ve been thinking for a while I ought to incorporate regular Consumed-related upates into either that newsletter or this site. So I’m experimenting a bit and doing both.

First the Crocs update, and then a series of other, smaller updates after the jump. Maybe I’ll do this every two weeks or once a month. If you have thoughts let me know.

In the July 15, 2007 column about Crocs, I was trying to work out why something that seemed so faddish wouldn’t die. Recently Crocs stock got socked, partly on the theory that maybe the fad is fading after all.

But the more interesting update is this: For the story, I interviewed a guy named David Chidester, who had a site called Needless to say, he’s a Crocs fan, and gave me his fan’s-eye view of the brand’s success, and why it wasn’t a fad, and so on.

He made ad space available on his site, and apparently some of the advertisers turned out to be selling things that weren’t official Crocs. So what did the company do? They sent him a cease-and-desist! Demanding that he turn over the domain to them!

He’s ended up deciding to move his site over to a new domain,, but not surprisingly, a look at that site indicates he’s not doing much enthusiastic evangelizing for Crocs lately. (There’s a post on that site giving his full view of the cease-and-desist experience.) Even the folks at I Hate Crocs were appalled. My take is that I can’t believe the company bullied a fan site. And I really can’t believe that the move didn’t get more attention among customer-evangelism blogs, or the marketing trade publications, and whatnot. The general theory, which I’ve read many times in such places, is that companies and brands need to work with such fans, and that alienating them carries a huge risk, since word of mouth can boomerang, especially on line. This seems like a good case for advocates of such theories to examine.

As a final note: I see that actually the cease and desist came just a few days after my column. I hope I wasn’t indirectly responsible. If I was: Sorry, Mr. Chidester.

Other random updates after the jump. Enjoy the long holiday weekend. Read more

Flickr Interlude

Originally uploaded by

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Surely there’s some way I can pretend to be self-deprecating about this

In what is easily the shocking development of the month, I learn via the comments to my last post that I’ve been nominated for something! How cool is that?

Specifically: The Blogger’s Choice award for best marketing blog! The Blogger’s Choice site had some kind of badge I could download to post here and “brag” about the nomination. It was ugly, so I took the screenshot above instead. But clearly I’m still bragging.

So far I have one vote, from the supernice person who nominated me. (Thanks again!)

Now, you might fairly ask: Is this really a marketing blog? I don’t know. Technically speaking, I’ve made it a point to call a “Web site” and not a “blog” (for reasons I’ll leave aside for now, but maybe explain later if anyone cares; just don’t make assumptions). And I think my subject matter is consumer culture, which marketing is only one part of. Finally, I have a feeling most “marketing blogs” give their readers, I don’t know, useful advice, and that sort of thing.

BUT … I’m so psyched to get nominated for anything at all that I strongly encourage you to vote for me anyway. I might even do so myself.

Dept. of open questions: Why not infomercials?

I’ve been wondering why the networks don’t respond to the writer’s strike by simply running high-end infomercials. That is: Just let Nike or whoever buy an hour of prime time, and let them do what they want. Probably they’d go all out, and win an Emmy.

I’m not endorsing this. And I would personally find it depressing. I would find it depressing as an entertainment consumer, and as a professional writer who worries about the future of the market for writing. But that’s probably part of why I’m surprised it hasn’t happened.

But yesterday I asked a marketing fellow I know why he thought it hadn’t happened. He said: “That’s a great idea!”

Uh oh. . . .

Your toilet is bourgeois

But of course there is solution: Buy something to make your toilet express more about who you are. You are a person who decorates the toilet. That’s who. Details about vinyl stickers with various cool images, at $20 per, are at Vital Industries on Etsy. Via BB.

In Consumed: False Endorsement

Last Exit To Nowhere: Why imaginary brands can be even better than the real thing.

There is no shortage of logos in the world, no dearth of brands striving for consumer allegiance and no chance that the creation of new brands and logos will cease. In fact there’s an interesting subset of brands and logos that don’t bother with what seems like a crucial component: an actual product, service or company. Consider the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. It’s part of the fictional universe depicted in the 1979 film “Alien” and its sequels; Nostromo, the spaceship freighter in the first movie, is a Weyland-Yutani vessel. The company doesn’t do much in the way of branding in, you know, reality. But as it turns out, it’s possible to buy yourself a Weyland-Yutani T-shirt, or even a Nostromo T. It also turns out many people have….

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site.

Additional links: Last Exit to Nowhere; more on imaginary brands on this site, and elsewhere.

* Bonus link: The column mentions that the creator of Last Exit to Nowhere used to be in a band called Consumed. You can hear a couple of their tracks (and buy CDs) at the Fat Wreck Chords site.

Murketing readers know this imaginary brands topic is a regular point of interest for me, and I thank everyone for past comments on this site that helped prod me toward today’s column. Update: See comments for more examples.