What the Michael Jackson sales surge is about

Posted by Rob Walker on June 26, 2009
Posted Under: Consumer Behavior

Sometimes people ask me why, say, McDonald’s or Coca-Cola or Nike bother to advertise at all. We’ve all heard of them, right? We’ve all decided whether or not we like them. So why waste the money? Here is my answer: Because the simple-sounding issue of salience is very important. And as backup I offer the abrupt return to popularity of Michael Jackson’s music.

Yesterday evening, Cult of Mac predicted a surge in sales of Michael Jackson music. Correct. Indeed as I type this 9 of the top 10 albums, and six of the top 10 singles, on the iTunes chart, are Jackson material.

Ah, but this was a safe prediction, because this kind of thing happens all the time — Tim Russert’s books, to name a random example, took all the top slots on Amazon.com after his surprising, and widely reported, death. Why is that? Is there something about high-profile death that makes us want to buy cultural products created by the recently deceased?

Not exactly. It’s not the death but the “high-profile” part of the equation (the attendant media/web coverage and chatter) that matters. This is for the simple reason that it makes such figures highly salient. Salience is certainly not the only element in a consumption decision, but it’s an  essential one. (This is discussed briefly in an early chapter of Buying In, from which I’ve borrowed a sentence or two in the post that follows).

Most early advertising was entirely about salience: A broadside or notice that the corn has been harvested, or a ship has delivered some tea, or some local craftsman has made something or other that you could buy, if you needed it. (Later advertisers got a lot more creative about influencing the “if you need it” part of that formulation; see the book for that.) But even today, mere salience matters. You are clearly in no position to desire an iPhone, or whatever, if you have no idea what it is, or you have more or less forgotten all about it. Thus even in the 21st century, a major goal of advertising (and murketing) is salience: Just keeping a brand in the consumer brain, consciously or otherwise. Perhaps it sounds absurd, but the goal is to simply remind you that the brand, or product, exists. (This is why even incidental and pointless-seeming product placements can have a payoff, albeit a tough one to measure.)

Okay, but, we’d all heard of Michael Jackson a few days ago. Why are people stocking up on his music now?

Salience isn’t about having heard of something at some point — it’s about how likely you are to think of it right now. One of my favorite examples of how mere salience interacts with the marketplace occurred a couple of years ago. When the former Seinfeld star Michael Richards was all over the news because he was taped unleashing a racist tirade at a night club, sales of a just-released set of Seinfeld DVDs actually increased.

Surely nobody was suddenly more interested in Seinfeld DVDs because of the revelation that Richards seemed to have some kind of problem. And it’s unlikely that many DVD buyers were just hearing about Seinfeld for the first time because of  the news, and thought that it sounded with checking out. The news simply revived Seinfeld’s salience. To use a consultant-y phrase, it made the show “top of mind.”

(Another, anecdotal for-instance: A certain someone I know left the theater after seeing Supersize Me with a weird Big Mac craving. She hadn’t had one in a long time, and despite Morgan Spurlock’s intended message, his film had made Big Macs highly salient to her.)

Similarly, it’s not that people buying Michael Jackson tunes in the past 24 hours had never heard his music before. Indeed people seem to buying his biggest hits, as opposed to exploring the catalog — which suggests that the coverage of his passing has reminded them of a song, not introduced them to it. And it’s not that they are somehow looking for a way to vicariously participate in the cultural event that his death immediately became.

But because of this cultural event, Michael Jackson and his music are dramatically more salient today than they were a week ago.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

This is great. Found myself searching for Michael Jackson’s greatest hits on Amazon today… :)

#1 
Written By Allison on June 27th, 2009 @ 10:32 am

Yeah, and you could note people’s desire to join and be a part of something bigger, like buying flags after 9/11. This might sound bad–but death seems to spark some intense patriotic and nostalgic emotions.

#2 
Written By David Mark Horowitz on June 27th, 2009 @ 10:56 am

I think in this case it’s more than just salience. I doubt we’d see quite this extreme a skyrocketing if it was only salience. We didn’t see this kind of skyrocketing when Jackson was in the news all the time during his trial, for example. There is something even more impacting about the death of someone who connects with so many life milestones and memories for so many people. They seem to want to reconnect with him and those times in their lives in a sort of tribute I think. So I think it’s both salience, as well as something extra.

#3 
Written By SystemsThinker on June 30th, 2009 @ 8:40 am

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