I Don’t Understand Mass Culture

By some quirk, I am on the mailing list for the Nuremberg International Toy Fair. By virtue of this, I receive an annual invitation to the fair, along with related toy-industry propaganda.

In the 2007 issue of play it, the Toy Fair’s magazine, there’s a section on “Product Trends” in the global toy market. Gathered together under product groupings like “wooden toys / arts & crafts” and “outdoor leisure” are pithy comments on the toy marketplace, like:

The inline skating and Nordic walking sectors are stagnating, but football and garden trampolines are booming.

and:

The doll and soft toy market has been lagging behind for years… a new and popular development comes in the form of a new, extra soft plush material known in the trade as “Softissimo.”

and:

In the case of toys that are specially designed to appeal to girls, the theme of “princesses” is important.

While I don’t doubt the veracity of comments like these, reading them makes me realize that there’s a huge gap in my understanding of how the world works that exists in the space between understanding immediate personal and family needs — “Dad, I need to pee” or “I feel like an iced tea!” — and understanding “mass culture” — like the notion that “the theme of ‘princesses’ is important” on a global scale.

As soon as you start to deal in the marketplace of aggregate opinion I find myself without the vocabulary to understand the terrain.

Is mass culture really about aggregate opinion, for example? Presumably the “popularity of theme of princesses” is something that, even if it can be empirically measured, can’t be understood in anything approaching a rational, cause-and-effect way. Or maybe it can.

Because at its root understanding this world would seem to be a basic requirement for understanding modern society, I welcome high-level pointers to where I should turn for wisdom in this domain.

Comments

oliver's picture
oliver on January 4, 2007 - 03:45

Asking for “wisdom” suggests you already know the catch phrase “wisdom of the crowds,” which may or may not also be the title of a New York Times best seller of some years back. Also I have to think you’re on top of this stuff as a reader of Malcom “The Tipping Point” Gladwell and Virginia Postrel. I think you’ve heard the best pitches and just don’t see the alleged new paradigm as calling on you to think about anything differently.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 4, 2007 - 15:03

Is mass culture really about aggregate opinion, for example? Presumably the

Ann's picture
Ann on January 4, 2007 - 17:04

It seems to me that what you don’t understand is capitalism.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 4, 2007 - 17:54

Or eggs. He doesn’t understand eggs.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 4, 2007 - 18:18

Is mass culture really about aggregate opinion?” Yes. But what do you mean by “mass culture” and what do you mean by “aggregate”? If by aggregate you mean the average or the mode or the median, then I’d change my answer to “no.” But to me it means the whole shebang, in this case the social/cultural universe. I don’t recognize “mass culture” as technical or precise either, so I read it as another word like “aggregate,” which gives us something like a tautology or trivially-true statement ala “Is the collection of all mass the universe?” Yes. To me it’s a rare and special circumstance when we’re ever able tell a single story or offer a single explanation about a whole bunch of things, even when we’re talking about mindless water molecules freezing. I find it amazing that we can predict the trajectory of a planet as if all its mass were concentrated at an infinitesimal point we call its “center of mass.” What is “center of mass”? It’s a mathematical formulation that enables predictions. It’s hard to say more. Why does the distribution of molecular velocities in an ideal gas fit obey the Maxwell-Bolzmann formula, and why is that good for predicting anything? Darned if I know. We call the people who discover these things geniuses, and the power or truth of these formulas inspires quasi-religious thinking, ala Kepler and his spheres and Einstein’s invocation of a beauty-loving gambling-averse deity. The individuals that make up an organization or a nation each have many more options of behavior open to them than does the typical gas molecule, and I don’t see psychologists and sociologists agreeing on nearly as much as physicists seem to. People are going to talk about what groups do and why, because that’s how we talk and what we do. But just because you’re live on CNN doesn’t mean you have any real insights.

Simon's picture
Simon on January 5, 2007 - 14:48

As the proud father of a wonderful five-year-old who happens to be thoroughly infatuated with the “princess theme” (which leaves me … bemused), I’m particularly enjoying this thread. Two quick comments:

- A few weeks ago, there was a CBC radio report on Mexico City’s famous “photo-with-Santa” displays, in which a little girl was heard talking excitedly about her favourite display. In a lengthy clip of her somewhat-breathless Spanish, the only phrase I could make out was, “muchas princesas!!!” [exclaimation points in original] All sweet and harmless enough, perhaps, but then the angel (entirely secular, natch) on my LEFT shoulder starts making throat-clearing noises about Disney-fication/commodification of global cultures …

- Marian makes a great point about “reporting” on so tricky and amorphous a phenomenom as “aggregate opinion”. Tied in with this is the general scientific principal — the name of which escapes me — that whatever you study is changed by the very act to studying.

These are deep waters,” as PG Wodehouse would say. In the meantime, my wife and I continue are gentle campaign to persuade our daughter that Belle (Beauty and the Beast) is a much-superior princess to — God help us — Sleeping Beauty.

Happy New Year, one and all …

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 5, 2007 - 15:15

Two thoughts after reading the insights above.

Can skilled capitalists really influence mass taste, or are they simply very good at reading it and reacting to it? In other words, is marketing and advertising reminding us of the urges that already live inside us, or is it actually creating those urges?

Second, when I talked about “aggregate opinion” I meant to question whether the tools and ideas of personal decision making scale to allow us to understand mass decision making.

In other words, do we study and understand mass decision making simply by considering how personal decisions are made and then “adding them together” — or is mass decision making, mass culture, something entirely different?

Marian's picture
Marian on January 5, 2007 - 20:12

Can skilled capitalists really influence mass taste, or are they simply very good at reading it and reacting to it? In other words, is marketing and advertising reminding us of the urges that already live inside us, or is it actually creating those urges?”

The answer is both. A lot of girls really go for princesses. But marketers also try to make people want princesses more than they would otherwise and sometimes they try to create demand for (by making us care for) things that we never knew we would enjoy. e.g. Hula hoops, personal trainers, etc. Of course, sometimes making us want things is not enough, it depends on the context. Sometimes we need to not only want something but it must fit into more pragmatic or ethical concerns, or our ideas about ourselves etc. etc.

Second, when I talked about “aggregate opinion” I meant to question whether the tools and ideas of personal decision making scale to allow us to understand mass decision making.”

I think, so far, we’re not all that good at creating models of individual decision making. People try, but they always seem to be leaving stuff out. It may be something that it is not possible to model well. I frankly believe that there will always be something left over and that no one can create a model that will accurately (and completely) predict the actions of human beings. Also, when we try to employ empirical standards on human beings and their thoughts we are always in danger of contaminating our sample in subtle ways that we’re not good at controlling for. People are not microbes so a whole new level of complication enters when we try to sample opinion or get some idea of what people think.

In other words, do we study and understand mass decision making simply by considering how personal decisions are made and then “adding them together” — or is mass decision making, mass culture, something entirely different? “

I would say, yeah, that the whole is likely greater than the sum of the parts.

paul's picture
paul on January 6, 2007 - 01:32

Can skilled capitalists really influence mass taste, or are they simply very good at reading it and reacting to it? In other words, is marketing and advertising reminding us of the urges that already live inside us, or is it actually creating those urges?

Contrary to what marketeers claim, I say it’s the lattermost: they create a desire for things we don’t need. One trip down the cereal aisle or the toy catalog in December should be a good demonstration. So few of the items in the former are things you would make up for yourself and of the latter, how long will they be around? We all remember games and toys from our own childhoods: do the new ones we see each year have the same staying power? Do they appeal to the same universal senses of the older games, ones that emerged from play instead of trying to refocus it into a consumer experience?

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 6, 2007 - 18:52

It has been recently discovered that humans posess a “mimic gene” or something operating in that vein. Chimps were discovered to fire specific neurons while watching another Chimp peel a banana — the same neurons which were required to peel the bannana, and the same ones which would fire if the if the observer were in fact the actor. Same thing has been found in humans since.

It has been reasoned that this must have been an evolutionary advantage because it enhanced learning in a species (us) born with exceptionally little tallent for living when compared with virtually every other creature on Earth.

Culturally one would expect such a characteristic to facilitate the relatively easy “influence of mass taste” by capitalists particularly when they also know (if only intutiively) that babies are known to stare at pretty faces longer than average faces when they are unfamiliar with either. And so, in virtually every culture and mythology on Earth, enter the princess…

oliver's picture
oliver on January 6, 2007 - 19:53

Can skilled capitalists really influence mass taste”

Also see “Who Killed the Electric Car,” recently out on DVD in the U.S.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 7, 2007 - 18:16

I was watching a show on the Discovery Civilization channel this morning on “the story behind personal hygiene” (Sunday morning TV pickings are slim when you wake up early). One of the things they revealed was that the whole “rinse and repeat” part of the instructions on shampoo bottles has no basis in improved hair washing, it’s simply a ploy by shampoo makers to have us go through shampoo twice as fast.

When I hear things like this, I feel used (I tend to take everything at face value, which is sometimes a blessing and often a curse).

Marian's picture
Marian on January 7, 2007 - 18:28

A little skepticism never hurt anybody. There’s no reason to go overboard though and lose faith in everything.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 8, 2007 - 15:14

Skepticism’s fine, but if they make up lies about “rinse and repeat” why should I believe that anything else they tell me is true?

Rob L.'s picture
Rob L. on January 8, 2007 - 17:26

Not only do you not need to “rinse and repeat”, it’s also unnecessary to wash your hair with shampoo everyday — a tip I learned on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy! I shower everyday but only shampoo every other.

Ann's picture
Ann on January 8, 2007 - 17:58

You were, by your own admission, the first guy in line when the new Sears store opened. It was even documented in the Guardian. Maybe if you think about what motivated you to do that, it might help you to understand how the mass culture business works. You were, afterall, one of many.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 8, 2007 - 18:04

I knew that Sears event would return to haunt me. Not only does it position me as putty in Sears’ hands, but also in Tim Banks’. If it’s any consolation (to myself), I’ve only been back once.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 8, 2007 - 19:07

I feel so proud: I remember figuring that “rinse, repeat” was a scam when I six or something. Of course, that was growing up in hippie Berkeley, where I was probably taught that shampoo’s from the Man. I was highly skeptical of “shampoo plus conditioner” when that came out too—after they’d told us shampooing wasn’t enough. I’ve completely sold out now though: I use hair product.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 9, 2007 - 14:11

I thought everybody knew that about shampoo.

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