The Self-Reinforcing Spiral of Commercialism

It’s easy to see how media concentration limits the diversity of programming. You only have to flip on your TV. What is less apparent is how media concentration is fueling a self-reinforcing spiral of commercialism. This thought is prompted by an excellent article in the Denver Mountain News that surveys the growing commercial barrage at concerts, movies and plays (July 9, 2005, reported by Erika Gonzalez and Mark Brown).

No one really likes the hyper-commercialism of Big Media. But it’s fast becoming a structural economic imperative and an inexorable fact. As the market reach and ambitions of Big Media grow, so do the overhead costs, production expenses and celebrity fees. Hence the irresistible pressure to squeeze every last nickel out of the “cultural product.” Any available creative or social space must be “monetized” (and tell the artists and aesthetes to get lost).

Result: We get a dozen ads before movies in theaters. Rock tours are named for corporate sponsors. Performers wear logo-strewn clothes and accessories. We get corporate logos on concert tickets and big-screen promos at amphitheaters. Venues are usually named after a fast food chain or other mega-corporation. We are handed flyers promoting upcoming concerts as we leave. The Broadway play Spamalot has even gone so far as to mention a major Internet website and a brand-name tequila as part of the stage dialogue.

What a concept: getting consumers to pay to experience advertising!

Theater owners and promoters typically defend the relentless commercial add-ons by saying that ticket prices would only be higher without such sponsorships. But since when have promoters ever given fans a break? They’re in the business of charging what the market will bear. The Lexus sponsorship for Paul McCartney’s tour didn’t seem to have much effect on the $250 ticket price. (Kudos to Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Eminem, who are among the few big-name acts to refuse any corporate sponsorships. Ah, but can the next Bob Dylan make such choices? And would they want to after Dylan himself has shilled for Victoria’s Secret?)

Drip by drip, the barrage of ads and promos is making the concert-going and movie-going experience increasingly distasteful – even as ticket prices rise. Perhaps we are approaching a tipping point, a point beyond which the appeal of certain cultural experiences will not recover – or new alternatives will find a footing. It is revealing that overall revenues for concerts tickets and movie theaters are down, and a full 20 percent of movie-goers say they “dislike very much” pre-movie advertising (according to a 2004 survey by InsightExpress, a market research firm). That’s a significant amount of your customer base to deliberately alienate.

The question that I wonder about is when the market enclosure of the cultural commons will become so all-encompassing that it will destroy what little artistic “value” remains. At what point will the parasite kill the host?

Here’s a straw in the wind: Across the facade of the New York Stock Exchange is a huge American flag. Below it, an even bigger banner, spanning the entire width of the building, shouts at passersby: “Heartland Payments System: Your Hometown Payments Provider.” It is perhaps to be expected that the NYSE would sell off its facade to corporate advertisers (in this case, to promote an IPO stock offering). But the iconography of that display on the citadel of American capitalism is clear enough. The American flag itself can be eclipsed and enclosed by hucksters.

The real hope lies in the steady rise and expansion of non-commercial Internet genres, which not only tend to be commercial-free and more culturally authentic, but more economically efficient and competitive than Centralized Media. In the social order of online networks, the individual and community are empowered, and sellers must learn some new manners: the subject of a future post.