A Critical Departure, Part 1

A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know. –H.L. Mencken

In a previous column, I mused about the People’s Republic of Advertising. Clearly, it’s a red herring for anyone thinking about the possibility of such a sea-change in the advertising industry. People won’t own an advertiser’s message, they’ll only influence it. But how can people influence shape the way we perceive people, places, and things?

Our addiction to the sensational seems eternal. Today’s celebrities and the media are a modern Roman Coliseum. But we don’t have to go back that far to see the madness in sensationalism and fascination that come with it.

Almost 200 years ago, the world lived vicariously through the lives of romantic characters. Art, poetry, theater, and all popular forms of entertainment were the stage. The audience cherished or ridiculed these talented free spirits, those who could express the deepest inner emotions and humanity’s weaknesses and darkness. These weren’t just forbidden emotions, they were the audience’s thoughts and desires, the ones that so many people didn’t dare to share or speak of.

In today’s celebrity-driven world, isn’t the public at large the same kind of predator in search of beauty wrapped in scandal and failure?

This behavior tells us how media is consumed and that all kinds of media need a certain level of sensationalism to be successful.

The vicariousness of celebrity fascination is really a two-way street. It’s not the audience watching the Coliseum lions kill their victims in the ring or actors portraying the depth of human failings; those are a TV model. It’s part of the audience battling the lions in the ring. And it’s outside the coliseum, where there are recreations and reinterpretations of what’s inside, influenced by the interpreter in some way.

When we watch the famous get more famous for anything they do, we partake in an old model, an ancient spectator sport. We become the passive participants. When we make our own videos, games, spoofs, and the like of said celebs, we partake in a new behavior: emulating the engaged.

But marketing is still about saying and showing, a refined commercial art, if you will. Online is more than that. It’s also about doing something; about participating in the celebrity of the idea.

Start with a great idea. Add experience, interaction, and audience participation, and it goes to a whole new level. It starts spawning other ideas.

What if your advertising or Web site was basically a raw idea that changed based on the influence of the people who came to visit or experience it? So that ultimately content, visual, verbal, audible, and interactive would adjust based on the preferences of the people who visited it? It be like the worn foot of Michelangelo’s Pietá, smoothed down from millions of faithful followers touching the marble in search of the symbolic power of it all.

“What Flash banner does that?” you ask. No one banner does. And if it did, I’d be out of a job.

But consider how people are no longer just viewing the content; they’re highly engaged in the content. On the surface, this seems to be a pretty basic Internet concept. But when technology facilitates more user participation, the concept moves from one dimension to four.

Then the idea of a love/hate relationship with celebrities becomes more a cultural movement than a passing fascination.

More on that in part two.

Dorian is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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