Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for November, 2010

Believing One’s Own Press

In their article, “Believing One’s Own Press:  The Causes and Consequences of CEO Celebrity,” Hayward et al. discuss the conflation of companies and their celebrity leaders by journalists.[1] Although it should be noted that the authors focus primarily on journalists, we can understand the tendency to oversimplify situations in order to understand complex and nebulous narratives.

Take, for example, a study conducted by Jones and Harris in 1967 demonstrating that the prevalent attitudes in a writing sample were attributed to its author:  this study represented the first time that the Fundamental Attribution Error had been observed (although it was not immediately labeled as such). In short, the Fundamental Attribution Error posits that observers tend to ignore situational explanations in favor of personality- or dispositional-based ones. In turn, these perceptions of us, once established, can cause us to act in particular ways as we endeavor to maintain our public image. Although the corollary between the Fundamental Attribution Error and the celebrity CEO might not seem apparent at first, we can understand how humans have learned to employ the Fundamental Attribution Error as a type of heuristic—a mental shortcut—in order to simply a intricate situation into manageable (and readily understood) explanations. In the case of the Fundamental Attribution Error, we see an eschewing of situational/environmental factors as we focus on an individual. Similarly, we focus on the actions and exploits of a celebrity CEO, channeling the output of a multidimensional process through a figurehead. Moreover, we can also use the lens provided by the Fundamental Attribution error to better understand the Hayward’s connections between hubristic actions of celebrity CEOs, image maintenance, and ego.

[1] Hayward, M. L., Rindova, V. P., & Pollock, T. G. (2204). Believing One’s Own Press: The Causes and Consequences of CEO Celebrity. Strategic Management Journal , 637-653.


The Beckham Experiment

Although Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment[i] reads more like an extended magazine biography (Wahl notes that he wrote for Sports Illustrated, so perhaps this is not unexpected), his work on David Beckham raises some interesting points of consideration. In the early pages of his work, Wahl notes the contrasting elements of Beckham as public figure (i.e., celebrity) and private person, a theme that will see continued resonance throughout Wahl’s treatment of the soccer star. According to Wahl, part of Beckham’s success stems from his ability to appeal to a wide range of people; managing to avoid a strongly defined personality (which is not to say that Beckham’s presence was not felt, but merely that it curiously managed to remain ubiquitous and polymorphic), Beckham’s image could be reworked by fans in order to suit their individual needs.

One aspect of Beckham’s persona—arguably the main one—revolved around his identity as a soccer player. While we can apply the criticisms of past readings to Beckham’s celebrity, Wahl speaks instead to the ways in which soccer talent and celebrity work in synergy (referred to as the “sweet spot”) to produce a multiplier effect. Together, celebrity and talent provide multiple entry points into the narrative of Beckham, allowing potentially disparate fans to identify with the star. Perhaps more importantly, however, the convergence of multiple narratives in the figure of Beckham allows for a type of cross pollination as people interested in one aspect of Beckham have the opportunity to be exposed to another aspect of fan culture (e.g., followers of the Becks/Posh saga could grow to appreciate Beckham’s soccer prowess). In some ways, according to Wahl, Beckham hoped to tap into this very process in order to popularize soccer:  an infatuation with Beckham as a celebrity in Los Angeles would necessitate an awareness of his exploits on the soccer pitch.

Finally, through Wahl, readers glimpse the complex nature of the star-making machine:  although attention might fixate on Beckham, Wahl demonstrates that Beckham is not solely responsible for obtaining his post (or keeping himself there). Again we see resonance with the popular culture critiques of the 1930s and the 1950s wherein fame (and its trappings) are manufactured by a handful and then distributed to the masses. Although we might conjecture that some celebrities-as-brands control the processes described in The Beckham Experiment to differing degrees, we can probably assume that the majority of modern fame is supported by a team that must also be understood in order to contextualize the role and presence of stars in culture.


[i] Wahl, G. (2009). The Beckham Experiment. New York, NY: Random House.


Trendsetting and Product Placement in Bollywood Film

For anyone who has thoughtfully considered the role of art in society, Coonoor Kripalani’s position is not necessarily novel:  film, like many forms of art, holds the capacity to comment on its cultural context and to proffer new insights (often accomplishing both feats simultaneously. Focusing specifically on Bollywood film, Kripalani recounts a history of the genre, listing off various stars who served to influence fashion or vernacular (2006). Although Kripalani mentions offer a quick retrospective of Bollywood cinema, the larger cultural issue resides in films’ reflections of an upwardly mobile and aspirational culture. From stories enmeshed in the caste system to romances that defied arranged marriages, the stories told through these films spoke to viewers because they offered a glimpse of the world as it might be. Although not explored in the course of the paper, we might also consider how cult films like Jai Santoshi Maa also become popular because they speak (perhaps indirectly) to a previously unarticulated desire or sentiment.[1]

Shifting to focus on the power of the image, Kripalani then mentions Indian brides being idealized through wedding video and segues to the normalizing influence of product placement in Bollywood films. Lampooned by films such as The Truman Show, the phenomenon noted by Kripalani is not unique to Bollywood:  in a fashion similar to American advertising, Kripalani notes cinematic experiences that are achieved through the use of consumer goods.[2]

I would also argue that American youth can be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption, with the most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—being that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay. For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.

Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment.  In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.

Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.

[1] Although I have not done extensive work in this area, my anecdotal exposure to cult films in America suggests that these productions often attract fringe or minority individuals who feel, in some way, disenfranchised. The sense of community that develops in this shared media experiences helps such people to feel like they belong (i.e., there are literally “other people like me”). This is not to suggest that the popularity of cult films can be solely defined in terms of this process, but I would suggest that this theme again reflects an underlying aspiration:  the desire to become, to be, or to belong.

[2] A book coauthored by Annenberg professor Michael Cody spoke to a similar affective tie in a McDonald’s advertisement, essentially arguing that family happiness could be had through consumption of a food item. Although Cody’s argument was more about nostalgia and family values, we can see how a product is depicted as the conduit for, or conveyer of, emotional responses or attachments and thus crucial to the process.