The Ad That Wasn’t

May 30, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bringing in new customers is a challenge for any organization, especially museums.

In the first season of thirtysomething, Michael and Elliot, who run a small ad agency, have to come up with a campaign for the local arts center, which is trying to broaden its base. They struggle, they founder, they fail. The best they can do is a poster with a photo of a hard hat guy and the caption, “Yo, it’s my arts center.” The city, sensibly, rejects their proposal.

But how can a museum reach people other than those they usually reach? Among current museum-goers, according to a survey of 40,000 households,
  • 92% are white
  • 70% are over the age of 30
  • 81% have college degrees
  • 82% have incomes above the national median
  • For history museums, age was even more skewed – only about a third were under 50.
Enter Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler and their “Historically Hardcore” Smithsonian campaign.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

I wish I could report on the success of this campaign in bringing a younger and more diverse audience to the museum. But unfortunately, this campaign, like the one in thirtysomething, was fictional. They did it as an exercise, and the posters lived only in cyberspace, where they flourished briefly. Reddit put them on their front page. Burrows was thrilled at first, then cautious. As she writes on her blog,
I decided it was probably time to get in touch with someone from Smithsonian, just to cover my ass. Well, they were less than pleased about the attention the posters were getting and requested that I take them down immediately.
She scrubbed the posters of any Smithsonian traces. You will never see them on the sides of buses or the walls of the Metro. The Smithsonian, apparently, has no desire to appeal to a hardcore constituency. Our great national institution will continue to round up the usual subjects.*

HT: Total Drek

*thirtysomething was great TV, but it played to the same demographic as museums, though perhaps a bit younger. The show often seemed to be written about, by, and for English majors from elite universities. Here’s a bit of script I found. Gary and Susannah, new parents, are talking with two couples whose children are slightly older – Michael and Hope, and Elliot and Nancy.

Why would I make something like that up?
Seriously. I swear. I put them both in
front of her, right? Runaway Bunny and Ulysses.

And let me guess: she went right to Ulysses?


And put it in her mouth. You
forgot to mention that, right?

So big deal. Listen. Janey, by the
time she was five months old had
eaten most of the major early work
of Saul Bellow,up to and including
Henderson the Rain King, but hey,
I don't like to brag.

Oh, I'm sure Emma's as bright as a button, Gary.

Hey, hey, what was that woman on the Lucy Show
that was always bragging about her kids?

SUSANNAH [definitively]
Caroline Appleby. The kid's name was 'Stevie.'

GARY [turning to her, clearly surprised]
I... I thought you hated pop culture?

Lucy isn't pop culture. Lucy is God

Underground Norms

May 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

This happened yesterday as I was returning from the Book Fair at the Javitz Center. For some reason, I decided to write it in verse.


The Broadway local had stopped at Times Square.
A dozen more passengers pushed their way in.
No seats left but still there was some room to spare.
Three-thirty, rush hour about to begin.

The last to get on were four older black guys.
The one in a t-shirt was noticeably loud.
Some people glanced up then averted their eyes.
That’s how we react to a nut in the crowd.

The doors closed. The guy called, “Hey, what do y’all say?”
Then in that same voice, he broke into a song,
“I’ve got sunshine,” he sang out, “on a cloudy day
Then the other three guys started singing along,

Their harmony perfect, their timing on cue,
And as the train picked up some speed between stations.
You could feel the crowd mood get sunnier too,
Brought to life by these One-Train-Uptown Temptations.

The lead singer paused as he finished a verse
Looked the car up and down, made a cheerful, short plea
As he held out a large rumpled red nylon purse,
“Folks, give what you like, or buy our CD.”

Some gave coins or a bill – easy enough to afford.
But a twenty-ish woman who didn’t comply
Took out her iPhone and began to record.
As the quartet, still singing “My Girl” shuffled by.

“You’re taking our picture, and you won’t give a dime?”
Asked the leader. The girl did not say a thing.
The men moved on quickly – no sense losing time.
Other train cars to try, other songs still to sing.

But a rider across from the blond iPhone user
Apparently irked by her cheap, selfish ways,
Stood up, crossed the car, and as if to accuse her
Stared down with a challenging, withering gaze.

“You didn’t give a cent?” he asked. “Have you no shame?
“That totally sucks,” in his judgmental tone
“I don’t have any money,” but she knew this was lame.
“No money? Bullshit. You’ve got a fucking iPhone.”

She sat there in silence. What more could he do
To keep her selfishness on the informal docket?
Then he realized maybe he wasn’t quite through
For his own camera sat in his left front pants pocket.

Still staring at her across two feet of space,
He took out the camera and aimed at his spot.
But she lowered her sunglasses onto her face
Before he could zoom in and take the first shot.

Flash went the camera, and stalking his prey,.
The man moved to get a clear shot of her face.
A second flash came as the girl turned away
From this Canon-armed man in the cramped subway space.

She was fuming, but given how she’d used her phone,
She couldn’t very well speak up to complain.
Or tell the guy loudly to leave her alone.
Then at last, at the next stop, he got off the train.

Like another bit of verse about shooting, Frankie and Johnny, this story has no moral, this story has no end. This story just goes to show that in any situation, norms may be contradictory, and acts of informal social control may themselves violate norms.

Norms are the functional equivalent of laws. Laws protect property and bodies. Norms protect the self, as Goffman said a half century ago. He also pointed out that by calling attention to someone else’s norm violation, we may ourselves be violating the norms that protect that person. The man on the subway trying to enforce some norm of reciprocity was crossing the boundary protecting the girl.

It also shows that “primitive” or “magical” ideas about cameras – that they steal the soul of the subject – might have some resonance even in our own camera-drenched climate. The subway singers felt that the girl had unfairly taken something from them without compensation. And clearly the crank avenger, shooting with his Canon, was using his camera as a weapon to diminish the self, the personhood, of the iPhone girl.

Gingrich, Weber, Bourdieu

May 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I imagine that Stewart, Colbert, Letterman, and the rest must have had fun with the Gingrich-Tiffany story. (I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been watching much TV lately, and it didn’t come up at all on “Dancing With the Stars.”) Newt had a $500,000 revolving charge account at Tiffany’s. Apparently he was a good customer.

The story was something of an embarrassment, and Gingrich tried to make the best of it.
If the U.S. government was as debt-free as I am, everybody in America would be celebrating. I think I have proven I can manage money.
I don’t know how this is playing out there in America – I haven’t seen any opinion surveys. But the Times went to the heartland for quotes:
But out in Iowa, Mr. Robinson says buying jewelry on credit somehow feels different from buying a refrigerator or a new washing machine. Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide, agrees.
“It’s not something that normal people do,” Mr. Galen said. “I understand he’s made a lot of money and he’s done very well, and God bless him for it, but that’s sort of a departure from the Newt Gingrich that I knew.”
At first, I thought that this reaction was pure Protestant Ethic. It’s OK to make as much money as you can, and we’ll even tax you less. But don’t spend it for pleasure.

But on second thought, the problem isn’t that Gingrich spent rather than reinvesting or giving to charity. The problem is what he bought – or rather, where he bought, since he refuses to say exactly what his Tiffany purchases were. A $25,000 Tiffany necklace, even for your wife, is too elitist.

What is it OK to spend money on? A ranch, where you can clear brush and ride a horse into the sunset. But probably not a villa. A sports team is probably OK but not a Jackson Pollack. A Hummer (if they were still made) but not a Rolls.

What else should go on the approved list? The trick is to avoid implying that your tastes are better, or even different, from those of the ordinary guy. In America, we may not be egalitarian about wealth and power – hats off to those who have the most. But we are egalitarian about taste. You want to have tastes that do NOT require any special abilities of distinction or any education. You want to your tastes to be the same as what the woman in Iowa calls “normal people.”

It makes me wonder: what if Bourdieu had been American rather than French?

The Bad News

May 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Socioblog has never been one to shrink away from reporting the facts even when the news is bad. So here is a screen shot of an interactive graphic at the Chronicle. It’s based on Census Bureau data.

(Click on the image for a larger view.
Click on the Chronicle link above to get the full
interactive graph and see the breakdowns in each category.)

Oh, well – at least we didn’t get a BA in counseling psychology.

HT: Arnie Korotkin, whose Little Falls blog is here.