6.25.2009

The Marketplace of Ideas

This doesn’t look like an arts-related post, but it is. This will become more clear with the follow-up later next week.

My sophomore year of university I studied abroad – 1989-1990 in Spain, at the University of Seville. True to age, nineteen, I was fairly convinced of my sophistication and in this case, fairly liberal. I listened to “Dream of the Blue Turtles” and thought, that’s right, Sting, Russians are people, just like us. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe this, but I’ve got a little more nuance to my views. Nineteen years old, I wasn’t so big on nuance. The American administrator who ran the program I was on, CIEE, was conservative – or at least that’s how I placed him. We didn’t talk U.S. politics, so I’ve no idea if he’d been for Bush (41) or Dukakis, but we did talk European politics. Now, not knowing his politics, I’d say he was a pragmatist back then. He was against Communism (when there was still a Communism to be against) because, “Communism doesn’t work because it wants everyone to be equal. No one wants to be equal. We all want to be better than the next guy. I believe in capitalism because its functioning relies on human nature.”

Market conservatives in the U.S. (by the way, this is not intended to be an overtly political post – when I say “conservative,” I do not necessarily mean “Republican”) support the market because it’s effective at coming up with new and effective ideas. They are against government programs because the “the government gets it wrong.” The nuanced view of this is that government generally has one chance to get it right. There are too many layers of bureaucracy and entrenched interests to allow for easy change. What are the odds of getting something right the first time, even with all of the drafting that goes into it? Maybe especially all of the drafting that’s done by committee.

The “market” has the advantage of creative destruction – which isn’t quite synonymous with a redundancy of approach, but isn’t necessarily that far from it either. If two or three or four people (or groups) have the same idea – say, to form a theater company – maybe not all of them survive. By approaching the idea in parallel, everyone going together at the same time, they’re able to sort out their approaches and their audiences are able to sort out what they way. I’m disregarding for the moment a number of seemingly critical factors, like whether or not the administration of one group is more or less effective, or whether one starts off with money and another doesn’t.

The fact is, hardly anyone conservative – in this regard – wants to be first. Being first at something requires a particular, particularly entrepreneurial spirit. A conservative approach to money (or to capital generally speaking), which is to say a careful approach to money or capital, means that you want to be a close second. Sure, here in the U.S. everyone talks about winning winning winning, second place is only the first loser, and all that other competitive stuff. And most of us believe it, or act like we believe it even when we profess our disdain. What we’re not sure about is whether this particular race is the right one. Who wants to place first in the wrong race?

I work occasionally in commercials, sometimes in the art department, sometimes in grip-electric. When we started a non-profit a couple of years ago, Bad Soviet Habits, we asked an advertising agency we’d done work for, Kohnke-Hanneken (now defunct) to design a logo and a look for us. Agencies like doing free work more than you’d think. The reason is that they have much freer creative rein. They can be daring and inventive, and they submitted our whole look for some award thingy or another. Then these daring looks become part of their portfolio, what they use to shop themselves to clients who might hire them, say Manpower (I'm using them because I’ve never worked on one of their spots, don’t know who’s got their account, and mean them just to be the neutral representative of a Client). Manpower looks at this really daring portfolio, hires K-H (or another agency) to do the work because they’re “edgy,” and promptly asks them to do the safest, most boring, tamest design they can come up with. No one’s going to phrase it that way, they’re going to talk about being Careful. Can’t offend anyone.

When Seth Stevenson of Slate.com asks Larry Bloomenkranz of Progressive Insurance if the two guys in their insurance commercial are supposed to be gay, Bloomenkranz demures. "The ad was not written specifically to be gay. But if people interpret it that way, it's fine with us." I’m telling you: that is a lie. That crew discussed and discussed and figured out every nuance. What clothing will they wear? How close will they stand together? Okay, let me backtrack. Maybe it wasn’t written for them to be gay, but it was directed so that the ambiguity would be there.

Progressive is remarkable because they are at the front of this. No one puts gay characters in commercials. Don’t want to offend anyone, and I know everyone likes how much money gay couples with no kids are reputed to have, but then there’s all of “middle America,” and we can’t offend them either. An ad in a gay-oriented magazine? No problem, because “middle America” probably won’t look at it – targeted marketing. Television is too accessible to everyone.

So think about that – this coy, coy commercial – that’s the vanguard. That’s what counts as daring. Impressive, no?

Entrepreneurs are the ones looking at the box and trying to make it work for them. It’s a mindset more than a personality. Anyone can do it. It’s understandably easier when you’ve got less to lose. Conservators (think about the relationship between conserve, conservative, conservator, conservation) have to be careful. They’re going to look at the entrepreneurs and see who survives, who’s got staying power. They’re not just investing in an idea, or a theater company when it gets to patronage, after all. They’re investing in a person.

1 comment:

  1. Yes. So the trick is for the entrpreneurs to not let the conservators take their idea, mediocritize it and run with it.

    On first gloss, it seems intellectual property rights works as a protection of entrepreneurs (and sometimes it does) but oftentimes the relationship between inovator and patent holder is not so cut and dried. Sometimes the person who's most able to pay for the lawsuit wins the patent. Some innovators are too busy innovating to bother protecting themselves. Some innovations are so radical you can't pin-point what should be patented, or figure out how to patent it.

    But nowadays, because of information technology, it's much easier for customers (audience, patrons) to witness innovation directly, it is easier to establish authentic "ownership" of an idea. This may usher in an age of real entrepreurialism.

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