New York stories

Two new books demonstrate how culture and marketing melted into one lukewarm soup.

Marketing Magazine, March 27, 2000   

Here’s a reading assignment: two books, some big ideas. Neither one will tell you what — or how — to think, but you will be spurred to think for yourself while reading them.


The first is John Seabrook’s Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, The Marketing of Culture (Random House, $35). John Seabrook only ever wanted to work at The New Yorker. Once he got there, he found Tina Brown had altered it irrevocably. He’d admired the magazine’s studious avoidance of the ephemeral, the evanescent and the fleeting. But that had meant declining readership numbers and a publication advertisers viewed as moribund and a pointless buy. Brown hoped to reverse that by focusing on subjects making noise — and money — further down in the market.


But Seabrook didn’t walk out once Brown took over. He needed to pay for a SoHo apartment, for one thing. And he needed, apparently, to pay way too much money for Helmut Lang pants and ridiculously expensive T-shirts whose chief charm is the fact they’re indistinguishable from T-shirts sold for pennies a pound at Wal-Mart. Not that Seabrook was entirely comfortable with the arrangement, of course. He really wanted to write long pieces about tuna fishing. He got to write them, but Brown never published them. Instead, she assigned him to execute the magazine’s end of a delicate exchange: the prestige of a New Yorker profile for the borrowed “hotness” and buzz of celebrities whose presence in the magazine would, it was hoped, boost its circulation and ad rates. So Seabrook ended up writing deeply ambivalent profiles of people like affectless, obscenely wealthy and exquisitely bored mogul David Geffen, never-grew-up movie director George Lucas and not-grown-up-yet rock stars like Ben Kweller.


That same ambivalence runs all the way through Nobrow, which aims to look at how marketing and “culture,” (whatever that is anymore) melted into each other and morphed into the ubiquitous lukewarm soup we all swim through but remain vaguely dissatisfied with. Seabrook admits to bafflement as to how the old high-low taste strictures went soft in the heat of celebrity-worship klieg lights and devolved into nothing more than differing brand preferences.


Some critics have taken swipes at the book for its discursive nature and its shape-shifting: personal memoir to philosophical musing to recycled New Yorker assignments to thinking out loud. But that’s what makes it an interesting read; watching Seabrook think on the page is a lot more entertaining than having somebody who doesn’t know the difference between politics and ideology denounce you for drinking Starbucks coffee. Seabrook tries out a couple of possible explanations for the collapse of the old high-low cultural continuum (he may be overestimating its pervasiveness and power when it was ascendant). But he avoids the main temptation in an undertaking like this: prescriptive instructions on how to “fix” the current situation.


If you want to know how something could be fixed or improved, follow Seabrook’s Nobrow with Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, $34.95). Also a New Yorker writer, Gladwell disproves a lot of Seabrook’s contentions about Brown’s regime. She hired Gladwell, whose work seems the apotheosis of the William Shawn-era New Yorker as limned by Seabrook: lucid, unadorned, beautiful for its lack of filigree. And because of that, the depth and quality of Gladwell’s plain old shoe-leather reporting shine more brightly. Even when interpreting what he’s discovered, you never get the sense Gladwell’s done selective reporting as a means to advance his own prejudices, agenda, received opinion or blind-faith contentions.


Reading this book, I thought every ad agency in the country ought to buy a copy for each of its employees, then test them after a week to make sure they’d read it. In the old days as described by Seabrook, of course, cultured folks would have heard about this book from similarly educated members of their own class and read it in order to stay current. That doesn’t happen anymore. And while Gladwell doesn’t directly address why, his discoveries may offer some possible explanations for the cultural shift Seabrook posits in his volume.