Lowest Common Denominator
The free market rewards those who produce what other people want, which is just what it should do. But what people want may not be what makes them better people. In fact, it’s far easier to make money by catering to people’s least noble desires. The “best” product is rarely the most profitable product. In general, this is because people choose short term satisfactions at the expense of long term benefits. The Gallup polling organization has done a considerable amount of research on this issue, reflected on the book Well Being by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. As the authors say: “With so many options to satisfy ourselves in the moment, it can be difficult to make the right long term decisions. It is, after all, in our nature to do the things that will provide the most immediate reward. This is wired into our DNA for basic survival. For decades, psychologists have described increases in the ability to delay gratification as the cornerstone of human development from childhood to adulthood.” (p.8). Unfortunately, the world, and America in particular, seems to more and more be inclined towards an immature childlike state of always seeking immediate gratification.
Restaurants that sell the healthiest food are not the ones that make the most money, and there are many profitable food businesses that are successful only because the load on the sugar, fat, and salt, helping to contribute to the worldwide increase in obesity. Of course, what is one man’s pleasure is another man’s poison, and we’re not arguing that no one should make donuts. What we’re saying is that it’s not really fair to compare the profits of someone who makes donuts with the profits of someone who sells celery, because people tend to overvalue immediate gratification in terms of taste, and undervalue long term health benefits. This is partly because immediate taste sensations are captured entirely by the individual, but the long terms costs of unhealthy behavior are shared with the public through public health subsidies. But it’s also simply because people tend not to have the discipline to make short term sacrifices for long term gain.
Just as its easier to sell donuts and pizza than celery, it’s easier to make movies with a heavy dose of sex and violence than ones with more subtle inducements to the viewer. In 2009 The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for best movie, edging out Avatar. Yet the worldwide ticket sales of The Hurt Locker were about $40 million at the time of this writing, compared to over $2.7 billion for Avatar; in all time domestic sales Avatar ranked number one; The Hurt Locker ranked 2,790. Yet if many smart people, with a deep knowledge of the industry, selected The Hurt Locker as the better picture, why does it have far fewer sales? It’s an interesting movie, and certainly not plodding, yet it was made with a much smaller budget than Avatar, and lacks Avatar’s spectacular special effects. While The Hurt Locker makes a point, it is made much more subtly than in Avatar, which assaults the viewer in 3 dimensions. Will Rodgers made the point that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public, but it’s also true that no one makes money by being too subtle.
Of course, The Hurt Locker looks like a raging box office success when compared with a film like Return with Honor, a documentary about the saga of US prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. The story of these men, which included some famous politicians such as John McCain and James Stockdale, is both true and amazing. How these men managed to survive years of torture and confinement, and generally do so according to the military code of conduct, is, to me, a much more interesting story than that told in either Avatar or The Hurt Locker. But far fewer people saw that story; total US gross was a measly $103,601, with an all time domestic rank of 7,850 for American box office receipts. Return with Honor is the movie that people should see; it helps you understand American history while providing an inspiring tale of human endurance; but Avatar is the movie that people choose to see; it provides immediate gratification in the form of entertainment and requires little thought or effort on the part of the viewer. What is challenging is what makes people grow; what is easy is what sells.
Of course, it’s also true that many intelligent, thought provoking works of art do very well in the market; Shogun by James Clavell is probably the greatest adventure novel of all time; its moves quickly and has a great, intriguing plot; yet it is a long, intelligent book that has managed to sell more than 15 million copies worldwide. Which is great, until you find out that the Harry Potter Series has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide. The most important philosophical novel of modern times is probably Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; it was a huge bestseller, with 6 million copies sold. But Xavier Hollander’s The Happy Hooker sold 20 million copies.
The natural human inclination is to go with the easy, the known, the accessible, the traditional. Defying these trends requires a huge amount of energy, and is normally not successful. Even when success does happen, it can happen too late; Van Gogh sold one work of art in his lifetime, and committed suicide while living in poverty; in 1990, his portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million. So is he a bad painter as he was regarded during his life; or a great painter, as he is regarded now? Andy Warhol on the other hand was successful even in his own time; his most famous painting is probably his copy of Campbell’s soup cans. His work can’t be considered great by any reasonable standard, but viewers were certainly familiar with the images he used in his work; in addition to soup cans, his portraits of Marilyn Monroe (yet another famous mediocrity) and other cultural icons, plus his gift for self-promotion, led to success and fame.
Making works of great quality is no route to commercial success. While such goods are very expensive, they sell in very small quantities. While couture clothing gets a great deal of publicity, it is almost never profitable. The great master of luxury goods, and chairman of luxury conglomerate LVMH, is Bernard Arnault. He has only started one brand from scratch, luxury fashion house Christian Lacroix, and it never made a profit in 22 years. In fact, the highest end clothing lines of even the most famous designers almost never make money, but serve as promotional tools for the lower priced clothing, as well as ego enhancers to the designers. On the other hand, Donald Fisher created the Gap casual clothing empire, focused on jeans and tee shirts, and died with a great fortune, as well as one of the world’s great collections of modern art. You can see this in industry after industry; custom home builders can rarely afford to live in one the homes they build, yet the founder of NVR, Dwight Schar, paid $70 million for a mansion in Palm Beach with 18 bathrooms. NVR is a publicly traded builder specializing in high volume housing tracts; most NV homes look the same.
Tiger Woods isn’t one of the great athletes of our time by any standard criteria of athletic performance (strength, speed, endurance) but he has become a billionaire by focusing on a sport which is beloved by wealthy old men, as well as being willing to endorse any product that will pay him. On the other hand, you’ve probably never even heard of Brian Clay; he is an American who won the Gold medal in the 2008 Olympics in the decathlon, which makes him what many consider to be the best athlete in the world. His victory margin of 240 points in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was the largest since 1972. Prior to the Olympics, Clay was tested by SPARQ to establish his SPARQ Rating across a number of different sports. The test is meant to measure sport-specific athleticism and in the football test Clay recorded a score of 130.40, the highest ever recorded. By comparison, NFL star Reggie Bush scored a 93.38 on the popular test. While Clay does not make nearly as much money as Woods, or even nearly as much as Reggie Bush, he is a far better athlete.
The top 11 most watched TV shows in America are the Super Bowl; some are good games, most are not, but the marketing institution behind this tradition won’t go away. In fact, of the 20 most watched TV events in America, 16 are football games, two are the academy awards, and the other two are finales for Friends (2004) and Survivor (2000). All of these shows have several things in common: they are heavily marketed, have an audience developed over time, are very familiar types of fare, and are not mentally taxing for the viewer. While both Friends and Survivor had more than 50 million viewers for the most watched episodes, The Wire, considered by many critics, including this author, to be the greatest show ever produced for TV, had a peak audience of 4.4 million viewers, and for some episodes less than a million. The Wire had plenty of sex and violence, and was a riveting drama, hardly educational TV. But it was on HBO, which has narrower distribution than network TV. Most importantly,it was a different kind of TV, more like an epic novel. Different equals less popular.
In May of 2010 there were 124 million searches on Google for information about the pop star Lady Gaga, whose primary claim to fame seems to be her outlandish outfits and bisexuality. The woman nominated in that month for the American Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, received 27,100 Google searches. Another pop singer, Britney Spears, best known for her tumultuous personal life such as shaving her head and being photographed without underwear, received over 45 million searches; President Barack Obama was searched for about 5 million times. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, was the subject of 9900 searches. Kate Gosselin, start of the reality TV show about her 8 children, received over 2.7 million searches;Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso and conductor, was searched for 135,000 times. The writer TJ Stiles, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for biography, received 1,900 searches. From these numbers, it would be hard to argue that American’s interest has much, if anything, to do, with any standard of value other than notoriety and cheap sensation.
Overall, commercial success in almost any field has little to do with the inherent value of what is produced, and far more to do with marketing, promotion, public perception, and providing what is of interest, if only in passing, to the broadest scope of people. A market oriented system is designed to satisfy the desires of the greatest number, and, for a wide variety of reasons, what most people desire is easy mediocrity.