ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO, I attended a benefit for the Bat-Dor Dance Company. The founder, Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, was in a particularly jovial mood that evening. She was dressed impeccably and, as one could imagine, was wearing some exquisite jewelry. Of note, was her necklace, which was made up of pearls that started at about 7mm and graduated up to a 25mm monster in the middle. It was so extreme, it almost looked fake. I simply could not resist the malapert query, “… those aren’t real, are they?” The Baroness gave me a wry smile and replied, “I’ll never tell.” We live in an age where literally millions of individuals display indistinguishable, tangible trappings of wealth. A copy of that necklace on a mall rat would scream “fake!” However, a copy on a trophy wife might not be questioned. Jewelry, clothing, cars, boats, considered goods, luxury items… you name it, and you can have it: good, better, best. Any price point from mass to class can be yours.
This poses a very interesting sociological problem. Only those schooled-in-the-art can tell who has real wealth and who has fake wealth. Are the glasses on the table imported from Venice, a very good knock-off from Pottery Barn, or first-cost goods made somewhere in China from Wal-Mart? Is the silverware antique or a modern replica? The trappings of wealth have been substantially commoditized.
One quick qualification: All of this is relative. Whether you live in a culture of Gulfstream Jets, Cadillac Escalades, or Chrysler Town & Country Minivans — keeping up with the Jones’ is no longer a full-time job. You wear the uniform, you have the watch, the car, the house, the stuff… you just do it.
In our economy, money is no longer scarce. Wealth is no longer scarce. Information is no longer scarce. Even knowledge has been commoditized. There is really only one thing that is scarce and that is celebrity. Getting attention, controlling it, and keeping it is a new coin of the realm and so we enter the Age of Egocasting.
People who are famous for being famous are not new, but here’s a stunning factoid. In 1991, we did an omnibus telephone survey for one of our clients to help them make the No. 1 thing teen girls wanted to win in 1991 was a Mazda Miata in pink. The second thing they wanted most was a weekend at a beach resort with their friends to “talk.” We did the same survey in 2001 for a different client and came up with a very different set of answers. Most profoundly disturbing was the No. 1 thing that 12- to 17-year-old girls wanted was “to be famous.” And, the second most important prize to them would be to “hang out with somebody who was famous.” Ouch!
Four years ago, being a celebutant, a celebrity, a star, a personality even being notorious required some doing. Today, not so much. Behold a world where blogging, podcasting, and extraordinary feats of self-promotion are currency. It is no longer good enough to be good enough – now you have to be relevant to your core audience. Do average, normal people have core audiences? Of course they do. And today, the tools and techniques to play to that core are completely democratized.
Can’t get enough attention? Put some night vision footage of yourself having sex on the Internet; it may help your career. Go to jail for perjury – a surefire way to jumpstart the ratings for your new reality show. Anybody got a blue dress they don’t need? Great, now blog it, meta-tag it, post it to some important sites, hire some polluters to populate the P2P space with it, podcast it, put the video file in an RSS envelope, make a progressive download of it, and put it on your good old-fashioned HTML site. Add a publicity stunt or two, and you can get some of this most scarce resource.
Andy Warhol was famous for 15 minutes for saying that, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” He just didn’t know what a high price people would be willing to pay for it.