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Marketing in the Fragmented Cultureverse

by Nigel Hollis | July 01, 2013

A couple of months ago, I heard a piece on National Public Radio by Neda Ulaby about the demise of cultural reference points in the face of our increasingly fragmented media. As Ulaby notes, cultural references convey a broader meaning to those people who understand the reference, but what happens in a fragmented cultureverse where the vast majority of an audience simply doesn’t get it?

I was reminded of this dilemma the other day when I was flying to Beijing to conduct a ValueDrivers workshop. The flight attendant asked if I was Dr. Drew. Who, I wondered, was Dr. Drew? And was this similarity good or bad? I had no idea. For the record, you can find out more about Dr. Drew here and I would like to note that while there is a passing similarity, even the flight attendant noted my hair was not as gray. (Dr. Drew, my advice, cut your hair short. The gray does not show so much). 

In her article, Ulaby focuses on the world of comedy shows like Saturday Night Live that thrive by making fun of politicians, TV shows and pop culture in general. What happens, she asks, when only a minority of the audience actually understands the reference being made? If that is a worry for comedians, it is also a worry for marketers. What happens when all culture is specific to segmented target audiences that don’t neatly match up with your own?

When a marketer hears the word “fragmentation,” I suspect that their thoughts automatically turn to media. Be it TV channels or that ultimate in diversity – the Internet – there are far more choices for both consumer and marketer than ever before. And with fragmentation of channel comes fragmentation of content and cultural references. I remember seeing a presentation that suggested that even with the growing number of cable TV channels in the U.S., the number of channels viewed has remained fairly static over time. People simply cannot deal with too many choices and so focus in on the ones that best fit their interests. Cultural fragmentation is a natural consequence.

The solution to this problem is the same for marketers and comedians alike. You need at least some people to recognize and understand your specific reference, but you need the wider audience to appreciate the underlying idea, otherwise they will feel left out. As Ulaby infers in her article, this is a lot easier if the reference is made as part of narrative rather than a throwaway line. Just referencing a cultural reference point is not enough to ensure a successful response.

So what do you think? Is culture really fragmenting? And how should marketers respond? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Mona, July 26, 2013
    I think it's more about a greater freedom for the individual. In the past, there was more the mindset of does and don't to be "accepted" (= peer group pressure among all age groups or within cultures), while today it seems to become more liberal. And with a larger offering and freedom to choose, the individual finds more suitable ways to express itself - hence fragmentation in all kind of areas.

    So identifying a probably more subtle "common ground" might be a response.
  2. Harry Falber, July 02, 2013
    Levy's Rye Bread ads - given your column - are as relevant as the days they were created by Bill Bernbach. He also wrote, "The most powerful element in advertising is the truth", which I think cuts across  and appeals to every cultural sliver and is universal to all cultures.
  3. Rodrigo Vega, July 01, 2013
    Despite the fact that we have a wider choice as a result of fragmentation in all sort of offerings, in the long term, the iterative interaction of individuals with others leads to self-organisation and the emergence of groups with similar attributes that marketers (and comedians) should be able to identify to create relevant messages.
  4. Ann Green, July 01, 2013
    In a fragmented cultureverse, isn't it all the more important for marketers to understand the "human insight"?   I had the pleasure of attending the Cannes Advertising Festival and could not help but notice that many of the winning campaigns tapped into a fundamental human truth.  

    One award winning submission, previously referenced in this blog, included Coca-Cola's Small World Machines which allows people to communicate in ways never possible before.

    Another example might be the strange story of Alex, a joint entry called the Beauty Inside submitted by Intel and Toshiba. The story is about celebrating what's inside that counts.  

    Here is a link to the Beauty Inside Teaser and Collection. and

    Perhaps cultural references can be made obsolete when we shift the focus in marketing to universal truths as opposed to cultural icons?
  5. Roger Saunders, July 01, 2013
    I don't think culture is fragmenting, although there is diversification in many areas. There are still plenty of recognisable steretypes that cross sub-cultural boundaries. From a comedic point of view I would suggest this is reflected in characters such as Alan Partridge - you don't have to get all the cultural references to understand the type. As much as there is diversification there is also some homogenisation - I've heard it said that teenagers on a global basis are shring more and more values as more countries are exposed to similar experiences, not least because of the impact of the internet.

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