| 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.