Monday, December 28, 2009

Who Will Emancipate Our Celebrities?

Slavery was outlawed for a century before Martin Luther King, Jr. had a most public dream of the yearning to be free, free at last. But it will take more than the accumulated content of our gross domestic character before our stable of celebrities are released from their iconic obligations to carry the freedom dream for the rest of us.

Certainly progress has been made. Instead of incarceration (fueled by the fears of Caucasians) our celebrities are sentenced to incorporation on the backs of our color blind aspirations (financed by the proceeds of ticket sales, viewership levels, and downloads). But given the choice they would shed for us the posters from their inner children and the billboards from their referencable faces. They really would.

Witness Tiger Woods' pre-meltdown glimpse of earthly. It's beneath the tropical waves with a snorkel in his teeth with no compunction to flash his mug to the coral-nestling fishees because "they don't care who Tiger is."

And why should we sympathize? We do know who Tiger is but you don't see us sunbathing in a private Caribbean fortress. Why should we carry their pain when we've plunked our showered our attentions down on their pageants and play-off appearances? Who gives them the right to wallow behind the draw bridge of their sun castles?

Not us. This is not sour grapes from some clumsy, unintended snub or our Googled identities tossed off the guest list of parties not looking for sponsors. From the gushing and crushing for autographs to the cascading and lambasting of the bum's rush, the price of fame is the most universal valuation of all human transactions. Celebrity is not just a fluid state of hot, bankable media properties.

It's the mecca of recognition. It's an exulted state. On the way up it's you and me on steroids with the winning ticket to kept dreams in this lifetime. Yes, people just like us! On the downward spiral it's a great consolation for score-settling justice seekers. It's comforting the afflicted with the foolhardy pratfalls of the inflated, the craven, and delusional. Feel the loss in cabin pressure as the newly infamous and impoverished gamble away their winnings on addictions unhinged.

We know the inner trials and secret selves of their characters and portrayals better because these fictions hold more truth than the superficial niceties we mix into our surface level chatter. We know in advance to expect the unexpected every time a name actor defies the gravity of typecasting. What reality-based enterprise fulfills that desire? What ritual prepares us for that gratification -- the annual Detroit car show?

Most celebrities are coin tosses and improbable odds personified: the lucky break latched onto their ascent; stars aligning. If they come from fame there's the tell-all peak at the fabled elders as faltering parents. All the privileges and punishments doled out by life in the fishbowl.

It's the very public intimacy of the emotionally-charged celebrity bonding that enables us to know these perfect strangers on a personal level. The connection runs so deep that we source it to their imprints on affiliated movies, TV series, and franchise entertainments. That bond greases newly aquaintenced cast members of these productions -- an extended forest of social networks.

For the celebrity the reciprocal is false. They don't pair up with individual fans any more than we bask in celebrity limelights. The celebrity's assets and their implied responsibilities are one in the same -- the loosely organized aggregates that drop in their tracks and give audience to the attracting star. This arrangement pulls rank on the command of talents that volted their identity into a moldable stardom. That's the third rail for the charmed athletes double-crossed by their double role as model citizens. Not signing up to be one is no defense against the tar and feather stinging of letting down the fan base.

The extended properties of of family fame association is not limited to the playing field of spin the Kevin Bacon degree bottle. It's more basic than the pedigree around the social cachet of blood lines. We look to the chromosomal capacities of media-encoded behavioral modeling. We can't do justice to celebrity worship without acknowledging the marquee role of media as surrogate parent, teacher, and tormentor to all post boomer latchkey babies who ever held an expectation or passed a judgment based on the way a scripted creation bargained on their own behalf.

I distinctly remember the preschool lesson taught by Fred McMurray's wooing of his future stepdaughter in an episode of My Three Sons. Every flavor of ice cream drizzle was the admission price for eligible (uninvited) guardians to step up to the step parent plate. Five years later there would be no such lobbying effort from the future unsecured minefield known as my own private stepfather hell. But it wasn't his failings as a role model that made me flinch. It was the damn TV script that held me hostage to the impotence of childhood.

As an action-based taxonomist I've found it clarifying to conjugate celebrities as parties (plural) rather than persons (singular). After all just because we're in the same living room, movie theater, or set of headphones that doesn't mean we will ever have firsthand contact or even backstage proximity to the main act. Literally you can apply this framework to the posse of agents, body guards and nannies the celebrity bankrolls to carry our hopes and dreams up the base of the freedom trail. But I think of it more as licenses to build marketing platforms on world-beater legs, a magnetic torso, and a helium-powered head. They dance for you. They play for me. They speak for us -- until they stop checking in -- or worse, act on their own individual desires.

Fame is an abdication of individual freedoms. We fixate on the loss of privacy but that's just the beginning of it. The tycoon-like free pass for hedge fund manager behavior is clearly off limits once sentenced to the gated splendor of the penitentiary of fame. Witness protection is afforded to fat cats. But there is no such thing as a privately-held celebrity. The unspoken bargain between extraordinary soloists and the ensemble of little folks who work for a living is this -- your pity for our favor. The moment the celebrated step over the pity limits is the moment they meet the wrath of the unvarnished crowd. How far can the mighty fall? How low a crouch does it take to be trampled by the wisdom of mobs?

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attentionSpin is a consulting practice formed in 1990 to create, automate and apply a universal scoring system (“The Biggest Picture”) to brands, celebrities, events and policy issues in the public eye. In the Biggest Picture, attentionSpin applies the principles of market research to the process of media analytics to score the volume and nature of media coverage. The explanatory power of this research model: 1. Allows practitioners to understand the requirements for managing the quality of attention they receive 2. Shows influencers the level of authority they hold in forums where companies, office-seekers, celebrities and experts sell their visions, opinions and skills 3. Creates meaningful standards for measuring the success and failure of campaigns and their connection to marketable assets.