Trendspotting

How a Minneapolis consulting trio discovered the "iconogasm," and other tales from the trendspotting business.

And with each new defection, the sense of reckoning grows: Is it possible that the people, quite literally, have stopped buying it? Iconoculture would say yes--in fact, they have a name for the phenomenon. In their book, sign number 17 is headed "Stealthing": It denotes a "guerrilla consumerism" and a "desire to fly underneath society's radar in order to beat the system."

What the advertising and marketing industries seem to be experiencing is a boom and a bust collapsed into one, and the image it most recalls is an explosion at a fireworks factory. Festive lights and colorful rockets streak brand names across the sky. Look at Marlboro popping and whizzing overhead. See McDonald's incandescent arc over the pretty conflagration. Corporate logos rise and fall, sounding off like a roll of snare shots--BACTERIA FREE! ORGANIC! $1,000 BACK! MICROBREWED! MACROBREWED! ONLY 59 CENTS WHILE SUPPLIES LAST!--and eventually everything seems to meld together in a fiery gleam just above the ground.

Meanwhile, the death rattle in the factory begins to quiet like a spent bag of microwave popcorn. The wait is on for the last Roman candle to slip into free fall. The iconoclock strikes midnight.

Now it is incumbent upon the trendcasters to describe what might possibly follow this supernova. And a certain desperation can be detected as they set their sights on virgin territory to be colonized. Iconoculture, for instance, locates marketing opportunity in the public schools: "Develop creative ways your company can help schools and at the same time build brand equities," they write in an iconogasm (cultural climax, marketing opportunity!).

But should there be anything sacred, any principle that remains outside the boundary of the buck?

"I guess I can't think of an example--but we do have consciences," Megan Meehan says.

"I think there should be some sanctuaries from consumerism, personally," Samuel adds. "Like, I think the bathroom should be one of them. I don't want to have to read advertisements when I go to the bathroom." "And ski lifts," Abrahamson chimes in. Needless to say, the sanctuary is a small place.

And as if to prove the point, the trio's book strays onto some truly grisly ground, describing the business opportunities to be seized in the organ trade. "Iconoculture predicts organlegging will really take off. Body organs will become a major source of trade as boomers' hearts, kidneys, and livers putter out over the next decades. The used-body-parts business has already seeded a lucrative global market [with] India control[ling] the heftiest slice... If the worldwide polarity between have and have-nots continues to widen, cadavers may even emerge as a form of global currency."

When pressed, Iconoculture's founders maintain that they're merely describing the world that is, and that to circumscribe what they tell corporations and the public would be an act of "censorship." "What we do in the book is we're looking at where the culture is moving," Meehan says. "It's not us saying, 'Go there.'"

"I think we probably have our own personal politics," Samuel says. "I find consumerism empowering. There's good and bad about it. People find value in things and materialism and you can't argue with that."

But pushing the argument into an almost hyperbolic realm: What about an ultimate human transgression, a mortal sin, genocide through ethnic cleansing? It's a wildly lucrative business; the atrocities in Yugoslavia have provided such a windfall for warlords and their allies in organized crime that some have begun to hypothesize about the involvement of profiteers in the start of the war. Would Iconoculture add that to their report of "where the culture is moving"?

"That's out of bounds," Samuel says.

"That would be a good example of somewhere we would draw the line," Meehan elaborates, and then pauses for a second. "I don't see that as something we could decode and turn into a marketing opportunity."

...but if we could?

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