Derek Brigham

Picture, if you will, a diapered toddler of monster-movie proportions stumbling and squalling across the country, toting a credit card as big as a billboard in his fatty fist, demanding to be sated. Now. This is our consumer society, where the covetous life is a national birthright, and fine minds are paid--handsomely--to divine the temperament of the toddler, to lure it here and there, to translate its inchoate gurgles and analyze the consistency of its droppings. What does baby want, and when does he want it? What is he missing, and how can we get it to him? How can we keep him from growing bored and tired? What will happen if he gets mad?

Iconoculture, a trio of Minneapolis marketing consultants, have answers, and these answers are called trends. There are hundreds of them in the group's book, the future ain't what it used to be, and they purport to reflect nothing less than a mood swing of millions, a soul-deep cultural craving, a developing demographic groundswell. All, paradoxically, unknown to the middle-class masses--until now.

Iconoculture is possibly the most prominent local player in the business of trendcasting, a growing industry that has attracted everyone from major ad agencies to tiny PC-and-PO-Box outfits, all offering to show corporate clients the path to the Next Big Thing. And the next... and the next...

Iconoculture's vision of what is and what will be hits the page in an aggressively breezy vernacular. "Germonella" (sign number 37) reflects the recognition that "there's a whole other world out there that we can't see," populated by noxious "itsy-bitsy lifeforms [that] are wilier than coyotes." This, in turn, portends opportunities for germ-resistant products, like "a line of [Playskool] playthings made with Microban, an organic substance that makes infectious bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and strep run home crying."

And should Dick or Jane succumb to Iconoculture's itsy-bitsy friends? Then there's "the other side," sign number 12. "One of our culture's biggest bugaboos--death--is finally being confronted head on," Iconoculture informs us, as "empowerment-crazed Americans... [try to] rationalize the Big Mystery in the belief that if they understand it, they can control it."

That very rationalization--control through understanding--is what Iconoculture offers clients in need of more specific ruminations on the Big Mysteries of the retail economy. Among the company's customers are General Mills, Honda, Wendy's, Country Living magazine, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, and American Century Financial Services; they shell out upwards of $10,000 for the privilege.

And what, short of an encounter with the Biggest Bugaboo, might prompt such eager response? Megan Meehan, who runs the company with Vicki Abrahamson and Larry Samuel, lays out the Iconoculture strategy: "We'll talk to a client. We'll try to assess their situation and their current needs. Then we submit a proposal suggesting to them how we might solve the problem. And they say, 'Great--we love this.' And we go out and do our thing. We look through research that we've done. We go out and do more; that just means we all three head out to our various locales and points unknown to gather all this information."

Deliberately or not, Iconoculture's vagueness about their methods hints at a sort of cultural omniscience and omnipresence. "A lot of the clients that we work with are very intelligent, active, out-there people," Meehan says. "But they don't have time to read the amount of material that we do. And while they may understand it once we present it, they don't have the same sort of 24-hour-a-day antenna-up, radar-going thing.

Samuel, Meehan, and Abrahamson collectively cite 49 years of marketing experience in a variety of button-down jobs, though their comportment after six years together is pure corporate casual. Samuel, who has a Ph.D. in American Studies, wears a neat denim shirt and speaks most naturally in the self-written jargon that is the trendcaster's calling card: "I think there's just been a little bit of a backlash against the whole self-help/me/victim-America thing," he'll say. "That was real '80s, early '90s. We're speaking to it as a trend; it's post-peak."

Meehan has served as the volunteer head of the board of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Abrahamson, the oldest at 49, is a marketing veteran in product-naming. The trio proudly characterize their work together as a textbook example of "zentrepreneurism," a "fusion of one's personal vision with one's professional vision, grounded in activism and a holistic philosophy."

Such lofty pronouncements aside, Iconoculture's worldly methods share a handful of traits with those of the phone psychic. Keep the client talking; only hint at the source of your foresight; and never predict heartbreak, ruin, recession, or depression. The group's vocabulary is one of ever-shifting opportunity. I see a dark-haired stranger coming into your life, a floating dollar sign, a new job.  

In the group's book, these possibilities are called "iconogasms," and they have the glib phrasing and open-ended banality of a fortune cookie. They come about two to a page, accompanied by a picture of an open eye with a lightning bolt bisecting the pupil, and a text slug reading "cultural climax, marketing opportunity" (Irreverence!).

iconogasm: cultural climax, marketing opportunity. "Create a big bang through celestial products and services."

iconogasm: cultural climax, marketing opportunity. "Jump out of the melting pot and into the salad bowl as Americans choose to segregate themselves."

iconogasm: cultural climax, marketing opportunity. "Little things say a lot. How about reducing your annual report or corporate mission into a statement of vision and love?"

What Iconoculture promise--and their trade depends on it--is to show the right cookie or koan to the right client, to tie the trend to the brand. And to sell this skill they claim to perform a deep, talmudic study of the market--the lexicon of Lexus, the infinite behind the Infiniti. They can decipher the matte-stock catalogs with the demure line drawings, and parse the daffy paeans to the perfect undies for a night in Tunisia. They can testify to the acoustic miracle that is the Bose Wave radio. They know Victoria's Secret.

But chasing the zeitgeist can be as tiring and mystifying as hunting snark, and sometimes the bloodhounds of trend seem to circle around to the scent of their own asses. In these daft hours a Minnesotan must turn to the wisdom of a dour, forgotten Norseman.

Meet Thorstein Veblen, the sixth of 12 children born to Thomas and Kari (Bunde) Veblen, raised in the 1860s and 1870s on a frontier farm in Wheeling Township near Nerstrand, Minnesota. Erratic, lazy, backwards, and brilliant, Veblen arrived by buggy at Carleton College, where he distinguished himself as a taciturn and surly scholar. Next, he tried his hand as a journeyman graduate student, and although he eventually secured a Ph.D. in philosophy, no academic appointment followed.

And so he returned home. There, Veblen moped and brooded, dismissed as a rustic "Norskie" within the Americanized academy, while dismissive himself of the stolid farm life of Nerstrand. (At age 30, he would marry Ellen May Rolfe, a local woman of higher social standing. But she suffered a form of infantilism--she'd never fully reached puberty--and the marriage ultimately failed.) Even Veblen's moustache, a dark, drooping horsetail, seemed implicated in a sour conspiracy to keep his mouth hidden and shut.

But when Veblen finally secured an economics fellowship at the newly founded University of Chicago (for the princely sum of $520 a year), a bold and scabrous political voice emerged in a series of journal articles: "The Economic Theory of Woman's Dress," "The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor," "The Barbarian Status of Women." Drawing on studies in anthropology and psychology, Veblen sought the oblique, behavioral motivations behind the folly of mechanization and the barbarian ways of the businessman. In 1899, the work culminated in his first and best-known book, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

It's a strange, satirical work, erudite and densely argued. At its (elusive) core is the notion that social status originates in one's refusal to participate in productive enterprise; the archaism and uselessness of one's possessions serve as evidence of such genteel obsolescence.

Unlike his colleagues of the period, Veblen didn't pin his schema to the reliable arcs of supply and demand. Instead he addressed the significance of the spoon, the corset, the narcotic, the house pet. "Apart from the birds," he wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class, "which belong in the honorific class of domestic animals and which owe their place in this class to their non-lucrative character alone, the animals which merit particular attention are cats, dogs, and fast horses." And so Veblen went on for several pages about the temperamental deficiencies of the feline, which he considered "less reputable because she is less wasteful; she may even serve a useful end." Except for "the Angora cat, which may have some honorific value on the ground of expensiveness."

Meanwhile the dog, though "the filthiest of the domestic animals in his person and the nastiest in his habits... has advantages in the way of uselessness." There's also the canine's "gift of an unquestioning subservience... a slave's quickness in guessing his master's mood... and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else."

Veblen would go on to write a half-dozen-odd books and would teach in Missouri, California, and New York. Legend has it that he was repeatedly ousted by administrators for inveterate philandering; Veblen maintained that his ideas threatened the dim university boosters of the business class. No one debates that he shambled at the lectern, mumbled through class after class, and graded papers arbitrarily, if at all.  

Yet after this singular, strident career, Veblen, arguably the greatest intellect of his home state, is now remembered solely for a single phrase from The Theory of the Leisure Class. It's a formative reckoning with the connection between what we own and who we are, with the wastefulness of the former conferring status on the latter...

A life in two words: conspicuous consumption.

Or, as the case may be, a century in two words. Set the Movado Museum Watch forward to a few ticks shy of 2000, and examine the following selection from Faith Popcorn, the pre-eminent trend spotter of our time and a plastic bookend to Veblen's colloquies. "America is a consumer culture," she says matter-of-factly in the best-selling Popcorn Report, "and when we change what we buy--and how we buy it--we'll change who we are."

It is a brazen testimonial to start the book and serves to introduce a comprehensive and compelling political philosophy. In Popcorn, we encounter an American who will proudly inveigh for that most red-blooded of revolutionary tenets: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property. "Ask not what your consumer can do for you," she writes, in her rendition of the line that still makes a nation go misty, "but what you can do for your consumer."

So what can Popcorn's trends do for the consumer and the client? What can't they do. For $20,000 a year, BrainReserve, the company Popcorn founded in 1974, will send out a bimonthly "TrendPack," colorfully labeled "the future in 3-D." Inside are such goodies as "the ethnic/world music of the Gipsy Kings; Terra Chips, crispy, colorful, thin-fried vegetables (yuca [sic], yam, parsnip, lotus, beet); herbal energizer pills, even an honest-to-goodness crack vial (empty), plucked from an East Village rooftop." On the street, peddling an empty vial for $20,000 would either get you laughed at or honest-to-goodness shot, but "a roster of a hundred culture-watching clients" apparently ponies up.

Also available for the discerning corporation are the "BrainJam," an "ideation session that uses trends as a springboard for generating ideas"; the "TrendView" seminar; the "TrendTrek," in which Popcorn leads the client on a field trip into a natural retail habitat; and "TrendBending," or "the process of 'reshaping' a product, business, or idea to the trends, to move them closer to consumer wants and needs."

In practice, such a consultation seems to consist of little more than making a checklist of a dozen trend terms and testing a product against them to determine if it is "on" or "off"; call it a Magic 8 Ball with fewer sides. By way of example, Popcorn cites a satisfied client, Bacardi, and its "Breezers," a line of preprepared, low-alcohol cooler-drinks.

How does the Breezer match up to the Fantasy Adventure trend? Well, "rum carries with it its own resonances of tropical paradise and island adventure." Put a check mark in the "on-trend" box. Egonomics? "This young and breezy lifestyle refresher was 'made just for me,'" Popcorn writes; another check mark. Cashing Out? "It gives you permission to believe you've 'left the rat race' for a dream place, if even for just minutes." Tally the boxes...unseal the envelope...and..."The Breezer is a runaway success!" But then we saw that coming, didn't we?

Compare Popcorn's approach to Iconoculture's, and it becomes clear that trendcasters are also assiduous recyclers. Iconoculture's care packages are called "Iconopacks," its presentations Signs of the Times.

Also available (and described at are the trend commandments, comprising "10 proven, time-tested bits of wisdom to determine where and how to look for trends"; the iconoclock, which "plot[s] the key dimensions of your topic of interest decade-by-decade through the 20th century and project[s] a future scenario based on its cultural arc"; culturama, a "product and character development, campaign strategy, brand naming, positioning, and promotion;" and, of course, the iconogasm.

Popcorn's BrainReserve claims to do $20 million in business each year, and when the clients are named in the acknowledgements that lead off The Popcorn Report, the register fills five pages. G.E., Kodak, Citibank, Xerox, Seagrams, Mirabella, Martha Stewart, Philip Morris, Nabisco--all the names are represented here, many at the level of president or chair. And lest the reader miss the point, a largely identical tally is reproduced in the back of the book.

Part of Popcorn's success must be credited to such persistent self-promotion. Since creating the term "cocooning" back in 1987--it's "the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world"--she has displayed her handiwork like a flashcard to media and clients alike. Writing in the New Republic in 1994, Ruth Shalit counted nearly 1,000 Popcorn citations in a single decade, with nearly 60 name-specific mentions in the New York Times alone.  

Neither Popcorn's corporate clients nor the features editors who lap up her pronouncements seem to mind that her "Discontinuity Trend Analysis" involves little more than CommonSense. Though BrainReserve claims that its 40 employees "braille the culture" by combing through some 300 publications and performing 2,500 to 3,000 interviews a year, a former staffer quoted by Shalit dismisses much of that as a bold fiction. And researchers at other trend firms assert that their work has a remarkable way of turning up in Popcorn's words.

Such complications, however, haven't detracted from Popcorn's popularity. Nor, for that matter, has her own paradoxically lucid diagnosis that as a nation, "we're consumed out." As far back as 1991, Popcorn warned of a "Socioquake!" (an echo of the cultural dislocation first portended in that Old Testament of the trend industry, Alvin Toffler's best-selling Future Shock) and offered this prescription: "Gloom is the short term, hope is longer-term--and the trends and methodology that you read in this book are the bridge that will take you to the longer-term, safely and profitably.

"To turn the tides we need someone with candor. Interactive leaders with courage, not wimpiness... Why doesn't America call together a BrainJam (or call it a Summit) where a smart mix of politicos, business types, educators, and thinkers get together to solve this country's problems?"

To paraphrase: Popcorn is a woman from a town called Hope; she's building a bridge to the 21st century; and she believes a Renaissance Weekend might heal the nation. Faith Popcorn, you can believe, also feels our pain.

Of course, Popcorn and Iconoculture are by no means the first trendspotters to command coin from the captains of industry. The modern age of the prophet-for-hire might have begun in earnest with media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who brought his delphic insights to boardrooms across the country (as described by Tom Wolfe in The Pump House Gang).

At these cryptic lectures--fees for which could run up to $50,000--McLuhan would hold court as "master and monomaniac... telling apparently knowledgeable people that they didn't have the foggiest comprehension of their bailiwick." He might inform package-designing giant Walter Landor that "packages will be obsolete in a few years" as customers demanding "tactile experiences" would "want to feel the product they're getting." Or he would tell General Electric that their business was not, in fact, light bulbs, but pure information. Such epiphanies, Wolfe wrote, prompted a panicked and only slightly skeptical response from McLuhan's corporate clients: "What if he's right?"

In the years since McLuhan's mid-'60s heyday, the anxiety of the executive class has shifted from nagging doubt to a full-blown crisis of confidence. At the root of the matter might be a recognition that the consumer economy has met its gravest threat to date: anonymity. A statistic determined by the advertising agency BBDO a decade ago tells the story without ornamentation: Two-thirds of Americans "believed that most brands in most categories were exactly alike."

One result has been the near-manic proliferation of specialized shops doing what was once the job of ad agency "research departments," which conducted polls, surveys, and demographic studies. There are now independent research firms specializing in consumer electronics, casual apparel, packaged goods, automobiles. And the level of attention devoted to any one item resembles an epistemological quest: Can you ever really know a car?

R. L. Polk & Company, the country's oldest automotive-research firm, maintains a database of 184 million vehicles: They can, writes author Randall Rothenberg, "tell marketers (of everything from sheet metal to tires and spark plugs) exactly what kinds of autos, of what age, are in whose garage, in which zip-code districts." Another firm, Maritz Marketing Research, Inc., conducts consumer interviews over 600 WATS telephone lines, in 41 focus-group suites, and at 16 shopping malls.

Lest the advertising agency surrender all authority in auguring the "brand essence" of a product, the last decade has seen a steep growth in a research approach called account planning. An uncertain hybrid of qualitative and quantitative analysis, it can seem to merge the worst impulses of the two: the fuzzy focus of the soothsayer and the info-hoarding of the retail statistician. Which is to say that account planning, to some extent, is the trend business by another name.

Unlike the practical market researcher of old, the account planner conducts a search for the amorphous soul of a product, be it canned meat or tampons. It's a religious undertaking, filled with endless questioning and contemplation on the quiddity of the thing. The process is nothing less than a search for meaning--if a very small, canned, congealed meaning.

The planners' most valuable technique is the focus group, and their methodology draws liberally from the acting workshop, the town-hall meeting, and regressive hypnosis. Pat Cameron, director of strategic planning at the Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun Esty, describes how the firm solicited feedback on popular commercials from 800 kids 6 to 17 years old: "We asked questions like 'If you were in the commercial what would you be doing?'" Cameron recalls. "And, 'If you were the brand in the commercial, how would you respond to the other kids?'"  

Most of the largest ad firms now incorporate similar methods in their campaigns. BBDO, a decade after uncovering the peril of product anonymity, has cast its lot with account planning: "We've recently embraced [the technique] in all our division offices," says Steve Hayes, the agency's director of new business.

And what of the number crunchers of old? "I think many people in research have evolved into account planning," Hayes says, "and those who haven't have evolved out of the business."

Campbell Mithun Esty's interest in underage focus groups highlights another recently learned lesson: To marketers determined not to "evolve out of the business," no creature is more valuable prey than the animal called the Young American (juvenilis americanus). Endowed with disposable income, the young shopper will dependably carry a brand loyalty well into her 20s, while the treacherous older consumer plays the field. Accordingly, some of the most ingenious work in the trend business is devoted to poaching juvenilis americanus and manufacturing a happy, controllable habitat in retail captivity.

The most august firm in the trend industry, Yankelovich Partners, Inc.--creator of the ubiquitous newsletter "The Yankelovich Monitor"--established its name through an unprecedented series of five attitudinal surveys that culminated in a book titled The New Morality: A Profile of American Youth in the 70's. The chart-and-graph-filled work reflected more than 3,500 detailed interviews and reached what must have appeared to be alarming conclusions: Twenty-one percent of college youth believed that "the American system... ought to be abolished."

Twenty years later, solid research is no longer a requirement for those purporting to have nailed the demographic bull's eye. Witness Douglas Rushkoff, author of the book Media Virus (Ballantine, 1994), whose advice reportedly draws up to $7,500 an hour. Like McLuhan, to whom he is often compared, Rushkoff is a media man, claiming a special familiarity with "screenagers," and what they do in their "datasphere." Also like McLuhan, Rushkoff reports having stumbled upon consulting by happenstance; he suggests that most of his business followed a New York Times article that effectively hung out a shingle for him.

Rushkoff has taken advantage of the attention, though, attracting clients such as the J. Walter Thompson agency, Sony, PepsiCo, Tri-Star, and Turner Broadcasting. This year he put in an appearance at a national account planner's trade conference. What did he tell them? "Not a hell of a lot," Rushkoff says in a phone interview from his New York apartment. "At least nothing that I would think was that constructive. What I do is not so much research as thinking. And the thinking I do is valuable to people because they either don't have the time or the faith in their own zonedness."

At 36 years old, Rushkoff is the author of three books--a fourth, on coercive advertising, is in the works--but even this choice of mediums exposes his age. For the psyche of the young consumer is such an enigmatic and valuable commodity that sometimes words can not fully ken its content or contours. Enter Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca, creators of the video newsletter "The Sputnik Mindtrends Report." Their pledge is not just to survey the preferences of the young consumer in focus groups, but to infiltrate their clubhouses with cameras. "All of our correspondents," the pair writes in their 1997 book Street Trends, "are themselves of the age and mind-set of the people they interview--essentially 'one of them.'"

Sputnik's endeavor, then, is an anthropological one, Jane Goodall among the apes. The report gives its subjects "tribal" names--"The Collective Intellect," "Soldiers for Culture," "The Hip Hop Nation," "The Speed Generation," and "Club Kids"--and recounts their rites in the wild.

"Today's progressive youth," we learn, "have begun to use the words intellectual heads, intellectual crews, and intellectual gangs to describe themselves and their peers." More specifically, a tribe like the Soldiers for Culture "have an intellectual, spiritual, and artistic soul, mixed with strong ethnic, urban roots."

As an exemplar of this spirit, Sputnik offers an animated fellow named Bonz Malone, "a former interior decorator of NYC subways" and now a writer at Vibe. "This circuit here in New York City, with all the crews, all the intellectual gangs, performing on- and off-stage, is about to blow your fucking wig back," he says of the "hip-hop poetry" which is a touchstone of his tribe. "I'm telling you that shit right now, because the street's going to come to your fucking yard." And, as Sputnik proposes in their "bubble-up" theory of culture, to your WalMart too.  

To accentuate their critical distance from the trends, the Sputnik authors, who have been called "cool hunters," play it square, putting the youth lingo in quotation marks and supplying lists of their subcultures' weird talismans and rituals: MUD rooms, ginseng cigarettes, National Public Radio, "virtual gender illusionists." "Not only are they trendsetters," Street Trends claims of its cliques and their habits, "they are the masters of interpretation."

Sputnik's own mastery of the data is a bit more suspect. Among their field discoveries is an urban upturn in straight-edge punk culture (popularized over a decade ago by the band Minor Threat). "In some regions like Minneapolis and the Hannepin Lake area," the authors write, "punk style has been steadily visible." Regrettably, Sputnik fails to identify on which shore of Lake Hannepin these steadily visible young rascals can be found.

But such quibbles are unlikely to trouble those who shell out for Sputnik, Iconoculture, and hundreds of other high-priced trend newsletters (one, "The L Report," fetches $20,000 a year). Doug Hagge, director of planning at local ad agency Carmichael Lynch, says he's heard talk of winnowing the trend information the company imports: Trend consultants, he grants, mostly "reinforce your judgement. They reinforce your perspective."

And yet in a hyperactive marketplace of paranormal possibilities, there is always the promise of The X-Files: The truth is out there. So Carmichael Lynch continues to call in consultants and subscribe to some 30 newsletters--at approximately $15,000 a year--while assigning two or three employees to sort through additional sources. And for now, Hagge acknowledges, these expenditures "are trending upwards."

Hughes's ambivalence hints at the core of the trendcasters' success: the realization in the executive suites that the consumer, if not a rebel, is at least a fickle figure. Bored customers have been breaking brand loyalty with increasing ease in recent years; in turn, corporations quickly drop ad agencies suspected of being "off-trend." This month, Levi Strauss severed its successful 67-year relationship with Foote, Cone & Belding, the shop that created the tag lines "Button your fly" and "The future's wide open." Leo Burnett, the massive Chicago company, has lost lucrative and prestigious accounts, including United Airlines and Miller Lite, after years of doing business together.

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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