You may have never heard the term “cultural gatekeepers”, but you’ve experienced the forces they wield to keep individuals from “breaking culture“. Marketers face serious consequences when they attempt to break culture or appear disingenuous in their efforts to appear they “fit in” with popular culture.
To understand the role of cultural gatekeepers, we need some examples:
Try wearing a red dress or a black one as a bride (in the US) or a white dress to a funeral and the cultural gatekeepers will come out of the woodwork to chastise your choice. That’s because we’ve constructed a world where symbols have meaning and, by breaking with tradition, you’re threatening the fabric that holds society together.
You’ll encounter similar resistance if you burn the US flag, as some protesters are doing now. Many see the flag as a symbol of the country (in this case the US) and burning it as disrespectful (which is exactly why protesters are burning it). Cultural gatekeepers want new laws that make it illegal to burn the US flag. Currently, we protect flag burning under the first amendment — free speech. Of course, that didn’t stop Cleveland police from arresting 17 protesters outside the RNC national convention this summer.
But, cultural gatekeepers are losing their power. Increasingly niche communities form around alternative values and norms that defy the ability of cultural gatekeepers to shut them down. Let’s first look at how this has happened, then explore what it means for marketers.
How cultural gatekeepers are losing their power
Friends, family, and neighbors are considered informal gatekeepers of our cultural values. Your parents, and maybe older siblings or other family, were your first teachers. They told you to eat your vegetables, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and took you to church and school, where formal gatekeepers continued your education. As you age, the influence of your parents wanes and that of peers increases until you no longer even care about these cultural arbitrators and wear socks with sandals.
Of more concern to marketers is the pluralization of the media that severely limits the ability of formal gatekeepers to impact culture — or at least to have the power they once did.
When I was growing up, there were 3 commercial TV stations and PBS. We were at the mercy of the programming they chose and consumed the media they fed us. The eyeballs captured by these stations was massive because there wasn’t any option. We didn’t have 1000 TV channels, plus Netflix, Hulu, and a bunch of other online TV programming options. But, more important, we didn’t have YouTube, which totally democratized video consumption. Todays millenials are now more likely to consume video from YouTube than traditional programming.
The same is true for everything from news to books to music. Ideas are no longer filtered through cultural gatekeepers like publishers, editors, and producers.
- Amazon lets anyone publish an online book or even get it printed on demand, so you don’t need a traditional publisher. Publishers are now under massive pressure from these new publication options, which makes it harder for new authors to break through the clutter.
- Newspapers are disappearing, both online and, especially, off. More and more newspapers close shop or merge with larger papers or join big conglomerates like Hurst Publishing to stave off death by employing economies of scale. In contrast, new news outlets like Huffington Post, with its citizen journalism, form the backbone of today’s new scene. In a recent study, researchers found more people get their news from Facebook or Twitter than from any other news outlet, although 20-30% also use traditional outlets like TV to supplement their social media news consumption. Radio is similarly under fire from a legion of podcasters.
- Movie and music producers are no longer gatekeepers of culture. Anyone with a few bucks can produce an album or movie, even use crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, or Kickstarter to get both production money and build an audience.
Do we really need cultural gatekeepers?
That’s a conundrum.
Cultural gatekeepers inherently limit individuality and tend to smooth out the diversity in cultures. This isn’t a good thing and stops culture from progressing organically, instead substituting proscribed notions of what’s acceptable.
On the other hand, cultural gatekeepers act as a sort of quality control, ensuring that stuff that isn’t any good doesn’t reach a market.
I recently started a blog to discuss and support indie authors (especially since I’m an indie author and my first book, Buried Ladies, will be available on Amazon on Black Friday — available for pre-order now). In the spirit of cooperation, I invited indie authors to send me manuscripts which I review on my blog. I have to say that many of the manuscript, all self-published, were good, but some were just truly awful and some of the worst writing I’d ever seen. Plus, many of these same authors didn’t review their manuscripts prior to publication so they were full of grammar, spelling and formatting errors. It was a painful process to find the few I did review on my website.
I think we can attribute the recent election results in the US to a similar lack of quality control. In traditional news outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times, articles pass through an editorial review process that attempts to only print information they can validate through independent sources, not rumor and innuendo, or worse, totally unsubstantiated lies. I won’t name names, but these “fake” sources passed themselves off as legitimate news sources and were quoted as such by partisan members of social communities both online and off.
Marketing implications of cultural gatekeepers
Good, bad, or indifferent, marketers need to understand the implications of gatekeepers, and the shifting nature of cultural gatekeepers, for marketing success.
And, this is a paradigm shift that many businesses embraced years ago, but some fail to understand, perhaps hoping things will revert to the way they were. So, perhaps, nothing I say here might be new to you.
In adapting to the fall of cultural gatekeepers, marketers must:
- embrace multiculturalism and seek their own cultural niche
- recognize the power (and fragmentation) of new sources of cultural influence that favor social channels over broadcast/print ie. social media over traditional media
- authenticity is critical for success in communicating with new cultural niches, which often means hiring folks representative of those niches or hiring new microcelebrities, such as podcasters, YouTubers, and bloggers with loyal, engaged communities of followers over traditional celebrities, even for ads playing on traditional media outlets. For instance, NASA invited influential Twitter celebrities to cover their most recent launch and several companies are using YouTube or blogging celebrities as spokes people in their TV advertising.
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