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. For instance, the Taco Bell chihuahua fit with the culture of the ’90s when it first appeared but faced criticism over its depiction of Mexican culture that ultimately led brand managers to abandon the ad. Cultural gatekeepers thus ensure genuine symbols in our national discourse.
Here’s a great image depicting how cultural gatekeepers become the arbitrators of culture and condemn those who’s use of cultural symbols doesn’t match acceptable standards.
How do cultural symbols form
Take a look at this image about how we form cultural symbols and how cultural gatekeepers communicate acceptable symbols and enforce standards.
Symbols have meaning in any culture, although symbols often have different meanings in one culture versus another. For instance, a bride wears white in Western cultures as a symbol of purity, while Eastern brides wear red as a good luck symbol. Obviously, no one writes these rules in stone and no government punishment imposes punishment, such as incarceration or fines, for violations. Instead, violations of cultural symbol usage often involve embarrassment, social ostracism, and you might face criticism.
In a social context, these negative consequences keep a community “in line”, with some members feel they can ignore the proper use of cultural symbols with impunity. For instance, Dennis Rodman and his dresses and wild hair. For a brand, violating the proper use of cultural symbols can sink a company.
The role of cultural gatekeepers
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 do to protest government actions. Cultural gatekeepers view 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). These individuals want new laws that make it illegal to burn the US flag, thus transforming a cultural symbol controlled by gatekeepers who exact social penalties into a legal issue resulting in government-imposed penalties.
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 recently.
Two diametrically opposed actions are happening in today’s increasingly digital landscape. First, the social consequences for inappropriate cultural symbolism expand as a minor (or even a major) infraction quickly spreads across social media to become a trending topic with negative consequences. For instance, someone photographed VA Governor Ralph Northam, a strong advocate of mask-wearing, without a mask, and his image quickly spread along with calls of hypocrisy. The second action we see is cultural gatekeepers losing their power as we see niche communities form around alternative values and norms that defy the ability of cultural gatekeepers to shut them down. For instance, the adoption of Nazi symbolism by right-wing groups.
Let’s first look at how this has happened, then explore what it means for marketers.
Are cultural gatekeepers losing their power?
Commonly, we consider friends, family, and neighbors as informal gatekeepers of our cultural values. Your parents, and maybe older siblings or other family members, 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 as a senior citizen.
We also have other gatekeepers from the world of arts and entertainment (like Dennis Rodman), who build a new world with cultural symbols at odds, sometimes, with those we learned as a child. For instance, in the US, with its obsession with celebrities, we give them the power to dictate what’s acceptable. For instance, divorce and out-of-wedlock children quickly spread from the actions of celebrities to common occurrences among the rest of society.
Of course, that changes over time. For instance, celebrities account for much of the spread of smoking throughout the culture in the early days of entertainment, while a shift occurred as the celebrities of the time distanced themselves from smoking.
The media and gatekeeping
Of more concern to marketers is the pluralization of the media that severely limits the ability of media 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 federal government imposed stringent rules on appropriate scenes, resulting in married couples who didn’t share a bed in programs in the ’50s and ’60s — a trend that translated to quite a number of bedrooms across the US.
The eyeballs captured by these stations were massive because there wasn’t an option. We didn’t have 1000s of TV channels, plus Netflix, Hulu, and a bunch of other online TV programming options. But, more importantly, we didn’t have YouTube, which totally democratized video consumption. Today’s Millennials are now more likely to consume video from YouTube than traditional programming.
The same is true for everything from news to books to music. We no longer filter ideas through cultural gatekeepers like publishers, editors, and producers. And, the federal government no longer controls what’s allowed beyond the broadcast media. In fact, Fox News recently won a defamation court case by saying they were entertainment, not fact. In the words of the judge in the case: “Given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism” about the host’s on-air comments. Even reputable news channels face criticisms of “fake news” from those who don’t like their version of the truth.
Other examples of fracturing across cultural gatekeeping are:
- 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 news 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, or even use crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, or Kickstarter to get both production money and build an audience.
As the power of traditional gatekeepers is declining, the rise of mobs on social media exert severe penalties from those members see as outside cultural norms. For instance, QAnon surfaced conspiracy theories regarding democrats who were satan worshipers who ran rings of child prostitutes through various locations. The theories drove one devotee to enter an establishment purported to run such an operation with the intent of killing everyone involved. Luckily, he was stopped before emptying his guns on innocent diners.
Now, rather than learned discourse that weighs facts and seeks evidence, individuals are condemned via meme, their actions and statements were taken out of context or manufactured; their imaged manipulated in deep-fakes.
Do we 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, and others in the series, are available on Amazon). In the spirit of cooperation, I invited indie authors to send me manuscripts that I review on my blog. I have to say that many of the manuscripts, all self-published, were good, but some were just truly awful and some showed the worst writing I’d ever seen. Plus, many of these same authors didn’t edit 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 that were worthy of a 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 editors 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 changing nature of cultural gatekeepers, marketers must:
- embrace multiculturalism and seek their own cultural niche. For instance, Nike hired Kaepernick for its new commercials despite criticism that the football player kneeled during the national anthem to bring attention to Black issues. Hence, the choice acted to segment the audience for athletic wear that helped Nike stand out from the competition. Nike’s move had very positive consequences for their bottom line.
- recognize the power (and fragmentation) evident in the 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 spokespeople in their TV advertising.
- carefully monitor social media, listening for negative mentions that might go viral.
- understand the nuances of a culture rather than “passing” as a member of that culture. Ensure diversity in your hiring and promotional practices to gain broader expertise across various groups and subgroups.
- stay up-to-date on cultural symbolism to avoid accidentally using a symbol with negative attitudes in your target audience. For instance, consumers are beginning to question the use of the Confederate Flag and images of American’s like George Washington, a slave owner.
While gatekeeping is moving into online platforms and the role of traditional gatekeepers is waning, brands must ensure they understand the nuances of symbols they use and monitor how their brand is perceived across various groups and subgroups.
If you have comments or additional questions, simply add them in the comments below. Similarly, if you have ideas for future posts, add them to the comments section.
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Image courtesy of PBS