Newsreal: The fame economy

What's good for Michael Jordan is good for America

Published December 18, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Celebrity used to be associated with accomplishment. A noteworthy book, stellar batting statistics or a bold achievement in science or mountain climbing was the price of a ticket into the hall of fame. Now celebrity is just another mass media-driven industry, a commodity subject to the whims of the marketplace. The greatest recognition goes to those whose images help sell products that have nothing to do with what made these people celebrities in the first place. It's fame as fuel, feeding the maw of popular culture and driving up profits for producers and sellers alike.

Is this such a bad thing? The economics of fame is the specialty of Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and author of the recently published book "In Praise of Commercial Culture" (Harvard University Press). Cowen is working on a new book about the culture of celebrity, tentatively titled "Servants of Fame."

With the American media's habit of bestowing celebrity awards about to reach its end-of-the-year fever pitch, Salon spoke with Cowen about the ever-cheapening price of fame, and its ever increasing financial rewards.

In "In Praise of Commercial Culture" you write that bottom-line commercialism, with its accent on celebrity, has been good for contemporary culture. How do you justify that?

Applause eggs on performers to produce more compact discs, more paintings, more movie performances. In essence, fans get those extra and better performances for free. That's the primary benefit of commercialized fame. The more people clap, the more performers will produce because many performers are fame-seekers. And that is a cheap way of getting somebody to do something for you.

How does the performer contribute to this new economy of fame?

Their images can be bought and sold for profit. Celebrities are now used to endorse other products. We've all seen Michael Jordan's endorsements of Wheaties and McDonald's hamburgers, but here's just a few of the other products he endorses:

Christmas stockings, edible cake decorations, golf club covers, beanbag chairs, shower curtains, pot holders, aprons, rulers, kitchen towels, sleeping bags, plates, temporary tatoos, canteens, play tents, insulated travel mugs, napkins, table cloths, popcorn tins, foam furniture, first aid kits, flip books, gift wrap, greeting cards, memo pads, book bags, pencil sharpeners, erasers, wall calendars, posters, buttons, key chains, wallet cards, magnets, ring binders, tissue holders, diaries, scribble pads, address books, envelopes, flashlights, kites, yo-yo's, gliders, toothbrush holders, trading cards, gold, silver and bronze coins, collector plates, wastebaskets, Sony and Sega playstations, pinball games, action figures, night lights, soap dishes, backboards and hoops, toy rockets, walkie-talkies, curtains, laser guns, acrylic juice cups, gum, cookies, bandages, picture books, poster books, school boxes, comforters and, of course, sneakers.

And who gets the better of the deal?

They both do very well. In essence, the people who make these products are not just selling the product; they're selling a picture of Michael Jordan. It's remarkable how much a celebrity endorsement and image is worth. It helps sell their product, and it makes Michael Jordan more famous.

Mother Teresa didn't endorse products, but she was pretty famous.

Let's look at someone like Mother Teresa. She didn't go around endorsing acrylic juice cups and her funeral got less coverage on TV than Princess Diana, whose face appeared on every conceivable commercial magazine cover. That is why we
have seen a continual rise in the relative fame of entertainers and a continual fall in the relative fame of politicians, military leaders and preachers. The issue today is whether or not money can be made from their fame.

Did Latrell Sprewell diminish or enhance his fame by throttling his basketball coach and being thrown off the team?

He is a case of someone who was so puffed up by his fame that he thought he could get away with what he did. His fame loosened the constraints on him. I think he's sorry he lost money and got punished. But it's not clear how much money he's actually going to lose. His year-long suspension may be partly overturned in arbitration. He could play in Europe, and after that, receive a new contract. So will he really lose that much money? It's hard to say. If he plays well in Europe for a year and then gets a new contract, he could end up richer and more famous than before.

So Sprewell might have done himself some good in the fame game.

Sure. Everyone is talking about him now. And frankly, I think a lot of people admire what he did. While many people themselves wouldn't attack their bosses the way Sprewell did, I think there's a secret glee that comes out when we see someone act out what we sometimes fantasize about. No matter how much people may condemn it publicly, I think there's a huge inner sentiment that says it was just great to see someone pay back an abusive character. And that sentiment enhances Sprewell's fame.

Unless or until he destroys himself.

That's one thing that fame does to people: It destroys perspective, that sense of being like other people. Magic Johnson was another example of the same phenomenon. I think he had a sense of having won so many victories and so much adulation that he could simply get away with anything and still have marriage or never catch a disease. His fame created an air of invulnerability around him which left him with the impression that he was not human in the way everyone else is.

You say mass media is the chief engine of the economics of fame. Do you see the Internet making people famous?

The main thing it does right now
is to make more famous people who are already famous through some other medium. For example, a TV star might have a Web site that fans can visit to see more pictures and find out biographical details. But I think at some point people will start to become independently famous through the Internet.

The ultimate in the globalization of fame.

Yes, but there's a downside. With your picture being broadcast around the world, whether via the Internet or television, the possibility of anonymity is gone forever. It's like the Midas touch. People want fame and strive to attain it. But once they have it, it becomes a curse.

Princess Diana.

Absolutely. Diana spent about a quarter of a million dollars a year on her appearance. She assiduously courted the media, gave interviews and generally went to great lengths to make herself a public image. But once it happened,
she bore the costs. The paparazzi trailed after every moment in her life. They even put a camera in the private gym where she worked out. The person who ran the gym made an arrangement with photographers, and they filmed her working out. So even in her own private gym, she did not have peace of mind or privacy.

Are there examples of celebrities who have handled their fame well?

Yes. Jimmy Stewart is one. He seems to have led a pretty normal life.
But he is the exception rather than the rule. There are also celebrities who simply disappear from public view. J.D. Salinger is one of those, as is Thomas Pynchon. In the case of Salinger, the media view his reclusiveness as a kind of insanity, which
shouldn't be surprising. The media want stars to expose themselves
because that's how the media make their money. When any star refuses to play by the media's rules, they turn against him.

Salinger became famous through basically one book. Could he have achieved the same kind of fame had he written "Catcher in the Rye" today?

Probably not. Modern fame creates very high expectations, both with the public and the
famous. For most people, writing one good book in their lives would be an enormous achievement. But with the fame that now accompanies the publication of such a book, the expectation all around is for another book, and then another. That's one big problem that famous people have. Sooner or later, they peak. Yet they have developed very high expectations. They are then in a position where they're subject to intense scrutiny, but they can't do any
better. They can only get worse. It's a prescription for depression.

Fame is bad for your health?

Celebrities have a lot of health problems. In many cases, there is a tendency toward early suicide. Celebrities also suffer from high rates of alcoholism and stress. Fame is a double-edged sword. On average, it's not very good for your health.

Do you believe, with Andy Warhol, that everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame?

Warhol was an interesting and, in my view, underrated thinker on fame. He used to say, only
half-jokingly, that the people he envied most were those like Marshall Field, people who had their names on department stores and were better known than any artists. But Warhol was wrong in one critical respect -- that immortal
fame would disappear. That's not true. We still have many realms, such as the Hall of Fame for baseball or rock 'n' roll, where long-lasting recognition is still produced. I think Warhol is correct in arguing that ephemeral celebrity has risen. But it has not been at the expense of immortal fame. The two rise together.

But the requirements of such fame has changed. If you look at stamps in the 19th century, just about the only faces
you saw on them were presidents and generals. Now we
have stamps with Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Duke Ellington and Marilyn Monroe on them. These are the people whose fame is going to make money for the U.S. Postal Service. Celebrity is now a commercial commodity, and the biggest stars are those who have the power to earn more money for others.

Getting back to your economic theory, fame has its blue-chip
commodities and its junk bonds.

That's right. I predict that 50 years from now, no one will remember
the Spice Girls. But 300 years from now, people will still be listening to James Brown and Elvis Presley -- and pay them reverence by buying products that carry their image. They are more than performers and artists. They're good investments.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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