The Entertainment Economy

Mary Elizabeth Williams reviews 'The Entertainment Economy: How Mega Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives' by Michael J. Wolf.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 15, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Shakespeare was wrong. All the world isn't a stage -- it's a theme park. The Mall of America is one of the most visited attractions in the United States. Five percent of all photographs taken in this country are shot in a Disney park. As boomers cruise into their leisure years and Nintendo-weaned Generation Y-ers gain more control of their own purse strings, the commodification of recreation is just going to keep ramping up. As envisioned by media and business consultant Michael J. Wolf (no relation to the Michael Wolff of "Burn Rate"), the "entertainment economy" has become the new global exchange. Forget the euro -- the currency of the 21st century is fun.

With the aid of a dizzying (if depressing) array of examples, Wolf, who's worked with such fad-friendly monoliths as Paramount and MTV, suggests that consumers are no longer asking, "What can you do for me?" but rather, "How can you amuse me?" Shopping has gone from simple transaction to legitimate leisure activity. Even flying is no longer about moving from point A to point B -- it's now about getting a massage, channel surfing through a full menu of movies and cartoons, maybe even hitting some high-flying slot machines along the way. And that imperative -- to bring playtime into as many arenas as possible -- is rippling out all over and changing the way business is done.

"The Entertainment Economy" points to the phenomenal rise in merchandising tie-ins (McDonald's, thanks to Happy Meals, has become the world's largest distributor of toys), the insidiousness of real-world product placement (getting a star to be seen driving the car your company makes can sell more autos than taking out an ad) and the way everything from sneakers to computer parts is now marketed with breathless, Hollywood-premiere-level hype. Even if you don't know exactly what a Pentium chip does, you know who makes it, because it's got its own disco theme music. Citibank asks, "Who says a bank can't rock 'n' roll?" as if guitar smashing and financial institutions were a desirable match.

Wolf explains changing trends with all the dispassion of a seasoned businessman, going so far as to point coolly to the narcotics industry as "a prime example of successful product distribution without the benefit of conventional advertising." He's neither an old-school doomsayer, outraged at our culture's distraction by shiny objects, nor a Wired-style drum beater for the new world order. He's a trend spotter, not a sage, and he seems comfortable in his role. The book's main stumbling block is that he's not exactly a writer, either. His penchant for biz-speak jargon -- the public are "eyeballs" or "alpha consumers," a product's fun value can be measured in its "E-factor" -- quickly becomes as grating as a weekend synergy retreat with the suits from marketing. Nonetheless, his message, delivered with the ominous flatness of a corporate memo, bears serious consideration.

As consumer spending rises and the personal-savings rate plummets, we are increasingly investing our money and time in the pursuit of diversion. We're choosing to become eyeballs instead of individuals, willing to spend our last few cents on the perfect pair of "Men in Black" Ray-Bans. Michael Wolf and his clients know this, and they're there at the checkout stand, waiting for us.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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