August 20, 2008

If You're Watching, It's For You

On the Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson, a joke about "man-ginas," a few drug/DUI references, a Kristy Ally fat joke ("uses her swimming pool to cook spaghetti") and a homosexual reference.

And I think about how TV has changed, things unimaginable 20 years ago are routine now.   I guess they'll do anything to get the coveted youth demographic.

And then I think, wait a second...


It's the easiest logic in the world to follow: racy humor targeting the youth; old people will either not get it or be outright offended, but it's worth it to get the young viewers.

Ok, but there are also going to be a group of older people, maybe in their forties, who are cool enough to get the humor, to like it, but, you know, most of other people their age will be offended, people like their parents.

But here's the sticking point: Ferguson, Conan, and Leno all have an average viewer age of 50.  They're not getting the jokes in spite of their age-- the show is written for them.

And it makes sense: the humor isn't more edgy or racy, it's the same stuff we heard 20 years ago from Stern and others, so this isn't a case of targeting the young, it's actually targeting the old.

Example: they picked Jimmy Fallon to replace Leno, theoretically because he can target the youth viewer.  But Fallon was funny on SNL a decade ago-- he's funny to people who were young a decade ago.  And so he's going to be funny to those same people who are now a decade older.  People don't step outside themselves and realize that everything that is being made by 30-50 year olds, which is nearly everything, is actually for 30-50 year olds, even though it appears like it's for 20 year olds.

Here's an example: Chris O'Donnell is Ferguson's first guest, and he comes out in jeans and a suitcoat.  Because he's cool, he's younger than he actually is.  Actually, no-- he's exactly as old as he is, because the only people who dress like that are people his age or older.

As if to solidify the point, the next guest is Henry Winkler-- the Fonz-- who also is wearing jeans and a sportcoat.  That was cool to (actual) kids thirty years ago when Letterman dressed that way, and now those "kids" are old enough to dress themselves the way they always wanted.  (Letterman doesn't anymore.)


But this isn't just old people pretending to be young, an innocuous though silly behavior.  This is a larger, social trend, a game, designed to promote a fiction.

The game is to pretend that all this media is for the young, so they're targeting the young by acting "young."  But it's really for the old-- who still think they are young.   They are calming the anxiety of a generation of older people who still think they are young.  "Winkler is acting and dressing hip for the kids, and since I get it and dress like that, too, I must be young."   But Winkler is 60.  And no one uses the word hip anymore.  Get it?

I'm not saying Ferguson isn't funny-- I watch him-- but I have no illusion that I get him despite my age.  It's the foundation of televsion: if you're watching it, it was meant for you.

I couldn't have produced the show better myself to reinforce my point: the commercial break between O'Donnell and Winkler was-- please sit down-- Just For Men hair dye.  The commercial showed news and concert footage from the sixties and seventies with a voice over, "The generation that said they'd never grow up-- didn't." 

TV may say it wants younger viewers, but every commercial was for older viewers.

About twenty years ago I learned the marketing law that young people have all the disposable income-- because older people were saving-- and they spend the most, and you have to go after them.  I don't believe that's true anymore.  Hell, the fact that it was true 20 years ago means that those young people are older.  They're still the consumerists they once were.

And so what we have here is semiotics, a redefining of terms.  "Young" no longer means "ages 18-24."  It means "old people who did not grow up."

Don't delude yourself that "40 is the new 30."  It isn't, ask anyone who is 30.  But that's your business how you want to be.  The problem is that the actual youth have no idea what to make of aging.  How long are they allowed to be adolescents?  Pretty long, it appears.  What's the reference point for being mature if your Dad isn't? 

Clearly this attitude doesn't bode well for capitalism. Older people who are supposed to be more thrifty are spending their money on useless symbols of wealth.  Yes, that includes (too big) houses.   And the narcissism that I'm accused of seeing everywhere may, in fact, only exist in people over 30.   Twenty somethings are allowed to be quasi-narcissists, and it's also defensive: what do you expect from a teenager whose Dad, overweight, balding, drives a sportscar?   Emotional lockdown.

Patton Oswalt said he'll be the best parent ever by being boring, because their kids rebel.  All  the cool parents who smoked pot with their kids raised the kids who moved to the suburbs and put warning labels on record albums.

I believe kids demand of adults to be different than them.  More stable, more future oriented, more careful with money.  Not someone they want to emulate, but someone they want to go beyond.   The adult serves as a foundation to build on.  That desire to be a foundation-- not a support or a model or a goal-- is lacking in the older people.  There's little thought given to multigenerational advancement, that the primary point of their existence is their kids', and their kids' kids, progress.  Not a point, not also a point, but the primary point.

So I wonder if the conventional wisdom "we are a youth obsessed culture" is actually wrong.   It may be worse than that: youth obsessed and frankly delusional.  They're not pretending to be young, they actually believe they are young.   A "residual self image" in a person's mind of who he thinks he is, despite that image being 20 years younger.  They picked an identity not supported by the facts.  And has set up a media apparatus to reinforce the delusion, hide the reality.

So the actual young get squeezed out of their own demographic, into being even younger, or jumping over and becoming too old, too quick.  If the kid is parentified, or grossly immature, you may want to consider that. 


Up until the early 1800s an... (Below threshold)

August 20, 2008 5:48 PM | Posted by Glaswegian: | Reply

Up until the early 1800s and the trend setting of Beau Brummel, everybody wore wigs. By the 1830s, nobody was wearing wigs at all anymore - fashions had changed. At some point, there were young folk not wearing wigs and old folk wearing wigs. By the logic of this post, these young folk must have been narcissistic to continue wearing wigs when they aged.

But of course, it wasn't because of narcissism necessarily - times had changed and inertia meant they continued to wear what they always had. I do not see what is different about guests on the Late Show. It is just a lack of perspective in this particular window of time to think that they are wearing clothing to emulate a particular age group narcisistically.

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Man, people still make Kirs... (Below threshold)

August 20, 2008 7:00 PM | Posted by AA: | Reply

Man, people still make Kirstey Ally fat jokes? They were doing that years ago, weren't they?

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By the logic of this pos... (Below threshold)

August 20, 2008 7:35 PM | Posted by EH: | Reply

By the logic of this post, these young folk must have been narcissistic to continue wearing wigs when they aged.

My reading is that the logic says that if an older person stopped wearing a wig to avoid "being" (looking) old, it's narcissistic.

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I thought Conan O'Brien is ... (Below threshold)

August 20, 2008 10:00 PM | Posted by phd in yogurtry: | Reply

I thought Conan O'Brien is replacing Leno -- and Fallon is replacing Conan in 2009?

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This is insightful social c... (Below threshold)

August 20, 2008 11:47 PM | Posted by theskepticalshrink: | Reply

This is insightful social commentary. The phenomenon you describe could be viewed from several different perspectives, each one legitimate, like films from an old-time facial X-ray series. Unfortunately there is no analog to a CT scanner that can integrate perspectives on social and cultural phenomena into a meaningful three-dimensional whole.

However, I think what would really be useful right now is an insightful piece on the current congressional inquiry into the relationship between the American Psychiatric Association and the pharmaceutical industry. In previous articles you've done a great job debunking stereotypes on physician-industry relations by exposing other forms of individual and institutional bias that may be more important, such as those in the research arena. I think your general readership and psychiatrists in particular would benefit from an entry on the APA's relationship with industry. Whadda ya say?

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Are there sexual species th... (Below threshold)

August 21, 2008 4:37 AM | Posted by Stan Stammerson: | Reply

Are there sexual species that aren't youth obsessed? The option of trading in your old tired self for a more youthful replacement with some additional (real or imaginary) advantages sounds appealing. The media severs and divides culture into distinct segments sharing common brand ideologies. Mannerisms to personalities are applied to distinct age ranges where they are deemed fit, and then accepted by the viewers to be appropriate. Connections are made, imaginary perfect relationships. False Love. Anything too good to be true, which is what people want to believe the most, even if the bright white light is simply an oncoming train, they find something they think is good, it doesn't matter if it is or not (in any realistic long run). Same goes for selling pharmaceuticals, or OTCs. A field is developed where what is "real" is defined by what is said on TV. Brand used vaguely, in the way that Hilton talks is a brand identity, so is Janet Rhino 911. To watch a show, to be influenced, is to be categorized for having watched it, is as if they know something about you for having seen it, without hearing so much as a single thought. The media discards the notion of individuality, and promotes the notion of a simple one size fits all solution to any entertainment neee.., no... all of reality. All is subsumed by entertainment. The issue being the entertainment falls short. Highly unlike the nurturing stasis fluid in the matrix, television falls short of providing anything valuable in and of itself, and requires you take some action and make something out of what you are presented with. You do not automatically become a better person for watching TV, hence it can be easily discarded. Not to say there is no means to benefit, but the average viewer is a looser in the end, likely buying something they don't need, worst of all to seem younger, as if they can actually win a loosing battle with a strategy like consumerism. It will never really work though, the only way to actually get any younger is procreation. Unfortunately, if everyone knew this, then we would have overpopulation, which we already do. Life is about creation, yet it is not so limited to creating youth. To think the main mission of life is procreation is a little weak, I think its more along the lines of cultural development, or sustained CD, yet a problem such as this is too self aware for the media to consider it existing. Why promote self awareness when your trying to sell a sponsors product? How does self awareness sell anything? It doesn't. Awareness itself can prevent the sale of anything, costs nothing, is effectively evil (the starving business m/fm will say). Why snap the zombies out of it? The best consumer is a mindless consumer. Trick them to think? no, wait, not to think. Is the popularization of homosexuality an effective trap to trick people into thinking they are doing something new, while at the same time sabotaging their chances of actually being young again? That's not how they popularize it, so it can't possibly be true... right? I would assume any biblical argument grounded in any sort of reality would make the connection between not reproducing and suicide. People take life far too personally, and think that life is something that happens in

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Wow. Nice piece. Your tho... (Below threshold)

August 21, 2008 11:55 AM | Posted by Brooks: | Reply

Wow. Nice piece. Your thoughts have been interesting since I found the blog; your writing is really improving. Thanks!

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"Twenty somethings are allo... (Below threshold)

August 21, 2008 6:23 PM | Posted by Shaan: | Reply

"Twenty somethings are allowed to be quasi-narcissists"

Can you expand on this at some point in the future?

Alone's response: sure, but in short, horrible, painful narcissism is developmentally appropriate at certain ages. Consider a 2 year old, who can't get his head around why anyone would deny him anything-- aren't everyone's needs exactly in alignment with his? Then the sibling is born, and you get a bit of a narcissistic injury, and you either figure it out and stop being a narcissist, or you don't...

Teens act selfish and self absorbed because they'er still trying to figure out who they are, what their place is. So it's a series of trying on of identities until one fits. But as they try each one, they're going to defend it zealously (zeal of a convert)-- so you can't tell her she's faking emo, or he's actually a rich suburban white kid... they truly belive in their own character, they really think it's who they are. So for the short existence of that invented identity, they are highly narcissistic-- but eventually they grow up, find an actual identity that correlates to their own reality. And the narcissism passes.

Adolescence is prolonged nowadays, and not for only bad reasons, so the trying on of identities extends into the 20s. So while I want to punch most 20somethings that I meet, I understand that there is nothing pathological about their behavior. The solution is to try to steer them towards reality, towards building an identity that fits your actual life.

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I'm in my early forties and... (Below threshold)

August 22, 2008 11:27 AM | Posted by mickey: | Reply

I'm in my early forties and I think old Johnny Carson footage is funnier than all of the aforementioned put together. How does this fit into your theory?

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It's worse than this.... (Below threshold)

August 26, 2008 9:28 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

It's worse than this.

The way things worked from the Enlightenment until our parents' generation (I'm 34, my parents are almost 60) was tension between the young and the old, the revolution and the establishment. Unfortunately, in the last generation the revolution won definitively and there is no establishment any more They've eliminated revolution by creating an anti-establishment establishment that is pretty much impossible to rebel against, and they've killed the West in the process, because without revolution, the West has no juice.

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Simple, this has nothing to... (Below threshold)

September 7, 2008 6:33 AM | Posted by a reader: | Reply

Simple, this has nothing to do with age groups being attractive this is all about age groups being large. We have a dictatorship of the majority over the minorities. You focus on older people trying to look younger but this is nothing new.

The fact that older people are in the majority - this is new.

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This is a great blog. Seems... (Below threshold)

September 18, 2008 11:27 AM | Posted by SmartDuck: | Reply

This is a great blog. Seems to me as a marketer (ouch) that keeping people in adolescence keeps them open to try new stuff. That´s the way that fashion works for women (a new fad every month) and gadgets for men (a new IPod every year). Translating this behavior to hobbies, gastronomy, travel, cars, even culture, is the holy grail for capitalists. Why develop an identity, establish priorities and stick to the goods you already have? This would destroy the market.
Add to this scenario the China effect: everything we buy is now disposable and cheap (in both senses). There is no incentive to consume anything durable.

Alone's response: that's an excellent point, but I'll disagree in one small way. The move isn't to keep people in adolescence, because adolescence sucked. (For most people, anyway.) The move is to tell adults that it is okay for them to go get what they fantasized about as adolescents-- "You deserve to have all those things you wanted when you were young." That's why so much that appears to be geared towards young people (e.g. late night TV, porn, or liquor ads) is really geared towards the middle aged.

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Thank you for this post. Yo... (Below threshold)

September 29, 2008 11:04 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Thank you for this post. Your observations verbalized some of the the issues that I only understood on an emotional level.

After college, I began my first full time job. There I met a number of people described above--50 year olds caught up in their own version of Never-Never-Land. It was disturbing to have coworkers twice my age who partied and drank more than I did.

When I entered the workforce, I thought it would be in the company of adults whose maturity and insight I could respect and learn from. Instead, I was left to wonder, "Where did all the grown ups go?"

I would like enjoy my youth, as well as all the other phases of life. Hopefully, I will be able to age with dignity. Do you have any more advice on this matter?

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so good .Thanks for the inf... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2010 5:19 AM | Posted by iPhone Cases: | Reply

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I'm in my early f... (Below threshold)

February 3, 2012 5:04 AM | Posted, in reply to mickey's comment, by Eipa: | Reply

I'm in my early forties and I think old Johnny Carson footage is funnier than all of the aforementioned put together. How does this fit into your theory?

that's how it fits

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I'll just hedge this commen... (Below threshold)

September 25, 2014 1:34 PM | Posted, in reply to Glaswegian's comment, by Aloner: | Reply

I'll just hedge this comment by saying that although this person will probably never reply to my post at this time I think his point is still relevant and worth discussing.

THe point of this post isn't so much on why guests of the LAte Night show or the Late late whatever are wearing this gimmicks for their own personal needs. Remember this is show business not reality, the whole setup is designed to simulate reality, but make no mistake this shows never have nor will mimic reality.

At this point in his blog I don't think Alone was properly able to articulate the point society sees on television is a reflection of it's wants and desires in that way society is more a mirror of what you want rather than a representation of reality. This also coincides with narcissistic personalties in that people who are motivated to watch these shows are not able to see the rube, hence their own impression that this show is infact a window into their society. How they react to it is irrelevant, stronger emotions are preferred (see: hate/love) but as long as it elicits some kind of response it becomes or remains relevant and some kind of valid representation of their world to the viewer.

With that in mind Alone is arguing that via narcissism that the baby boomer and subsequent two generations want is to keep their own world they grew up in alive via these shows. It's their own "private" window into the world of the young, hip, and any other adjective they aspire to be. The fact that it gets branded, whether intentionally or subconsciously (I personally don't watch these shows because I am not a "cool" or "hip" 30-50 year and was even less so when this post was originially created so I can't really comment on the details.) is a means to distance oneself from the whole charade while participating 100% in it. Your comments and opinions don't matter as long as they are predicated on the underlying assumption of the show's relevance and importance. TV knows that that generation still wants and needs TV, not much will change until they die.

Back to the poster's point, it's ultimately irrelevant in the context of this blog because people who obsess over how the Late Night show are setting and influencing trends, ultimately won't be the ones changing the trends. Ulytimately the viewer's commentary is irrelevant to the future of fashion because they are espoused by individuals who are essentially burning out the clock in their lives. Their narcissist viewpoints only serve as a means via which the LAte Night Show can capitalize on (get your money) while making you at most an "after the fact" commentator whose only relevance is their consumption of what they critique. Here's your diarrhea, EAT UP!

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