Re-marketing Classics (Or the Failure of Pop Culture)

My transmedia storytelling course is reading an amazing book by Michael Saler, called “As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary PreHistory of Virtual Reality“. In a nutshell, Saler talks about how modernity rationalized our world, causing us to be disenchanted, and how we are doing our best to be enchanted again. I use his work to launch discussions on marketing and advertising – or in general strategic communication. All our work is based on creating enchantment actually. We are, for instance, creating a world where a body wash creates amazing men (Yes, Old Spice). I am not going through the shelves in my local Target trying to find the cheapest deal (Yes, this is exactly what I was doing when I saw the buy one get two free deal for Old Spice). I am consuming to be a part of this magical experience.

Saler presents literary cases: Arthur Donan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien. He discusses how these authors crafted their stories to enchant the masses, how people took the worlds they created and repurposed them in several other platforms. For me, he also presents a horrific case of the gap between us – faculty members – and students.

With my apologies, I’d like to welcome you to my rant on millenials and future of strategic communication.


Saler’s As If, Front cover

When I chose Saler’s book as a textbook, I thought I was becoming the “cool” professor. You know, the one that pushes the students to reflect on contemporary works, on texts that they would read for fun. Saler was talking about Sherlock Holmes and Lord of the Rings. Everybody has read them, right? At least everybody has seen the movies / TV shows.

To my surprise, most of my students did not read any Sherlock Holmes novels. Only a few knew about Lord of the Rings – there were people who have never even seen the movies. I wanted to use these case studies for two main purposes but the outcome was not, well, the best as I was not able to have a conversation with my students.

First, Doyle and Tolkien have distinct methods of “re-enchanting” our worlds. Both writers actually create fictional worlds that attracted the attention of the masses, generated fan cultures, encouraged individuals to write their own versions, and even bleed over to other media platforms (such as BBC One’s Sherlock series and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies). As the trailers below also show, one takes place in London with regular people whereas the other takes place in a magical world inhabited by fairy creatures. The point is straight-forward: enchantment does not mean fantasy. There is no difference between Old Spice man and Tide that makes your clothes really white. They both attempt to reach the irrational consumer in our minds – one through almost a fantasy-fiction model, the other with rationalism.

Second, these are commercial enterprises which might expand beyond their intended platforms just for commercial reasons. New Holmes stories or Lord of the Rings movies do not necessarily expand the universe or the storyline. They make more money. The expansion brings in a variety of audiences such as people who love the stories (naive and ironic believers in Saler’s words), people who love storytelling but do not like reading, people who loves movies but do not care about these characters.

My students saw the readings and our discussions as repetitive. It was not possible to create any level of enthusiasm in an audience that did not feel anything towards the texts. This particular observation shattered my own “imaginary” world. Students do not share the same cultural references with faculty members.

It is easy to dismiss this observation by blaming the students – they do not read. I even had a student who explicitly stated reading fiction was not worth his time and he preferred biographies and non-fiction. In a world where a professor makes cynical claims on whether or not we encourage critical thinking in colleges, I should not be surprised but yet I was. How can I make this course more relevant?

When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

Bryan Caplan, an actual university professor

In a viral video that is painfully close to my personal experience, the clash between generations is made obvious. The sarcastic take, once again, puts the blame on the millenials. We do not consider the situation to be one of difference but rather one of accusation.

If I cannot discuss different enchantments through (slightly outdated) pop culture, what else can I do?

First of all, I guess I need to accept millenials do not form a single group. I guess this is the biggest challenge in education. Diversity in the student body makes it almost impossible to find shared experiences. The sole shared experience the students have might easily be the class. Expecting shared outside knowledge is futile.

Second, information moves at a faster pace yet is disseminated narrowly – the blessings and the curses of digital era. Student exposure is limited to their social circles on social media. Therefore, enchantment in their lives does not come from shared public sphere as Saler argues. 19th and 20th centuries witnessed strangers who came together and created stories to break the iron cage of rationalism. Students do not feel the same need to create stories, rather they curate experiences. Similar to a comparison between social media and Second life (see the Atlantic article), they do not need to break their ties with the primary world – they need to re-arrange certain things only. We need to follow a similar pattern in our delivery. For the sake of analogy, we cannot see our class as a team of explorers moving into an unknown map. Rather, we need to see ourselves as creating the map of a known terrain. They will not be amazed by the information they receive. They need to figure out where to put them in relation to other knowledge presented.

Third, they are the future consumers. In strategic communication terms, their collective mistake might become the truth in a decade. We already started introducing logic of networks in propaganda studies, where we almost accepted that media literacy was not going to happen. The curation of primary world into enchantment – a phenomenon not covered by Saler – overtakes rational concerns. The future consumer might not want to see the Old Spice man but rather his friend transforming into one.

Fourth, meeting students where they are is not a solution. We should remind them (and Bryan Caplan) the importance of fiction, critical thinking, media literacy, and even reading. Yet, as Holmes and Lord of the Rings franchises demonstrate, we might need to change our platforms. We might need to get their attention through novel assignments and extra-curricular activities. At this point, I am considering volunteer activities, such as Aging Services Division in Georgia. Why not get the students to lead book club discussions? Or why not get them to tutor in high schools?

After all is said and done, it is difficult to protect a level of optimism about the future of higher education. Yet if I learned one thing from Saler’s book, I – together with my fellow scholars – can create and sustain a happy life in our shared public spheres… If we can get the students to interact with this public spheres, we might be able to achieve some of our learning goals.


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