A regular review of interesting cultural shifts & marketing developments as viewed through the collective lens of the Stancombe Research + Planning Team

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Money Paradox

A few posts ago, we talked about the functional ways in which actual money is disappearing from our lives and noted some practical shifts in our attitudes and behaviours as a consequence.  

But we at Stancombe have always got one eye on that other great barometer of change – popular culture – and it seems in this important neck of the woods, the concept of “money” has undergone a very major over-haul.

Let’s begin with the top-rating evening-soap-genre re-boot, Revenge. In Revenge there are vague mentions of hedge funds, and trading, and dot.com overnight billionaires, but no industrialists, farmers, or criminals for whom “money” is cash, and for whom it is a tangible thing.  Contrast this with Dallas and its mate Dynasty. We always knew where the Colbys and the Carringtons and the Ewings got the money from – we saw how they earned it, characters in the shows were involved in the actual, tangible creation of it because they worked in oil wells, ranches, or factories – we saw and excepted the mechanics of money, and it being ‘made’, as part of our pop cultural world.  

But not, it seems, anymore.

Here at Stancombe, we’ve been observing this evolving cultural absence and abstraction of “money” for a while now – going back to its beginnings when Brett Easton-Ellis turned Wall Street into label and design-obsessed amoral dystopia in American Psycho twenty years ago, right up to recent movies such as Margin Call and Arbitrage where money is represented as purely an intangible algorithm.  

Nothing to do with labour.  Nothing to do with industry.

There’s a Money Paradox here – and we love a paradox because they tend to indicate something very powerful at the heart of our culture. At a time when everyone’s an amateur banker, when we can’t get enough of interest rate talk, graphic stock market reports on the news, information about our currency climbing and falling, self-set-up-superannuation talk and budgets and deficits, money is actually an increasingly invisible and abstract “character” in our popular culture. 

Even a disappearing one.  

Reality TV such as The Jersey Shore and the Aussie version The Shire seem to comfortably inhabit this post-money world – money is an abstract; it doesn’t appear in the ‘real world’. It’s only the results of money that matter – “livin’ the dream”, “living the lifestyle”, “livin’ it large”.  Hence, whereas money was once concretely tied to class and a particular lifestyle, ‘class’ is untethered from the need to show real money and wealth and where it comes from. The result is a ‘real world’ in which champagne denotes ‘lifestyle’ but doesn’t denote tangible monetary value.

So how does this impact on the marketing of money?  The paradox of invisible, algorithmic money represents a challenge; the rational doesn’t work because people have an increasingly less concrete understanding of money and where it comes from, where you put it (bank branches are for shopping for financial products now, not for taking cash into for depositing), and even what it looks like (A recent ABC radio program commented that most people can’t tell us the correct colour of a $50 note, let alone a $100 one.).  This is why Mastercard has been so successfully marketing memories and the ANZ Bank deems it necessary to personify the mechanics of abstract money – with walking, talking ATMs.

And from a research point of view we need to consider that this may be why people so often find it hard to talk in concrete terms about money:  about saving it and even about earning it. This might also go some way to pointing out a further paradox – while ‘on paper’ we have lots of money, it’s so easy for people  to turn ‘money’ into an argument about not having enough or the cost of living being ‘too much’ – it’s an abstract argument not a rational one. It’s not a tangible equation anymore, money is an irrational will-o-the-wisp entity that lives and breathes only in a nether-world of invisible numbers, exchanges, and ridiculously lengthy algorithms that circulate the globe like air currents. 

Tom Cruise’s memorable shout-out of “show me the money is a fading, distant sentiment that belongs in another pop cultural time-zone.

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