An economist’s approach to Marilyn Monroe posters

This post is a response to “The Sort of Idea that Will Make a College Girl Light Her Posters of Marilyn Monroe on Fire”

With regard to icons and images becoming and staying popular you said, “Some persist on merit… …some persist just because they are somehow good at persisting.”

False, this is even worse than an explanation. This is encouraging the thought that there is no explanation so why bother trying to figure out what it is. Even worse, it’s wrapped up in a warm blanket of rhetoric.

Let me take off the warm blanket and expose the cool stench of bad logic.

By stating in the same breath that the Mona Lisa has merit and cat videos do not, you’re subtly telling your reader that they should define merit in the same way when they look at 16th century painting and a video clip on YouTube.

You go on to say that these meritless things that persist because “they are somehow good at persisting” will continue to persist going forward because “once an idea has gained traction it is increasingly here to stay.”

Claiming that some things persist “because they are somehow good at persisting” is a lazy argument and the underlying assumption that some things persist due to chance is untrue.

Some things persist while others do not for a reason:

Cat videos:

1) Women like looking at cute animals, especially if they are doing something cute and even more especially if they’re doing something amusing.

2) Women love using social networking platforms (Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram) and they like sharing things they like with their friends. Women know that other women like cute animals so they are likely to share cute cat videos with their friends for both the validation of getting lots of likes / comments on something they share and because the good feeling they get when they share something they know will bring pleasure to the people they like.

3) People who create YouTube videos make more money if they get more views. These people find out that cute / funny cat videos are popular so they make more cat videos.

Cat videos have merit in that they bring pleasure to people who find tiny furry animals cute. It isn’t chance that cat videos are popular and rat videos are not. Rats are not cute. Rat videos have no merit. You might say, well why not small dogs, or hamsters – they’re cute little animals? Yes but they’re not funny. Cats do funny and adorable things. Cat videos of cats doing nothing funny or adorable don’t get shared or viewed. Cat videos of cats jumping from one ledge to another and coming up way short get shared.

Marilyn Monroe:

1) Marilyn Monroe was a very talented actress – Golden Globe Award Winner

2) Marilyn Monroe was in many popular films. Not just in popular films. Not just many films. Many popular films

3) Marilyn Monroe is beautiful

4) She was interesting and likable as a person – someone women would idolize

4) Marilyn Monroe had her own production company, “Marilyn Monroe Productions” – a great platform for self promotions

5) Her posters are aesthetically interesting, dramatic, and memorable

6) Companies who make posters understand that they are going to make more money by trying to push/create one iconic person (sponsor really) than to try and make a number of different women popular. The reason we still only have Marilyn Monroe posters is because Marilyn Monroe (or at least what she represents in the posters) is still the same person she was when she was in her prime. Granted college girls don’t buy a poster of Marilyn thinking “she was a talented and beautiful actress who embodies all the interesting and edgy qualities I secretly wish to aspire to and this particular poster has a classic, retro, vintage feel to it, which is totally in. Oh and there are 3 variations of Marilyn Monroe here front and center of this poster store.” Wait, yes she does, because the companies that make money from these posters have carefully and deliberately pushed that message over the last many years.

But wait, Marilyn Monroe can’t have been the only women with these characteristics. You’re right, let’s turn out attention to Audrey Hepburn. What do you know, Audrey just happened to be the first actress to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for a single performance. By all conventional standards she was one of the most talented entertainers of the last 100 years. Extremely talented – check. Performed lead roles in several popular movies – check. Beautiful – check. Interesting and likable personality worth idolizing – check.

There were other beautiful talented interesting women. But they weren’t AS good and the people making money off these women are going to make money if they concentrate on blowing up a select few rather than spreading themselves to thin.

Pink Floyd and Einstein have interesting stories of their own.

I agree with your second to last paragraph. We still ‘use paper’ where it’s impractical because of the high switches costs. And this does ultimately prevent the up and coming classical musician from getting appreciated.

I support the evolutionary approach to explaining why some things persist and other things don’t. But my guess is that an evolutionary scientist would say that some things persist because… [clear logical reason backed up with case studies]. But I’m not a member of the scientific community so maybe “some persist just because they are somehow good at persisting” is the best way to approach the interesting phenomenon that is Marilyn Monroe posters.


6 thoughts on “An economist’s approach to Marilyn Monroe posters

  1. Easy on the ad hominem cowboy! Certainly, a quantifiable model is the best explanation for things – but that'd be kind of boring for a blog, no? I couldn't quite unpack the finer points of memetic theory or evolutionary theory. All I had was words, and about 700 of them. Add to that, the appropriate amount of lurid imagery needed to be used as the bait and hook. But it got your gears turning and fueled this fiery clapback. Job done!

  2. (needed to edit entry appropriatelyAny idea that gets copied – in art, in business and in culture… in humanity – is going to be (necessarily) subject to the evolutionary algorithm: 1.)reproduction/propagation/copying (I saw Shenanae with this poster so I'll cop one)2.)differential pool of traits (There's the choice between Hepburn and Monroe posters)3.)differential selection (Shenanae chooses Monroe)And each year the Monroe trait wins over the Hepburn trait, the more likely it will continue to succeed, by sheer numbers. (I've never hooked up with a girl who had an Audrey Hepburn poster in her room!)As you can see, this algorithm is broadly applicable, owing to its simplicity. It is a recipe. All you need is a copying mechanism (in our case copying the idea of what poster to buy, having seen it before). Add to that a pool of different ideas to choose from (Hepburn, Monroe). Finally, the act of preferring one idea over the other (posting those cheery, cherry red lips on your wall)So, going back to a few examples: what factors aided and abetted the Mona Lisa's selection? We might say it is genuinely regarded as a masterpiece.In contrast, what factors aid the selection of cute kittens. Well they are cute. They are addictive in a way. But that isn't so meritorious a selection criteria as being selected for historical greatness.Now, I believe that the explanatory arguments you have supplied describe the individual *selection criteria* for the idea of interest. I.e. the itemized list of reasons why Monroe is picked is just a delineation of the selection criteria. Recall, selection is step 3 in the algorithm above.So, everyone should be happy that life was breathed into the evolutionary concept with specific and poignant examples from economics.

  3. Penner I liked that post a lot. I enjoyed your sass. Mostly, I appreciated your logic. I think you and EEO are arguing two different angles. Both of you are right. EEO is pointing out the frivolous nature of teenybopper trends. You are pointing out that behind each fad lies some merit/evolutionary background. I'd like to explore your idea. Monroe is essentially a vessel for a specific meme. She stands for "well rounded sex icons from the 60's" (by rounded I don't mean down to earth). What differentiates her from Hepburn? She died young and tragically, so she somehow earned the badge that would carry that particular meme on. Thus, Hepburn and all the other "well rounded sex icons" are grouped under the label Monroe and tucked away nicely into our collective consciousness. Similarly, Psychadelics fall to Jimmy Hendrix, Revolution to Che Guevara, 90's Rock to Nirvana, Studliness to James Dean and Politics to JFK. These guys are the vessels for their respective memes. They all died young! This must have something to do with immortalization of a meme, and there is probably some interesting social psychology going on behind this phenomenon. Hewl Faz

  4. Good stuff guys. In general, I would caution against believing that the persistence of ideas can be neatly traced back to their origins. Some systems (like culture) are too complex to model. The difference between an idea being adopted or not could be so trivial and unpredictable that we might call it random.

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