A product like the mRobo Ultra Bass dancing audio player is pretty marginal by any standard, so it was somewhat odd to head over to Tosy’s booth at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) only to find hundreds of people massed, mostly being polite about having to stand for 45 minutes while gruff private security with Secret Service-type earpieces barked at them from time to time (one of the press photographers on hand referred to them as "jabronis," which seemed rather apt). Of course, even in the consumer electronics world there is a very good chance that many of those present weren't aware of the company, which is notable for being the first Vietnamese robotics company and the makers of a ping-pong playing humanoid robot. But that’s OK. That’s not why I was there. I was there for the Bieb.
CES is the major consumer electronics trade show in the United States, a pop-up city in the Las Vegas Convention Center that rivals Providence, Rhode Island in population for four days every year. People from around the world fly in to buy, sell, promote, or just plain gawk at whatever technology companies big and small hope to hook the consumer with, and at this moment, all eyes are on a robotics company from Vietnam.
Eventually, Justin Bieber was led out of the shack that served as makeshift offices for the company and through the throng to a table where he demoed the toy — but not before walking haltingly through the press area, mugging for pictures and eliciting one awkward Beatlemania-style-scream from what sounded like a pre-teen girl (but could have been a grown man, I guess). The pop star was a good sport about the whole thing: he played along amiably as the robot did a sort of strange, half-broken shuffle to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," and he even held the microphone to the automaton’s groin-centered speaker, which led to a few strange pictures in the press.
He played along amiably as the robot did a sort of strange, half-broken shuffle to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"
It’s easy to discount this experience as being trivial, but there is a reason that companies shell out tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for Will Smith or Ryan Seacrest to generate excitement about their product. Why hire a celebrity spokesperson in the first place? What does something like this cost? And what’s it like to be in the eye of the tornado? These were questions I was determined to answer, for better or for worse.
Marketing works best when it toys with your emotions, speaking directly to your lizard brain. The most design-forward booths at CES come across not so much as product displays than as works of art or monuments, almost like a vulgarization of something that’s supposed to be transcendent. The Intel booth bathes the attendees in an unrelenting blue light, and overhead on a large, curved display something called an "interactive life form simulator" is projected, with rudimentary simulated "life forms" (generated whenever a passerby places his hand on a nearby panel) swimming around, colliding and sub-dividing.
"You’re contributing to the ecosystem and creating life," says one of the Intel spokespeople. "Just like technology, once you put out the energy it takes a life of its own. So you have to be able to put it out in the universe, but once you do that you have no control over it."
At Moneual’s booth, a large, abstract tree-like thing springs forth from the marble and AstroTurf. Artificial butterflies are suspended in motionless flight, while underneath company reps in the corporate uniform of white polo shirt with lime green collar and black skirt or slacks extol the virtues of home theater PCs and the company’s cloud-based home automation product.
These booths, like Motorola’s — featuring male models working out on treadmills and stationary bicycles, while nature scenes are occasionally projected behind them — gives one the impression of living in a spaceship (or survival condo) where the sanity of the occupants relies on making at least a half-hearted attempt at recreating the general "vibe" of the natural world, as it existed before the end times.
Then again, maybe the world has already ended, but we don’t know it.
"In societies where modern conditions of production prevail," once said a French drunk named Guy Debord, "...everything that has lived has moved into a representation." This representation is a virtual reality, but not in the mechanical sense that Philip K. Dick or the Wachowski brothers have written about — although it is no less horrific. In Society of the Spectacle, which is like The Matrix if it had been written by a dry European Marxist, Debord details nothing less than a change in human perception brought about by the cataclysmic nature of the industrial revolution. As he explains, because of mass production and the mass media, we experience the world one additional step removed from reality. Instead of interacting in the natural world, we walk around in a shared hallucination, reinforced by television and YouTube, and by the things that we purchase.
I can't hear you, you're not famous
In the virtual reality described by Debord, we gain satisfaction from accumulating merchandise.
"The consumer," he says, meaning me (and you), "is filled with religious fervor for the sovereign liberty of the commodities. Waves of enthusiasm for a given product, supported and spread by all the media of communication, are thus propagated with lightning speed. A style of dress emerges from a film; a magazine promotes night spots which launch various clothing fads. Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomized by the gadget."
There are not nearly enough ways to make a pair of quality headphones, for instance, to justify having hundreds of headphone lines on the market. But if Debord is right, an ever-increasing number of headphones are necessary to ensure that the Spectacle keeps growing. How is it that companies keep creating demand for things we don't need? Perhaps by tapping into the religious impulse I noted before. Marketing is designed to create enthusiasm for a product "similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism."
Since modern society is dominated by the banal, explains Debord, the celebrity embodies the role that we could see as possible for ourselves.
"Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process. In one case state power personalizes itself as a pseudo-star; in another a star of consumption gets elected as a pseudo-power over the lived. But just as the activities of the star are not really global, they are not really varied."
If society is a huge, dehumanizing spectacle, and we’re no longer able to enjoy our lives, we'll need a celebrity to enjoy our lives for us. A company will hire someone that is famous enough to cut through the static of the spectacle, and show us what we can aspire to — if we buy whatever it is that’s being advertised.
The day after the outbreak of Bieber fever I returned to the general vicinity, where I found another potential mini-riot. The mob was waiting for Dennis Rodman, star of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and former professional wrestler, who was coming on-site to represent a company called Paltalk.
Paltalk, in case you’ve never heard of it, is a "freemium" service that looks like a cross between Skype and IRC, circa 1998. It features a selection of chat rooms organized by topic and a video conferencing interface that looks like it could do double duty as some sort of low rent cybersex platform.
It wasn’t until after the event that I remembered why I knew the brand name: In March 2007, an electrical engineer in the UK named Kevin Whitrick killed himself by hanging. The 42-year old father of two had been chatting up a storm in what's been characterized as a Paltalk "insult" room, and the suicide was broadcast on a live webcam over the service, to the shock — and even encouragement — of its users. The company is also known as something of a patent troll, having settled out of court (for an undisclosed sum) with Microsoft after suing for $90 million in 2009, over a patent it had reportedly purchased for less than $200,000. "The parties have settled the case, and Paltalk is quite pleased with the outcome," a lawyer with the unfortunate name Max Tribble told a Bloomberg reporter at the time.
On a large display in the rear of the booth, an example video / chat session is in full swing. In the "Subculture: International Meet People" room, they're wondering if "Rodman hit that" ("that" being the company spokesperson) and complaining about the server lag. Meanwhile Jordan, one of The Verge video team, and myself are among those pressed up against the booth, along with a number of the same press photographers and camera people we've been running into all week. The guy on my left is a bitter old network news cameraman, and he smells like booze, or piss, or both.
Eventually the CEO takes the floor, calling Paltalk "the real-time social network." Someone asks: "Why Dennis Rodman?"
"He's colorful, he's a world traveler," and he is apparently a huge fan of the service, which he uses to talk to his loved ones while he's traveling the world and being colorful.
As the appointed time nears — and passes — the average-looking people in the video chat are replaced by pretty girls, presumably representatives of the "Internet Meet People" subculture (and who look, to my untrained eye, like they’ve arrived mail order from Nikolaev, the Ukranian "City of Brides"). Eventually (fifteen or twenty minutes late; blame the Las Vegas traffic) Dennis Rodman appears. This is one of those odd "CES moments" we experience at least once every year, but we never really get to share with our readers: in this case, hundreds of tech journalists stunned into silence by someone they've only ever seen on TV. Indeed, watching the man and his minders walk silently through the crowd, the only noise being the shuttering of cameras, was a very surreal experience. Rodman was wearing some sort of U.S. currency-themed sports jacket, a hat that said "playboy," and a silk scarf. After a pained attempt at dialogue between the company rep and Rodman (who was difficult to hear, both because he has a low speaking voice and because the sole PA was a single, low-wattage, powered speaker) the floor was open to questions. It had already been established during the presentation that the athlete is also a geek who loves nothing more than catching up with friends and family on the company's Firetalk VOIP app, so as you'd have probably guessed, among the first things asked was whether his preference was iOS or Android. This is, after all, a press event staged by — and for — geeks.
"So, Dennis? iOS or Android?"
Eventually, Rodman tried to explain that he didn't really have an answer, and the explanation came out in a series of hesitations and half-words. I felt bad for him. The next question, "what kind of smartphone do you have?" was met by more silence. The spokesperson moved on to something like "how does it feel to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame?" and he explained that he didn't really follow the sport, or care for it all that much.
In case the event wasn't surreal enough, it was at this time that Andy Dick pushed his way past me and approached the crowded booth. He almost didn't make into the spotlight, however: both company employees and members of the press tried to block his path. One photographer even grabbed hold of his arm.
"Hey," I said, making what I thought was a pretty good joke. "Let him go. He's a celebrity!"
The aromatic cameraman in front of me replied, without missing a beat: "He ain't no celebrity, he's Andy Dick."
Of course Andy Dick is a celebrity, by the very definition of the word — he’s just not anywhere near the top tier. You could probably have figured this out yourself without doing any math, but just to be certain I enlisted the help of my colleague and cohort, Ross Miller. The "Celebrity Analysis Worksheet" (or CAW) that he whipped up in Google Docs is based on a paper by Eric Schulman, PhD. "Measuring Fame Quantitatively: What Does it Take to Make the 'A' List?" appeared in Annals of Improbable Research in 2006. In it, the author proposes a method — involving Google search results and a baseline equivalent to the number of hits for the search term "Monica Lewinsky," whom he considered the quintessential B-lister — for determining where people fit on the A-list to H-list scale.
The one major change we made to the scale was to leave Lewinsky out of it altogether and instead calibrate to Snooki, who in our eyes signified the ultimate C-lister. She’s certainly not on the B-list — although a very heated debate minutes before a recent Verge podcast highlighted the fact that there is room for debate on the matter — so we decided to take the word of Advertising Age (September 22, 2010) and place her squarely in the "C" camp.
According to Schulman, an astronomer by day, one could look at Hollywood stars the way we look at, you know, actual stars:
"[H]uman responses to stimuli are not linear. For example, a first magnitude star is 2.5 times brighter than a second magnitude star, which is 2.5 times brighter than a third magnitude star, and so on (Pogson 1856). Such a relationship is called logarithmic. Many scientists since the late 19th century have believed that the responses of our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are logarithmic (e.g., Fechner 1860). In this paper we propose that the Weber-Fechner Law of human perception also applies to fame, such that people we perceive as 'A' List Celebrities are on average ten times more famous than people we perceive as 'B' List Celebrities, who are on average ten times more famous than people we perceive as 'C' List Celebrities, and so on."
There was also an equation involved:
fame(dBLw) = 10 log [fame(Lw)]
The "dBLw" refers to a "logarithmic international standard unit of fame." When plugging the number of search results each celeb received, we were able to place each person’s fame into some perspective.
From my vantage point, probably the biggest name at CES, from an angle of pure "star power" (and situational weirdness) was Justin Bieber. According to the CAW, Bieber was the only real A-lister on the scene, with a 7.43 dBLw (the A-list consists of those with a +5 dBLw and above). The B-list (between -5 and +5 dBLw) is mostly where you see the folks that appear on corporate keynotes, such as Will.I.Am (4.43), Will Smith (-1.36), and Kelly Clarkson (0.13). There were also a couple headphone impresarios thrown in for good measure: 50 Cent (2.40) and Ludacris (-0.27).
The C-List, however, is where most of your celebrity-corporate crossover occurs, with Snooki (-5.07), Dennis Rodman (-12.06), and Verdine White, the original bass player from Earth, Wind & Fire.
And for my old friend Andy Dick? His dBLw is somewhere around -15.61, just placing him in the upper reaches of the D-list.
Another way to put things into perspective is to look at the amount of money that celebrities make for personal appearances. Generally, a company will go through a speakers bureau (such as All American Speakers or Celebrity Talent Promotions) to book someone for their corporate retreat or to hang out at their booth and sign autographs during a trade show like CES. These companies act as middlemen, but if you give them a call they’ll give you a general price-range for your celeb of choice.
According to the New York Daily News, this time two years ago, Snooki was receiving up to $7,500 for personal appearances. This cut-rate asking price wouldn’t last for long, however. Two years ago, OK! reported that "[b]efore Snookie was punched in the face on camera she was the cheapest Jersey Shore member making $2,000 an appearance. But after, she became the most expensive — $10,000 an appearance!" That was just the beginning, however. According to multiple outlets, the reality TV star went on to receive $32,000 to appear at Rutgers last spring (that's $2,000 more than Maya Angelou earned for delivering the school's 2011 commencement). Of course, this is small money compared to funny guys like Jerry Seinfeld or former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will cost you well over $200,000; but it does make getting Dennis Rodman for $20,000 or Andy Dick for $10,000 seem absolutely thrifty in comparison. If you’re looking to put together a celebrity panel on a budget, you could get former Black Panther Bobby Seale, James "The Amazing" Randi, and the comedy duo of Rabbi Bob Alper & Ahmed Ahmed, who bill themselves as "One Arab. One Jew. One Stage. Two Very Funny Guys!" in toto for half the price the diminutive headphone baroness demands.
Headphones are the new perfume, in that every celeb wants his or her own.
This trend can be traced back at least as far as the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, when Beats By Dr. Dre was first announced. The unholy spawn of producer / rapper Dr. Dre and Yancy Street thug Jimmy Iovine, Beats were, until this year, manufactured and distributed by Monster (formerly Monster Cable Products). Such luminaries as Lady Gaga, P. Diddy, and Justin Bieber have their own designs, and the template is being repeated by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges (Soul), Snooki by Nicole Polizzi (iHip), 50 Cent (Street by 50) and many more.
Not to be left in the dust, the newly single Monster held a press conference on CES day zero. Monster, aside from its former partnership with Dr. Dre, is known for a couple things: frivolous lawsuits levied at parties using the word "monster," including Monster Mini Golf, the movie Monsters, Inc., and a CEO, Noel Lee, who cruises into his press conference on a Segway with gold rims — or, at least, gold rim-themed wheels.
Among the headphones, Lee introduced a home power management solution, a portable speaker, and SSD drives. Of course, no one came to this presser for the SSD drives, nor for the models who were vogueing up and down the aisles, showing off the company’s latest new products. As Basil Kronfli, a UK-based mobile writer noted as we were waiting in line, "[the press] are here for the celebrities, not the HDMI cables." The "stars" on hand that day ranged from rapper / actor Xzibit to the aforementioned Verdine White.
"Perhaps the most compelling reason to juxtapose brands with celebrities is that much-admired characteristics may transfer to products they endorse." That’s a choice quote from something called "Endorsement Practice: How Agencies Select Spokespeople" by B. Zafer Erdogan and Tanya Drollinger (Journal of Advertising Research, December 2008). What that means, essentially, is that when a company sells headphones associated with Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, the qualities associated with him, such as those of the general, all-around badass, become magically transferred to the headphones. And hopefully, if I start sporting those headphones, some of those properties become associated with me. This is almost common sense, and it’s the same reason that kids in high school wear Marilyn Manson t-shirts before going on their Columbine-esque killing sprees. To me, it sounds like superstition, another way for companies to hit you in the lizard brain.
"I should have done a shot before we did this" -Snooki
In order to truly understand what was going on here, however, I needed to do more than read some academic research papers or translated Situationist literature or plug numbers into a spreadsheet. I would need to jump into the fray, and experience life on the inside of the celebrity-journalist complex.
There was one slight problem: I have an abnormal, almost pathological, fear of the famous. I don't know when I developed this, but it first manifested years ago, when I found myself in the same room with Mick Jagger — and a total panic attack ensued. Later that year, I had another episode when I went to a movie theater and ended up in line with a tall, overweight guy in a baseball cap who merely resembled Michael Moore. I tried my very best, however, to put that all aside when I went to the Gallery Nightclub in Planet Hollywood. That night I was to come face to face with the 4-foot, 9-inch embodiment of all of my fears: Nicole Elizabeth Polizzi, better known to the reality world of TV as Snooki.
The Verge's Jordan Oplinger had the camera and monopod, I had a notebook and pen, and we braved the hustlers offering free limo rides to sketchy strip clubs and pushed past architectural oddities like a life-sized, styrofoam Arc de Triomphe and the half-scale Eiffel Tower that projects, eviscerated, from the Paris Hotel and Casino. In comparison, the noise and distraction of the Las Vegas Convention Center seemed much preferable.
If you're not familiar with the concept, a "red carpet" is a press event where a celebrity is dragged out in front of a backdrop and strikes poses for the flashing cameras, and answers easy questions about the products they're being paid to shill. In this case, we got to the club an hour early (at the advice of Amanda Breault from the "savvy, fast paced and high energy" PR firm Wunderlich) and took our place behind the boxed in, twenty-by-ten foot space. For the first half hour or so, Jordan and I watched while one of the photographers kept slipping behind the barricade to mug for pictures in front of the medium-sized "Snooki by Nicole Polizzi" backdrop. This is apparently hilarious to photographers, and he kept it up until it was time for the event.
Eventually, Snooki by Nicole Polizzi is led out of a back room. There is no "red carpet" to speak of, and the velvet rope that customarily separates the rich and famous from the rest of us is, in this case, one of those black nylon straps that clip onto a stanchion; the kind of thing that demarcates the line at an airport or discount movie theater. Being led around for a living must have a sort of infantilizing effect, and the star of this show has a dazed, wide-eyed look on her face — as if the higher brain functions, the ones that make her more than a zombie, are taking the night off. Of course, who cares when you're making "stupid money?"
After a good deal of striking poses for the camera and pouting in the manner of a 14-year-old girl with an active MySpace profile, we got to the question and answer period. With my heart in my throat I tried to hide in the back of the room, but eventually Jordan shamed me into coming forward. As I waited for my turn to talk to the reality TV star, I struggled to hear some of the other people's questions. They were asking things like "why are these awesome headphones the best headphones ever?" To which she would respond with something along the lines of: "iHip makes sexy and awesome and gaudy, blinged-out headphones, and they don't sound crappy." (The last part,"they don't sound crappy," is a direct quote.) And then she'd have her picture taken with her interviewer.
What did I want to ask Snooki? The thing is, unless you are going to troll, there is very little room to subvert the script. The best I could do was think up a few smart questions dealing with the nature of celebrity, and ask her how it felt to lend your name to a product for fast cash. Sure, the whole thing might seem harmless, but don’t names have power? I seem to recall a superstition that says if a demon learns your name, it can take control of you. Or maybe I'm thinking of the other imp, Mr. Mxyzptlk, who couldn't be banished to the 5th Dimension until Superman tricked him into saying his name backwards. Either way, this isn’t something to be taken lightly.
Maybe I'm thinking of that other imp from the 5th dimension, Mr. Mxyzptlk
Armed with a mental cache of suitable questions, my turn finally came to talk to the self-proclaimed "meatball." But I had underestimated my extreme celebophobia. When I opened my mouth, instead of saying something thought-provoking, the first question came out: "Bleeurgh… is it weird being famous?"
Snooki gave me a blank look, one that in light of my transgression seemed to portray extreme disgust. Eventually, she replied: "You should've asked me that three years ago."
I was confused. That answer didn't make any sense.
"What do you mean?"
"You should've asked me that three years ago," she said again, as she shuffled awkwardly.
"Before you were famous? Does that mean that you're comfortable being famous now?"
I was drawing a blank. Good thing I had watched an episode of Jersey Shore the previous evening.
I asked, "Does Pauly come back to the shore house?"
It was just then that I received the full scorn of Snooki, delivered through the withering (if uncomprehending) look usually reserved for the occasional non-juicehead that tries to approach her at Club Karma. Through her disgust, she spat out: "Pauly never left."
With one arm on her charge, Snooki's minder then asked me if I had any questions about the headphones. "No, not really," I replied, as she pulled the C-list celebrity as far away from me as she could manage, as quickly as she could manage. It wasn't until later that I realized that I had got it all wrong.
It was Vinnie who left the show, not Pauly.