Archive for culture


What Makes You… You?

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I’ve been working on this post for quite some time. It’s purely conceptual in nature and I’m unsure of where it will go or even what it means to a degree. It’s just something that’s been mulling around in my brain for a while and I’m trying to figure out if it’s valid or valuable or if I should just move on.

My wife who is my de facto editor for most of my posts said that while she liked the general gist of this post that it seemed pompous. Great, so I’m an asshole. Well hopefully you won’t see this post as pompous but reflect on yourselves and what makes you… well you. Hopefully, you’re not an asshole.

“Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.”

So where does culture fit into the mix of your DNA? Is there such a thing as cultural DNA? If you google cultural DNA there are several views of what it might be.  There doesn’t seem to be any real consensus and it’s a term that seems to be applied to a myriad of things from corporate culture to the content of one’s character and more. I’d like to apply this term to people as individuals and how you’re “defined” as it relates to marketing, advertising, brand choice and purchasing decisions.

In the marketing universe typically we bucket consumers. And we bucket them as simply as possible to ensure that we reach the greatest number of people. Age, Gender, Race, Geography, Household Income. Occasionally we’ll create custom segmentations and create fancy names for those segmentations and it’s all very clever and smart. We’ll do focus groups and ethnographies in the interest of getting to know “you”.

But what really makes you… you?

I like to think of consumers as a little bit more complex.

If you think about it everyone has what I’d like to think of as cultural DNA. It’s the what makes you… you.

I’ll use myself as an example.

I myself would say that I’m defined by at least 20 different cultures/sub-cultures/communities built up throughout my exposure to a variety of people and experiences throughout my life. This would include, Black culture specifically as it relates to the Civil Rights movement, Beat Generation writers, 60s drug culture, 80s preppy culture, 80s punk culture, early action sports culture, traditional sports culture, feminist culture, Italian-American culture, gay culture, Higher Ed Academia, NYC prep-school culture (yes it’s a culture) and so on. Then you throw in things like birth order and family legacy and things get even more complicated.

Put another way one way you could define a part of me is by my design sensibilities. I would say that I’m more “Dwell” then “Architectural Digest”. If I were to try and understand why I would guess that it was most closely related to my grandfather who was an architect who studied under Mies Van Der Rohe. Thus it’s very likely that my grandfathers design esthetic influenced my design sensibilities and in turn to this day influences purchase decisions related to various brands I migrate to.

Now what happens when you take the complexity I’ve discussed and two interesting people end up bearing children, their kids end up amassing the cultural DNA from both of their parents in addition to the cultural DNA they continually amass from external sources and sub-cultures.

And thus even more interesting and complex people are hatched.

So I guess the question is how do we take this and make it useful. Help.

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Before you all start to think this is going to be some freaky NSFW blog post, I assure you that’s not the case.

I will offer a disclosure that there are links to fun pop culture points of reference that might be deemed offensive. If you’re averse to strong language or content that might be deemed offensive, don’t click on them.

Lastly, I’m sure there will be plenty who will accuse this post of being simplistic, racist, enforcing stereotypes, short-sighted and I’m sure the list will go on. To you, I urge you to comment and make your case. What I can tell you for certain is that this post will pose far more questions than it answers but I look forward to a lively debate. And away we go…

Several years ago my wife had an opportunity to go to two sex toy parties.

The first was a portion of a bachelorette party among a group of women who were white and from well-to-do backgrounds. Picture the scene from the movie Old School with Andy Dick (except sans Andy Dick). Regardless, it was shall we say, tempered and at times awkward.

The second was among a very diverse group of women. One is the wife of a good friend who’s a local creative director. We’ll call her Allie. She’s Puerto Rican and Jewish and grew up on Manhattan’s lower East Side well before it was a fashionable place to be. She’s stunningly attractive and smart as a whip and has a mouth that would make a sailor blush. She could go to a Lisa Lampanelli show (strong language/content) and if Lampanelli started to give her the business as comedians are wont to do, Lampanelli would get it right back and the show would end with the two of them best friends. Allie is one of the funniest people I know by far. Among the other women at the party were a few women that I worked with and much like Allie would routinely make the guys in the agency feel like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas when he enlists the services of Elizabeth Shue and she describes what she’s willing to do (strong language/content). There were also a handful of other women of various ethnicities, mostly Black and Hispanic and none afraid to make their opinions known.

My understanding about this second sex toy party was that it was remarkably graphic, honest and funny to the point that more than one woman had to excuse themselves to relieve themselves lest they soil a couch from laughing so hard.

What I find most interesting about the foray into this topic is that most will fail to ask the question, “Yes, but why?”

I met a sociology professor a few years ago and we were talking about a variety of things and I posed the question to him of “Why Jews were so intent on dating/marrying/procreating only other Jews?” I had dated a couple of Jewish women during college and after and was curious why the relationships seemed doom to fail. I naively believed what popular culture had told me. Nice Jewish boys want to marry their moms and nice Jewish girls want to be provided for the way their fathers had provided for them. The professor smirked and then provided a much simpler and enlightening answer. “If your race were almost systematically eliminated by a single force of evil and tyranny, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to restore the foundation of the lineage?”

I won’t digress into a debate of interracial dating in which all trends point to a ridiculous literal melting pot but I got his point. The insight was a much deeper understanding of what drove the behavior. And if I were tasked with creating advertising for a Jewish personals web site, that insight would no doubt influence the creative, perhaps not explicitly but at the very least tonally.

So my question about the sex toys party is yes, but why? Why was there such a remarkable difference?

Was it race, socio-economics, culture, birth order, a combination? Are white upper-class folks really so uptight and can’t let it all hang out? Are they inherently repressed? (strong language)

Are the Tyler Perrys or Tracy Morgans or Mo’Niques truly representative of black folks? I will say, put a bunch of black folks on a dance floor and we’ll make this summer’s most popular line dance look good. Still the question is valid, have black folks gotten white folks to chill out perhaps as Sin LaSalle played by Cedric the Entertainer from the movie “Be Cool” might suggest (strong language)?

To further confuse things, for the purposes of this post, let’s use the formal definitions of culture as:

  1. “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.”
  2. Anthropology. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.”

In other words I’m not solely limiting culture to say that of “country of origin” which I believe is highly limiting. I myself would say that I’m defined by at least 10 different cultures/sub-cultures built up throughout my exposure to a variety of people and experiences throughout my life. This would include, Black culture specifically as it relates to the Civil Rights movement, Beat Generation writers, 60s drug culture, 80s preppy culture, 80s punk culture, early action sports culture, traditional sports culture, feminist culture, Italian-American culture, Higher Ed Academia and so on.

My wife was raised Catholic, the youngest of four kids. While young she knew modest beginnings having grown up in central Massachusetts to fiscally conservative parents. Her mom can reuse a sheet of tinfoil longer than anyone. As she got older however she became accustomed to a very fortunate lifestyle and was exposed to yacht clubs and country clubs. While she graduated from a regional high school outside of Worcester, MA, she summered on the Cape and graduated from the best private undergraduate and graduate schools and is considerably well traveled. She’s highly philanthropic and after college did Teach For America.  Today she continues work as a guidance counselor at a struggling high school in a neighboring town that would literally qualify as “the other side of the tracks”. My wife has the gift of being universally and unconditionally accepting and accepted and can float from class sphere to class sphere effortlessly.

Knowing this let’s look at some similar themes of the two groups:

The first group was predominantly white women from the more insular communities in which my wife was a part. It’s accurate to say that this community represents the top five percent of the country from a socio-economic perspective. This is a group where I can attest first hand that there is a degree to what is deemed acceptable behavior/conduct.

If the second group was unified by any one thing, it is likely socio-economic. Not necessarily by current status but by background. Almost everyone in the group despite their current status came from relatively humble beginnings. Additionally, I suspect in some cases, birth order and gender played a role among several of the women in the second group as well including my wife. If you look at each of my wife’s siblings starting from the oldest, they are each more relaxed than the next with my wife being the most relaxed and most influenced (socially) by her older brother closest in age. Call it a stereotype but the most crass women I’ve ever known almost unanimously have at least one older brother.

Are there anomalies? Of course. Fellas, if you were going to Vegas for a guy’s weekend would you prefer to go with Clarence Thomas or Tracy Morgan. Ladies would you prefer a Vegas weekend with Condoleeza Rice or Mo’Nique? The former in each case have no doubt been taught and have continued to elect to conform to elite societal norms.

Maybe that’s my problem is my reluctance to conform to societal norms. But I digress.

As I said, this post creates far more questions than it answers and here’s short list of mine. Feel free to add, answer, debate.

  1. As a universal culture, are we becoming more relaxed and less pressured by societal constraints of certain etiquette?
  2. What are the drivers of relatively new found acceptance or the ability to feel less uncomfortable at things that a mere 10 years ago would make most squirm? Is it the effect of media in popular culture? Reality television?
  3. As a result of the impending Census outcome, how will we define cultural groups especially from a marketing perspective?
  4. There are no clear cut means of segmentation. There are always anomalies. Every segmentation is meant to ensure capturing the greatest number of people (customers) as possible. Will it be defined by country of origin? Generation? Race? Socio-economics?
  5. Will marketing segmentation exacerbate a class war, pitting the Wal-Marts against The Nordstrom’s?
  6. Will there be such a thing as “class acculturation” the way the there are degrees of acculturation among Asians and Hispanics?
  7. Will America be divided by level of educational attainment, as some suggest?

I’m not sure about the answers to all of the questions. I have a hypothesis or two but much remains to be seen about how nimble large corporations will be.

In any event, to pile on to the “stereotypes” as Mike Myers would say in his SNL “Coffee Talk” skits as Linda Richman


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Cross-Culturalization Today

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“In 1930,Gottfried de Purucker, an author and theosophist, warned against intermarriage saying that ‘the race of the future will be a composite, composed of the many different races on earth today. Let us also remember that all men are ultimately of one blood.’” Time Magazine – 1993

I recently saw a trailer for BLAKROC.  For those of you that don’t know, this is a collaboration of the rock band, The Black Keys (white guys) and Damon Dash founder of Rocafella Records (black guys). Back in the day Aerosmith and RUN-DMCs “Walk this Way” was considered to be cataclysmic. Mind blowing. Call that perhaps the beginning of a tipping point of Cross-Culturalization also known as Trans-Culturalization as coined by the founder and former CEO of the True Agency, Richard Wayner. A man well ahead of his time.

BLAKROC may not receive as much hype but in my mind it’s that much more telling. Because it’s a true collaboration whereas my belief was that the Aerosmith/RUN-DMC collaboration was a business opportunity. Don’t worry, I fell for it too. We all know that of course this is a business opportunity for Dash. The guy’s a pretty savvy businessman. However, when you watch the trailer you can see that these are artists collaborating and trying to create something. Mark my words, it will be dope. But what is so cool about this collaboration is the cultures, meeting, melding and creating something palpable.

BLAKROC from Jonah Schwartz on Vimeo.

Funny thing is that I wasn’t surprised at hearing about this collaboration. A couple of years ago I recall an article in which the author was shadowing Damon Dash for a day. They’re in Dash’s car and the author was taken aback by what Dash was listening to. John Mayer.

I’ve posted before about my belief that to market to people based on their race or ethnicity is inherently flawed and I still hold firm to my beliefs. It’s 2009 and agencies like Project 2050 should be agencies of record. Fact: by 2042, the racial make-up of this country will be more than 50% NON-WHITE. However we continue to have these ludicrous discussions about how non-representative of society agencies in fact are.

I’m married to a white woman and we have two beautiful mocha babies. I was dating white women, long before it became fashionable. I am a product of my environment, born to Black aristocracy and afforded the luxuries of prep schools and private college. White enclaves. Figures I would choose advertising for a career. Nine years ago my wife and I were defending our union to my wife’s parents. Now I can’t even to begin to comprehend what the spectrum of my daughters’ cultural influences will look like. Especially given how early they’re exposed to the presence of multiculturalism via childrens programming such as Blues Clues with Salt, Pepper and baby Paprika. Heck, Bratz forced Barbie to find some new friends. And Alas, finally Disney has decided to get with the program and have a “black” princess. Foxy Brown, look out.

A couple of years ago I was asked to speak at a conference on the “multiracial” category. Statistically this is a group that is technically growing exponentially. Feel free to e-mail me for a copy of the presentation.

Here are some quick facts:
The incidence of births of mixed race babies has multiplied 26 times as fast as that of any other group.
• In April 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau added 126 different possible racial combinations.
• 2.4 percent of the U.S. population or 6.8 million people responded to the Census by checking more than one race box those numbers are believed to be severely underrepresented.
• Over the past 30 years, America has produced the greatest number of hybrid households in the history of the world.
• The number of black-white mixed marriages increased by 504% in the last 25 years. Mixed marriages were illegal in as many as 14 states up until 1967.
• In a 1993 Time Magazine poll, 72% stated they knew married couples of different races.
• Among Jews, the number marrying out of their faith has shot up from 10% to 52% since 1960.
• Among Japanese Americans 65% marry people who have no Japanese heritage.

Do you think that there’s a little more than the plot line as to why Grey’s Anatomy and Heroes could be so popular among so many different people?

The Cross-Culturalization of music, fashion and style is astounding. The Roots are doing covers of Bob Dylan. Reggaeton while waning in popularity doesn’t negate the fact Daddy Yankee once had a Direct Effect top 10 video. Mexican kids wearing dime store sandals brought us the Converse One-star slides. Japan has brought us urban vinyl, Anime and the next generation of hot rodding in tuner cars. And while Americans are still eating up the Japanese tuner scene, the Japanese have gone Euro. Hip Hop styles are well entrenched in the action sports culture. I’m sure 20 years ago New Era never thought they’d be making the 59FIFTY with a Red Bull logo. Five years ago, I’m sure NASCAR never predicted the Japanese influence of drifting or the European influence of rally racing now an X-Games staple.

Not too long ago, the writer Carolina Miranda did a DNA test to discover literally where she came from. She learned that she was not what she thought she was and I think she sums up a way of thinking about better ways to approach consumers other than by race or ethnicity. The reality is that racial purity is largely a myth and as she stated in a Time Magazine article, “True identity, it seems, resides not in our genes but in our mind”.

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