Last week in my Media Criticism class, we studied Michael Curtin’s twenty-year old essay on “neo-networks.” The essay, “On Edge: Culture Industries in the Neo-Network Era,” argues that the US media industries in the 1990s had largely abandoned their mass-market approach to reaching audiences. Instead of producing and releasing something—a film, a musical recording, a television series—and hoping for a big hit, US media industries had largely turned to aggregating a varied collection of niche markets to retain or even expand their marketshare. He terms this “edge.”
By the 1990s, media industries were able to accomplish this through a nearly two-decade wave of media consolidation. A media company would acquire its competitors to release a variety of niche-market material, in addition to the mass-market hits that these same media companies for decades.1
- A diversified film studio could distribute an independent film, in addition to a blockbuster or two. Fox did with its Fox Searchlight company.
- A major record label that released a Top-40 record one day could, on another day, sign an underexposed musical act that likely released records through an independent label. DGC and Interscope Records released a fair amount of such music in the 1990s, under the umbrella of the Warner Music Group and Time-Warner. And a lot of the major labels had acquired boutique record labels to diversify their stable of artists.
- In television, the cable TV networks that once threatened to undermine the entire commercial broadcast system were subsumed under many the companies that also owned broadcast TV networks.
If you can’t beat ‘em, acquire ‘em.
But despite the consolidation of ownership, the variety of media content that the media industries distributed had significantly expanded, particularly with niche genres2. The variety of records, films, and television programs was probably greater than ever before. You and I may have been watching or listening to something, but it’s likely not the same thing because there was so much out there to choose. This was a departure from the formula that media industries had used for decades. In fact, during the studio era of Hollywood, it was common for a movie studio to rely on an annual hit to sustain its financial health for the entire year. Hollywood studios had so effectively utilized this “block booking” system, forcing theater owners to take all of its films if it wanted to get the studio’s one big hit, that it was eventually declared illegal in the 1940s.
But by the 1990s, media industries had stopped doing that. Instead of going for one big hit, they were interested in getting a bunch of little hits. This approach, while seemingly inefficient, made a lot of sense and was copied in other industries. One example from a non-media industry is the Coca-Cola’s development of OK Soda in the early 1990s.
I had actually forgotten about OK Soda until I came across a reference to it in a Tedium essay about another failed-and-forgotten soft drink, Virgin Cola. OK Soda was an attempt to appeal to young people who were disillusioned with mass-market products and their attendant advertising. I was in high school in the early 1990s, and I can attest that it was downright unhip to drink plain Coke. Many of us who drank soda—which seemed like everyone at the time—drank something else: Mountain Dew, Mr. Pibb, Dr. Pepper, or Diet Pepsi.
From Coca-Cola’s perspective, this is a big problem. Consumers between 18 and 24 years of age are their most desirable segment of the soda-drinking market because, if for no other reason, if they drink Coca-Cola at that age, they’ll likely drink it until they die. Coca-Cola, and other large mass-market companies, likely saw the marketplace as consisting of two different groups:
- Those who drink Coca-Cola.
- Those who don’t.
Coca-Cola needed to capture this second group. In the 1980s, it had famously tried to shift its product to capture both of these groups. The result was New Coke (1985), and we all know what a catastrophe that was for Coca-Cola. But in the 1990s, the strategy to reach this second group had changed. Instead of changing its flagship project, Coca Cola would diversify its product line. It worked with the introduction Diet Coke (1982) and with the revival of Cherry Coke (1985), which was a drink that soda fountain “modders” had been selling since the 1950s. These products were sold alongside Coca-Cola Classic, not instead of it.
If you want a primer on what OK Soda was, Thomas Flight does a good job at effectively describing the product and its advertising campaigns.
My only quibble with the video is that Flight describes the marketing as “postmodern,” which literally made me shudder. No serious scholar has uttered that term in almost twenty years and those that did have since disavowed ever, ever calling something “postmodern.” A more precise way to describe the product and the marketing would be to call it “self-referential.” The ads draw attention to the fact that they are ads trying to make you buy OK Soda, and OK Soda draws attention that it is just a soda—one that is just “OK.”
OK Soda seemed to have based its entire existence on being self-referential.
The cans were decidedly unconventional in their design. They looked like cylindrical comics in a variety of different designs. They didn’t sport a uniform design, although they still have some references to Coca Cola in their red-and-white colors and all featured “OK.” The taste is decidedly different than Coca Cola.
OK Soda reportedly tasted like “suicide mix.” That jibes with my memory of the product at the time. Coca-Cola was doing with OK Soda in the 1990s what it did with Cherry Coke in the 1980s: acknowledged an inside joke and an open secret. With OK Soda’s formulation, OK Soda had officially endorsed the unofficial practice of mixing fountain sodas. Almost everyone I knew was “making” suicide mix at the time, but none of the soft drink companies—or even our own parents—knew that we were doing so. Or so we thought.
And yes, of course, there’s those ads. They were certainly different. I’d even go so far as to say that they were funny because they were so absurd, and they appeared smart because they were self-referential. But they weren’t “postmodern.”
In retrospect, the 1990s was a glorious decade. It was the first decade that we stopped worrying about nuclear war and the last decade where the music was good. The 1990s was also when the media industries got really good at targeting us with a variety of things to watch and listen—and drink. But as Michael Curtin argues in the beginning of his essay, this niche marketing created a situation where “the fire on [the] common hearth appears to be burning low.” The Internet was on the horizon and, as he concludes, “the changing technologies of communication…promise to subdivide the national audience and splinter the body politic.”3 We all know how that has turned out.
We haven’t agreed on anything since.
- Schiller, Herbert I. Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression. Oxford University Press, 1989. ↩
- Curtin, Michael. “On Edge: Culture Industries in the Neo-Network Era.” Making & Selling Culture, edited by Richard Malin Ohmann et al., Wesleyan University Press, 1996. 189-193. ↩
- Curtin 181 ↩