You see them in the strangest places: airplane tray-tables, the sleeve of your latte cup, the electronic readout of your gas pump, the walls of your local post office. They are hidden in plain sight in your favorite TV show and movies. They call you at home and on your cell phone. They e-mail you. They are in your mailbox.
It's not news that we're seeing more ads these days. In fact, there are so many ads all around us, people may have stopped paying attention.
It's the basic conundrum of marketing. You have to advertise to compete in the marketplace, but the more ads there are, the more people tune them out, so you have to continually find newer, brighter, shriller ways to get attention.
Meanwhile, as the advertising industry devises new ways to get its messages across, technologies are continually being developed that make it possible for people to skip or avoid ads. Online, you can use browsers like Firefox, which blocks pop-up ads. You can fast-forward previews on DVDs (as you have been able to do for 20-some years with videocassettes). You can skip commercials with TIVO (as, again, you have been able to do with shows taped on video). You can even share movies or TV shows online, ad-free.
These attempts to skip commercials offend some television executives.
When we watch ads, we become the media's workforce," says Sut Jhally, author, media critic and founder of the Media Education Foundation. "They are, in effect, organizing our time. They have even said that there is an implicit contract with the audience. If a person chooses to watch a movie or TV, they say it's immoral to skip the ads."
Legislating for Control
On all fronts, media companies are trying to make sure that we follow that contract. Among other things, they are trying to influence legislation to secure that we don't break our part of the deal.
The most recent example of this was the Family Movie Act (FMA), which was introduced to Congress last year. Originally, this bill, sponsored by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), was pro-consumer. It was written to protect the right of individuals to fast-forward questionable content on DVDs, like sex scenes or violence. The trouble started when a clause appeared in the bill that implied that consumers could skip anything they wanted on a DVD – except for the ads.
After the FMA attracted media attention, the section protecting ads was dropped, according to Art Brodsky, spokesperson for Public Knowledge, one of the consumer-interest groups that opposed the FMA. The bill, which was bundled with a larger copyright act, died at the end of last year's legislative session.
But how did the pro-ad clause get into the bill in the first place?
"The movie industry put the additional language in," says Brodsky. "You've got to remember how things work in Washington. The lobbyists work very closely with the legislator. The content companies write language for parts of bills and then they just hand it to the senators."
Though consumer advocates are calling the fact that the pro-ad language was dropped from the Family Movie Act a victory, they are quick to point out it was just one of many battles. Other changes in legislation may restrict consumer rights even further.
For example, in November 2003, the FCC ordered that all digital video recorders, like TIVO, manufactured after July 2005 must be able to receive the broadcast flags that will be sent along with digital television transmissions. Broadcast flags are bits of code that will tell recording devices whether a consumer can reproduce a program. Under this system, the networks will control whether people can record their favorite shows or, if they can, how many times they can copy it.
No one knows how the media companies will use broadcast flags, exactly. Some speculate that they will start with services like pay-per-view or pay-channels like Showtime. Even so, consumer advocates say there's nothing stopping all networks from adopting the practice eventually.
Broadcast flags would give networks unprecedented control over how people watch TV. For example, cable channels would be able to prevent people from file-sharing their programs by restricting how many times they can be copied. People who may find themselves unable to record their favorite shows will be more likely to buy the series on DVD. And, if a network could potentially control whether or not someone can record a show, they could also control whether that person could fast-forward the commercials.
Though broadcast flags will only apply to HDTV – high definition TVs – the FCC is planning to completely switch over to HDTV by 2007. After that date, any TV that is not a HDTV will be unable to receive broadcasts, and therefore become obsolete. If the rules remain in place, people will be forced to switch over to the new system in less than two years.
A group of consumer-rights organizations, including Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has filed a lawsuit challenging the FCC on broadcast flags.
"We don't think they have the right to enforce them on people," says Brodsky. "But anytime content industries think [they] can assert control over what consumers can do with digital media, they will try it."
TIVO, with its slogan "TV your way," promised to give people control over when and how they watch TV by allowing them to easily record shows and fast-forward commercials. Advertisers and networks responded with pressure on TIVO to try to force it to become more compatible with their business model. Originally, TIVO came with a 30-second fast-forward button for skipping ads. That disappeared soon after the product came onto the market in 1999.
Recently, TIVO announced that soon, when viewers fast-forward through commercials, banner ads will pop up. If viewers click the ads, their contact information will then be downloaded to the advertisers. TIVO is also collecting information based on what TIVO users watch. In fact, according to the L.A. Times, TIVO played the market researcher role in Janet Jacksons Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction last year, reporting that replays of the incident increased 180 percent from normal viewing patterns.
TIVO did not return calls about this article.
Still, TIVO is seen as one of the factors putting pressure on advertising these days. Another factor is the sheer number of entertainment options available. People are abandoning traditional network TV for, say, surfing the internet or watching shows on pay channels like HBO. As a result, advertising on traditional network TV has become less relevant.
"We're always going to look at the 30-second spot as the backbone of advertising," says Mary Hilton of the American Advertising Federation. "But with more competition for people's time, we have had to focus on effective strategies to break through the clutter and accept that this is the new advertising landscape."
To combat these changes, TV networks have been testing new waters. For one, more time – an average of 17 minutes – is devoted to ads in any given hour of TV than in the past. Commercials are regularly turned up louder than regular programming to grab viewer attention. Banners stream through the bottom of movies or flash in the corner. And, increasingly, ads are bleeding into programming. Product placement is now common.
For example, NBC's reality show The Restaurant was funded entirely by product placement of three companies: The restaurant owner drove a Mitsubishi SUV, offered his customers Coors beers to drink, and was continually grateful to American Express for financing his restaurant.
Products are even sponsoring episodes. Two years ago, Fox's drama 24 launched a high-profile ad campaign with Ford that involved a special uninterrupted first-episode that began and ended with a two-minute ad for the car company. Kiefer Sutherland also thanked Ford for their support at the beginning of the episode and characters drove Ford cars throughout the episode and in episodes after that. Other sponsorships are more stealthy. In the last season of the teen melodrama Dawson's Creek, which ended in 2003, the cast of the love-advice radio show Loveline came on the show as themselves and helped the characters with their problems. Another episode centered around the characters going to a No Doubt concert.
Some say product placement degrades the quality of programming, particularly in the cases where the plot of an episode surrounds one particular product, or when characters spend time talking about a product.
But others see product placement is just par for the course.
"Programming has always been about finding the right environment for ads," says Jhally. "Advertising is about the dream-life of a culture. It draws upon really deep-seeded desires people have, and the programs have to provide the context for the ads to sell well."
But while TV has always been about advertising, that has not always been the case for movies, believes Jhally. If the message of advertising is to imply that qualities like happiness, sex, power, wealth and fame can somehow be gained through buying material goods, as advertising becomes more common in movies, how will that affect the way studios choose to present a script?
"If you define culture as the place society tells stories about itself, then to some extent advertisers are controlling that realm more and more," says Jhally. "That shouldn't surprise anyone. But it's good to think about what happens when one group controls the culture, which from a democratic standpoint is troubling."
Pamela Anderson's first book, Star, is about a busty blonde who journeys toward fame and riches while having a lot of kinky sex along the way.
But it isn't a memoir. It's a novel.
Anderson has taken pen to paper, the latest in an increasingly long line of celebrity writers. While autobiographies have long been the means by which celebrities get their literary yah-yahs out, these days, they are branching out. (Even though, in an autobiographical twist, the buxom woman on the cover of Star is in fact Anderson.) They are writing children's books, novels, poetry, self-help, and political books. Increasingly, editors seem to think that it's not what you read, but who wrote it that matters.
Celebrities who have published books in the last few years include: Madonna, Spike Lee, Jerry Seinfeld, John Lithgow, Dolly Parton, Carl Reiner, Jay Leno, Maria Shriver, Billy Crystal, Britney Spears, Ethan Hawke, Marlee Matlin, Steve Martin, Al Franken, Jewel, Jamie Lee Curtis, Keith Hernandez, Carrie Fisher, Jane Seymour, Shaquille O'Neal, Ashanti, Julie Andrews, Will Smith, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett, LL Cool J, and Shaggy, among others. More are on the way. Billy Joel, LeAnn Rimes, Paris Hilton, Mia Hamm, and Bob Dylan are coming out with books later this year.
"There are absolutely more books by celebrities on the market now than there used to be," says Sandy Whelchel, Executive Director of the National Writers Association. "Name recognition sells books. There's no doubt about that."
Despite being wooden, didactic, and borrowing a little too heavily from Cinderella, Madonna's first children's book, The English Roses, debuted at No.1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List and stayed in the top 10 for 18 weeks. A week after its publication, Pamela Anderson's novel was number 77 on the Amazon.com sales ranking. After seeing numbers like that, some publishers are looking at celebrities with renewed interest.
Building the Brand
The preferred term for celebrities these days? Entertainers. Don't ghettoize them as singers or actors. Stars are expanding their name (or brand) to include movies, albums, TV shows, product endorsements, restaurants, clothing lines, and more. For them, a book may be just another product with their name on it.
Luckily for them, corporate conglomeration makes branching out that much easier – since one branch is just a small step from the trunk. The same media corporations that control much of the TV, movies, and music in the United States also own the major publishing houses. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. owns HarperCollins, Bertelsmann owns Random House, Time Warner owns Little, Brown, & Company, and Viacom owns Simon & Schuster, as well as MTV, VH1, Showtime, and Nickelodeon.
Given the corporatized convenience, the sudden proliferation of celebrity books may be part of synergy, i.e. cooperative interaction among the subsidiaries of a corporation to make as much money as possible.
"Synergy is a part of the total package with these books," says Neal Wyatt of the American Library Association. "Martha Stewart is a good example of someone who did that – though she did it herself – where she had the books, then the magazine, then the TV show, and they all feed off each other. So yes, there's a bit of a corporate collecting up of different parts of celebrity here."
However, industry experts say that while synergy was the goal when major corporations consolidated in the 1990s, it never quite happened in the publishing world.
"I've always been surprised synergy hasn't worked for books," says Pat Schroeder, CEO of The Association of American Publishers. "They have tried to get it to work, but it never has. So it's really not a one-stop shop where an actor puts out a movie and then says, by the way, I have a book too. It's more like the movie house puts out the movie, and then someone else puts out the book."
She adds that in most cases, it's probably the celebrity who seeks out the publisher, not the other way around.
The Forest for the Trees
On the other hand, some celebrities do seem to have literary ambition. Some, like Jamie Lee Curtis, John Lithgow, Steve Martin and Carrie Fisher have earned respect from critics and readers alike. These celebrities tend to spend more time working on their writing. Martin has written from the beginning of his career, starting with screenplays and then moving to articles in The New Yorker before branching into novels.
"I think celebrity books should be judged by the individual book, not the celebrity," says Wyatt. "Some are very good and some seem like more of a vanity publication, with people just living off their name."
Vanity plays a large part in the plots of many celebrity children's books. Madonna's book is about a blonde girl who everyone is jealous of; Shaquille O'Neal put himself in fairytales; soccer player Mia Hamm's book Winners Never Quit has a girl playing soccer on the cover; Spears writes about a girl who want to be a singer; and Jerry Seinfeld's character is a greedy, wise-cracking kid who demands "NAME CANDY ONLY" on Halloween. The illustrations are likewise similar to the celebrities, with child-like versions of Jerry Seinfeld or Jay Leno gracing the pages.
The proliferation of children's books may signify a certain amount of low expectations, though good children's literature is no easier to write than good adult literature.
Other celebrities barely make the leap to fiction. Ashanti's book, Foolish/Unfoolish: Reflections on Love, is described as "poetry and reflections" – not a far stretch from her songs. The book description notes that she "explores such universal themes as falling head-over heals [sic] in love, becoming insanely jealous, feeling broken-hearted, and being single but having hope for the future. In "No Words," she describes being completely addicted to a new boyfriend; in "Ride Out," she captures what it feels like to be joyriding with your man on a hot summer night; in "Insecure," she writes about telling a suspicious boyfriend to stop driving by her house at night to see if her car is there; and in "Us," she delves into the pain of discovering that your man is cheating on you."
Whether the celebrities are actually writing is another question. Anderson's novel was ghost-written by Eric Shaw Quinn.
"Who knows how much of each book is ghost written and how much of it is written by the person," says Schroeder. "Though I think you would find that a lot more of these books were written by the star than you would think. Most celebrities don't make a lot of money off their books – they want to write because they have something to say."
There are obvious marketing perks to publishing a book by a celebrity. Stars come with built-in audiences and name recognition. Publishers can comfortably expect a certain number of sales, so they will often spend more to promote a book by a celebrity.
Publishers have given celebrities large advances for their books. Even though Ethan Hawke's first novel, The Hottest State, only sold a respectable-but-unexciting 40,000 copies, Hawke received an advance between $400,000 and $500,000 for his next novel, Ash Wednesday. Britney Spears received a $1.25 million for the book she co-wrote with her mom, A Mother's Love, according to Poets & Writers.
While it's true these numbers pale in comparison to the pricetag of a product endorsement – Spear's Pepsi endorsement will bring her $94 million over five years – writing a book can give a celebrity something else: respect.
If, say, you are primarily known for sleeping with rock stars and posing naked in magazines, writing a book might make people take you more seriously. Or, if you have spent your life marketing yourself as an ever-changing pop icon, writing a book for children might give you a soul.
While celebrities are writing more books than ever before, fewer people are reading. A recent study put out by the National Endowment for the Arts found that, based on 2002 census figures, less than half of Americans read literature and people are buying fewer of all types of books. The U.S. is losing more readers every year at a faster pace, especially among young people.
Meanwhile, writers who have struggled for years to hone their craft are being ignored by large publishing houses.
"I see talented writers all the time who don't have a prayer of getting published because they don't have the big name, so they don't have the accessibility to get into big publishing houses," says Whelchel. "Whereas, Madonna's agent can just call an editor and say she has a book, and of course they're going to jump on it. Publishers have to stop focusing on the bottom line so much and start focusing on putting out decent product."
While the Stephen Kings and Toni Morrisons may have nothing to fear, celebrities may put pressure on the vast majority of writers who do not have name recognition. With thousands of books to choose from, people may gravitate to the book by the celebrity over the book by the unknown writer.
The solution, though, may lie in giving the unknown writers more recognition.
"Newspapers have cut back on book reviews, which is one of the main ways new writers get noticed," says Schroeder. "It's also how they get picked to go on TV and radio shows. Book reviews are terribly important, and the loss of them is a huge tragedy. It's a bigger problem for writers than competing with celebrities."
While that may be true, many writers feel slighted by this influx of celebrity literary pretensions, believing most of them would never be published if they weren't famous.
"These people do not need the money, fame, career, or attention – it's just one more gimmick for them," says Sandra Brown, who writes self-help books for domestic violence victims. "For me, I wish they'd just stay in Hollywood and fake it there."
Here's something most of us already know: Americans are fat. Nearly 65% of Americans are overweight and 31% are obese, according to the American Obesity Association. About 30% of children are overweight and 15% are obese. Fat is becoming our biggest and most expensive health problem, since obesity commonly leads to heart disease and type II diabetes.
Obesity is a relatively new problem, only becoming an issue in the last 30 years or so. In that time, America has seen a shift to a more sedentary lifestyle, increased portion sizes, and a vast proliferation of fast food restaurants, among other things. There's no doubt that the popularity of fast food's high-fat menus has had at least some part to play in America's weight problem.
In a four-page spread in the June 2004 issue of Redbook, McDonald's is promoting its new "Go Active!" campaign. With columns of text, sidebars, and a picture of a happy woman bounding up stairs, it's one of those ads that tries to look like an article in the magazine, even though Redbook has printed "advertisement" at the top of every page. Using an endorsement from Oprah's personal trainer Bob Greene, the ad wants to help you "get going on an active lifestyle."
Part of that help includes telling you about McDonald's "wholesome menu choices." First, you have the Go Active! Happy Meal, an adult version of the child's Happy Meal that comes with a salad, a beverage, and a pedometer. Then you have a list of "calorie-cutting tips," which promotes some of McDonald's menu choices. This includes the salads again, the Chicken McGrill without the mayo (the ad explains that holding the mayo will save you 100 calories and 11 grams of fat), and the 6-piece Chicken McNuggets with dipping sauce and bottled water, for a "340-calorie meal."
Adding to all the abundant healthfulness is the active part of the plan: Greene is promoting the 10,000-steps-a-day challenge, which urges people to move more by doing things like walking the dog, visiting local farmer's markets, and shopping -- "now an official sport." And hey, you can even use your "Step With It! Pedometer" to track your progress. The ad assures us that walking and picking the right menu choices at McDonald's will make us feel so good, we "just might make it to the moon and back."
Could it be that the fast food giant now cares about America's health?
Living off the Fat of the Land
Most fast food restaurants have started offering healthier menu choices. But the reason for that may have more to do with competition than anything else.
"Offering healthy choices is more of a marketing and competition strategy," says analyst Wally Butkus of Restaurant Research. "One chain will put something out and the rest of them will follow suit. They don't want to be the one left holding the bag."
Wendy's began offering salads two and a half years ago to enormous success. Soon after, most fast food restaurants began offering salads too. Likewise, Burger King took advantage of the No Carbs fad by offering a burger wrapped in lettuce, something that other fast food restaurants have since copied.
But the idea of fast food as health food probably comes from Subway's Jared Diet. Jared, who lost hundreds of pounds by walking and eating Subway sandwiches -- and who was featured prominently in Subway's advertising campaign -- made Subway the healthy fast-food alternative for many.
McDonald's recent attempt to capture the weight-loss market includes promoting certain menu options and launching the Go Active! Happy Meal in May, shortly after CEO Jim Cantalupo died of a heart attack.
The new menu choices seem to be paying off, according to Butkus.
"McDonald's has done exceptionally well in the last six to eight months in taking the market share back," he says. "Its profit margin has increased 15%, which is a huge increase. Usually, a 2%-3% increase is considered large in this industry. It's definitely working to give people the option of healthier choices, financially speaking."
Sue the Bastards
While most nutritionists seem cautiously optimistic about McDonald's changes, they also seem to feel the company's real motivation, aside from profit, is public relations. The company wants to reduce liability from obesity lawsuits and distance itself from public perception that it serves unhealthy food.
Last year, two obese Bronx teenagers sued McDonald's, claiming the food made them fat and contributed to their health problems. The judge dismissed the case. In March, the House of Representatives passed the "Cheeseburger Bill," which banned frivolous lawsuits against the food industry for obesity-related health problems.
Attorney John Banzhaf's lawsuits against big tobacco led to the banning of cigarette ads from TV and instituted the tobacco-sponsored antismoking ads. He teaches a class at George Washington University nicknamed "Sue the Bastards" and is planning a series of lawsuits against the food industry.
The Cheeseburger Bill is no threat to him.
"The people who wrote the bill are stupid," he says. "They don't know how to draft a bill. Let's put it this way: None of the five suits I've been successful with against the food industry would have been stopped by this bill."
But even if obesity lawsuits are stopped, public impression that fast food contributes to obesity is a bigger danger to the restaurants. Movies like Super Size Me, where filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days, only helped that impression. McDonald's was doing damage control before the movie even came out, most noticeably by eliminating Super Sizing.
"The McDonald's announcement [that they will offer healthier meal choices] advances public relations more than it does public health," according to a statement from Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest. "I'm glad that McDonald's says it will promote its salads, and hand out step meters, and so on. Those are all good things. But if McDonald's were sincere about promoting healthy eating, it would put calorie counts right on the menu boards."
In the past, McDonald's has not followed through on promises to change its food. When the nonprofit BanTransFats.com sued McDonald's for cooking the fries in trans-fat-laden cooking oil, McDonald's put out a press release saying it would reformulate the oil. The move received a lot of press, but according to CSPI, the company never followed through with its promise.
So what about all this healthy food? Can we believe McDonald's when it says some of its choices are healthy?
According to McDonald's nutrition guide, the California Cobb Salad with Grilled Chicken has 270 calories and 11 grams of fat.
It comes in a plastic carrier the size of a dinner plate. The salad is a mix of lettuces -- though there's still a healthy dose of iceberg -- carrots, and grape tomatoes. It is topped with a bacon/blue cheese mixture and a filet of grilled chicken. The grilled chicken has the chemical taste of added flavor, but with the Newman's Own Low Fat Balsamic Dressing (40 calories, 3 grams of fat) and bottled water, this version of the Go Active! Happy Meal is clearly a better choice than most of the other things on the menu.
The problem comes when at every turn in the ordering process, there's a chance to increase your calories. When you order the Cobb salad meal, you get a choice between grilled or crispy chicken, water or soda, and one of four dressings. The worst dressing is the Newman's Own Creamy Caesar Dressing, at 190 calories and 18 grams of fat.
So if you go with the higher-calorie choices for the same Cobb salad, you would end up with a California Cobb Salad with Crispy Chicken, Creamy Caesar Dressing, and a small coke for 710 calories and 39 grams of fat. By comparison, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a small order of fries would be 650 calories and 32 grams of fat.
McDonald's has had salads on its menu for a long time, though it has improved them. But other items the chain is touting as healthier choices have been around for a while and haven't changed that much.
For example, McDonald's has had the Chicken McGrill (400 calories, 16 grams of fat) for years, though it used to be called the Grilled Chicken Sandwich. The only difference is now people have the option of a wheat bun. And though the chain is promoting its new all-white-meat Chicken McNuggets, customers have always been able to order white-meat nuggets. While the nuggets used to come in a mix of white and dark meat, workers could tell the difference by the shape of the nugget. The white-meat nuggets were always rounder.
Of course, "healthy" doesn't just mean lower calories and fat. Nutrients, vitamins, and chemical content all come into play. Fast foods are often heavily processed and loaded with chemical flavorings, additives, and preservatives. After looking at the long list of ingredients for the Chicken McNuggets that included chicken skin, hydrogenated vegetable oils, and an anti-foaming agent called dimethylpolysiloxane, a New York judge called the nuggets a "McFrankenstein creation."
Responding to the constant criticism that it markets its food to children, McDonald's will soon start offering apple slices and a caramel dipping sauce as a substitute for fries in the children's Happy Meals.
"I guess it's a step in the right direction," says Marlene Schwartz, a clinical psychologist at Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "But the thinking needs to change so that the default is the apple slices. It should be that you have to ask for the fries instead of asking for the apple slices. I would rather see McDonald's use its marketing power to get children to eat more vegetables and low-fat dairy."
Many experts look favorable on McDonald's attempt to encourage people to move by handing out pedometers. Obesity Researcher James Hill is a co-author of The Step Diet Book, which also comes with a pedometor to encourage walking.
"McDonald's plan is a good start," he says. "I welcome what McDonald's is doing, but at some point we need to make this a big campaign, rather than a lot of small ones."
Other people are more cynical. Banzhaf believe that McDonald's is promoting exercise so that the blame for obesity will shift off diet and onto a lack of exercise. But exercising for 30 minutes a day, as the government recommends, can't compensate for the high fat and calories of a regular fast food diet.
McDonald's didn't return repeated phone calls for this article.
Like many groups, Banzahaf wants fast-food restaurants to post calories on the menu boards. He sees it as the same as putting warning labels on food.
"Suppose a parent gave one of McDonald's small toys to an infant, and a small piece broke off and the infant choked to death," he says. "No court in the world is going to say that Mommy is solely responsible and the company is not, which is why when you buy those thing they come in bags with warnings all over them. Many of these problems are both personal responsibility and the responsibility of the companies that makes the products."
Many are offended by obesity lawsuits, believing that weight is a personal issue and should remain the responsibility of the individual. In addition, because of its size, McDonald's is sometimes used as a scapegoat for industry-wide problems.
Still, the few obesity lawsuits that have happened so far have made quite a dent. Without them, it's hard to imagine that McDonald's would be encouraging people to Go Active!
In a 2001 episode of "The Proud Family," a Disney Channel cartoon series, the teenager Penny gets addicted to filesharing after she is shown the wonders of a Napster-like program called EZJackster.
Crazed, she starts downloading all the music she ever wanted. Soon after, chaos erupts. Her favorite singer doesn't get his royalty check, her local record store goes out of business, the police come to her house and threaten to take her jail, and worst of all, her mom takes away her computer. Penny practically single-handedly destroys the U.S. economy before she finally sees that filesharing is wrong.
The episode rings with Reefer Madness-era propaganda; the 1936 film promoted the idea that marijuana makes people go insane, have promiscuous sex, and dance maniacally to jazz music in seedy apartments.
Still, the episode's underlying message -- that filesharing is stopping CD sales and destroying the recording industry -- has been promoted by groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) ever since Napster hit the mainstream five years ago. Several studies have come out supporting the RIAA's assertions, which have been used to back up some of its actions, like filing lawsuits against people for sharing files and lobbying to have peer-to-peer filesharing categorized as a criminal activity.
But a new study by Harvard Business School and University of North Carolina is going against the popular beliefs surrounding filesharing. After tracking 1.75 million downloads over a 17-week period in 2002 and then comparing those observations to the sales of 680 popular albums, the study found that filesharing has no negative effect on CD sales.
In fact, for the most popular 25 percent of CDs, the study found that downloading boosts sales. For every 150 songs downloaded, sales of that album jumped one copy.
"Initially, we were surprised by our results, given the consistent claim that P2P hurts sales," says Koleman Strumpf, co-author with Felix Oberholzer-Gee. "But on deeper reflection, not so much. Filesharing can potentially boost sales through the user learning about new music, and this could offset the substitution for buying, as is often claimed."
Stealing or Sampling?
The response to the Harvard-UNC study has been mixed. The RIAA decried the study, calling it "inconsistent with virtually every other study done" on the subject. While previous studies have relied on surveys asking users about their downloading habits, the Harvard-UNC study was the first to directly compare actual downloads -- using server logs from OpenNap, an open source Napster server -- with album sales data from Nielsen SoundScan.
Other researchers, like Stan Liebowitz, Professor at University of Texas at Dallas, have criticized the details of the study. Among other things, Liebowitz believes the study shows the result of advertising on popular music, not necessarily the effect of downloading on the entire music industry.
"It's a study that on the surface looks pretty good, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, serious problems arise," he says. "I don't find the results believable."
Others say the study is evidence of how little we know about the effect downloading has on music sales, and that alone is reason to proceed judiciously when creating laws about the technology.
"The only thing we can confidently say is that filesharing makes some people buy more records and some other people buy fewer records," says Fred Von Lohmann, Staff Attorney for the Electronic Freedom Foundation. "But there's no very clear data on what the ultimate balance of the situation is."
Downloading has been likened to singles, cheap recordings with one or two songs that were used to whet listeners' appetite for a full album. Like downloading, some people bought singles to get the one song they liked and others bought them to sample the music before buying the full album. Aptly enough, singles were phased out by the record industry because they were suspected of taking away from the profit margin of full-length albums.
"When you download a Mp3, are you thinking of it as a substitution -- Ha Ha, now I have that CD and I don't have to buy it -- or are you thinking of it as sampling music that you like?" says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, a market research firm focusing on online media. "That's the heart of this debate. In our experience, we've found that downloading both hurts and aids the sales of CDs, and it's pretty much a wash."
According to the study, most people only download a few songs per album. Of the albums tracked, more than 50 percent of the songs were never downloaded, which the study seems to interpret as evidence that many people are sampling music.
What about the Record Slump?
There's no doubt the record industry is struggling. The RIAA says it has seen a 31 percent reduction in units shipped in all formats since 1999. According to the Harvard-UNC study, CD sales declined by 139 million copies from 2000 to 2002.
The study's most pessimistic statistical model showed that downloading had a slight negative impact on CD sales, with 5,000 downloads of an album reducing sales by a single copy. This would have accounted for only 2 million fewer sales in 2002, according to the authors.
The study points to a number of other possibilities for the slump besides downloading. For one thing, the record industry's decline happened during a recession, when all industries were suffering. For another, there's competition for the entertainment dollar from new options like DVDs and computer games. And the consolidation of radio by corporations like Clear Channel has led to less music variety and, consequently, less interest from the public.
"The radio is turning into a wasteland," says Von Lohmann. "Fewer people are relying on radio for their musical needs because of the ever shrinking playlists that most radio stations play."
The record industry has also spent the last few years catering to the 15-24 age group under the belief that young people buy the most records and are the most susceptible to advertising.
Young people are also the ones downloading music. This does not mean, however, that they would buy the CDs they are downloading if filesharing didn't exist.
"Peer-to-peer is attractive to folks who are money-poor and time-rich, like teens or college kids," says Strumpf. "But it's unlikely they would be able to buy all of that music in the absence of filesharing."
Whether they would buy the albums or not, the recording industry may have started shifting its attention to the music-buying habits of the over-30 crowd, i.e. the rest of the population. While record sales as a whole are down, adult sales have gone up the last few years. While 15-24 year olds bought 246 million records in 2003, the over-30s crowd bought 417 million albums, according to the NPD Group. Adults purchase 56 percent of all records, and that could increase to 60 percent by 2005.
P2P and Independent Musicians
With only four companies controlling mainstream music, the common belief is that filesharing brings democracy to the music industry by allowing people to have access to music they would never otherwise see. Whether this is true or not is a matter of debate. Some independent artists like Ani Difranco, (who got her start by people copying and passing around her tapes), have come out saying that illegal downloading hurts independents.
The study seems to support this belief.
"Interestingly, independent musicians are the one group who seem to be hurt from downloads, according to our results," says Strumpf. "However, this could be in part an artifact of the few downloads we observe and the poor quality of the sales data for smaller bands."
It's true that the internet allows musicians to reach audiences they otherwise could not, though connecting to that audience can prove difficult. The real differences between independent and corporate musicians may be in what they are selling.
"Many independent musicians are not in the business of selling you a plastic disc, but a relationship," says Garland. "They want a loyal fan, the person who will buy a t-shirt or a concert ticket when they come into town. That's a very different business from the kind of widgets and Coca-Cola products the four major labels are into."
These relationships can foster a loyalty in the form of support. Many people who will not bother to buy a corporate artist's CD will buy the work of an independent artist. Such displays of loyalty have insulated some independents from the effects of downloading, like Lookout! Records in Berkeley, California, which handles Green Day, The Donnas and a host of other bands.
"I don't feel like downloading has harmed our business in any way," says Chris Appelgren, President and Co-Owner of Lookout. "Independents are not the same as major labels. The people who buy our records are fans who have understanding of the size of the business, and they feel that the money does find its way to the artist. So for them, buying an album is a show of support."
Nearly everyone agrees that the artists need to be compensated for the music that people are downloading. The problem is that some see filesharing as a way of ripping artists off and some see it as a technology that, if harnessed correctly, could cut out the middleman and benefit the artists even more. But even after five years, it's still too early to tell which way downloading will go.
One thing is clear, though. Despite the efforts of the RIAA, downloading is still going strong.
"You can try to sue downloading out of existence, but it's not doing to work with tens of millions of people doing it," says Von Lohmann. "It's like prohibition. You can ban alcohol, but people are still going to drink."
Joy Lanzendorfer is a freelance writer living in Northern California.
Joanna Harmon is considering whether to leave the United States for Canada. Nik and Nancy Phelps practically have visas in hand to set up business in Belgium. Joan Magit and her husband are eyeing Vancouver. Amy Gertz moved to the United States from Canada two and a half years ago -- she's now moving back.
These are scary times for progressive Americans. Many feel isolated and embarrassed by the actions of our government. Some are downright terrified at what will happen if Bush is re-elected in November. When politics get too bleak, it's comforting to remind ourselves that we can always move to another country. But how many of us are serious about it?
A recent letter to AlterNet columnist Auntie Establishment generated quite a buzz. The letter, from a reader identified as 'Packing My Bags in Pennsylvania,' asked Auntie what she thought about people abandoning the United States for more politically prosperous horizons. Said Packing, "I'm seriously considering escaping across the border and moving to Mexico or Canada."
E-mails came pouring in from people who are also seriously considering leaving the United States for Canada or other parts of the world in an effort to escape the claw-like grip of the Bush administration. While Auntie urged people to stay and fight, some felt that was asking too much. Things were going to get worse before they got better, many seemed to feel. Why stay on a sinking ship?
News sources from CNN to Salon.com to The Daily Show have run pieces about Americans supposedly leaving the United States for other parts of the world. Even some celebrities were rumored to be leaving the U.S. Johnny Depp did -- he lives in France. Alec Baldwin, Robert Altman, and Eddie Vedder allegedly threatened to leave if Bush was elected in 2000 (though Baldwin later denied ever saying any such thing).
There certainly has been a lot of talk. But is that all it is -- talk?
If Americans are leaving the United States, Canada is certainly one of the most convenient places to go. It may be a little chilly at times, but it's right across the border and most Canadians speak English. Many of the major issues that divide people and political parties in the U.S. seem resolved in Canada. They have a lower crime rate, universal health care, and reportedly better education. Their medical doctors can dispense marijuana and last year they decided to officially recognize same-sex marriages. And, on top of all that, the rest of the world isn't mad at them.
Americans have fled to Canada before. In 1970, during the Vietnam War, roughly 23,000 Americans legally moved to Canada, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Since then, the number of people who move to Canada every year has dropped steadily, even through the Reagan and Bush I administrations. In the 1990s, the number of people moving to Canada every year leveled out and since then has hovered in the 4,000s and 5,000s.
Which brings us to recent events. According to Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Department, the numbers of American foreign nationals awarded permanent residence in Canada were:
The numbers indicate a slight peak in immigration around 2,000 and 2001, during the election year and the first year of Bush's term, with another slight dip in 2002, after September 11 (when U.S. patriotism was running high and Canada was tightening its immigration laws). However, there's no way to know for sure whether that spike has anything to do with politics. A peak in immigration in 2000 and 2001 could just as easily have to do with the sluggish U.S. economy as it could with people wanting to flee the Bush administration.
Obviously, the Canadian government doesn't track whether people are coming into Canada because of disgruntled political philosophies. And the Canadians I talked to who deal with immigration seemed skeptical that anyone would move to Canada to get away from a dominant party.
But others have noticed a slight change.
"I don't think you could say we've seen a marked increase in Americans interested in moving to Canada," says Colin Singer, a Montreal attorney who specializes in immigration law. "But you could say there has been a slight increase in same-sex couples and Americans under common-law marriage looking at Canada as a place to take up residence."
But whether a few or a lot of people are leaving the United States for another country, some people are definitely doing it. Take Nancy and Nik Phelps of San Francisco, who are moving to Belgium later this year. Nancy says their reasons for leaving the United States are 80 percent about politics and 20 percent about lifestyle change.
"There was a time I felt that we should stay in the U.S. and fight," she says. "Then again, there was a time to get out of Germany during World War II, too. This is that time here. I think the oppression is just going to get worse here. If Bush stole one election, why wouldn't he steal the next one?"
One of the reasons people are thinking of leaving the U.S. is because of a fear of fascism. Whether or not that fear is realistic is debatable, but recent changes like the Patriot Act restricting our rights and dissent being criticized as unpatriotic has weighed heavily on many minds.
Joanna Harmon is an archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Though she hasn't made up her mind, some of her reasons for considering the move are based in history.
"I specialized in history for my degree," she said. "And I see a lot of parallels between our society and what happened when the Republic became a dictatorship in ancient Rome. I don't want to stay here if it turns into that."
A lot of people who are thinking of moving out of the United States, to Canada or otherwise, are waiting to see what will happen in the November 2004 election. If Bush is re-elected, many plan to start the relocation process. Joan Magit, who lives in Northridge, California, says she and her husband will most likely move to Vancouver if Bush gets in.
"The damage that has been done by this administration, especially in the court system, is a lot worse than people comprehend," she says. "I don't think I will want to live in a country that is so right-wing."
Approximately 20,000 Canadians move to the United States a year, but at least some of them are turning around and moving right back. Amy Gertz was born in the United States but moved to Canada when she was 5 years old. She spent most of her adult life in Canada, but two and a half years ago, she moved back to the United States with her husband. Now at age 50, she has decided to return to Canada, where she will stay for good.
Though she says she would be considered conservative in Canada, Gertz says she's horrified by the differences between the two countries.
"What the heck happened to the U.S. while I was gone?" she said. "I had no idea that I was moving to a corporate dictatorship. I don't want to get caught in the inevitable global backlash, and I feel guilty even just being here."
As someone who knows firsthand, Gertz agrees with many of the things you hear about Canada: It has better schools and stronger health care, does a better job separating church and state, and is more globally minded than the U.S. She also points out that the U.S. is not a "postmodern" country, i.e. it isn't open to a variety of perspectives, recognizing them all as valid.
"America is more extremist, both on the left and the right," Gertz says. "Americans seem unable to manage much compromise. I believe this is one of the reasons we are in the state we are in."
Not everyone automatically qualifies for permanent legal residence in Canada. Canadians have an immigration system based on points. Applicants take a test that assesses whether they meet minimum immigration qualifications. You have to score 67 points or better to get into Canada. Among other things, an individual moving to Canada has to have a bachelors degree or equivalent education, be fluent in English or French, have a minimum of four years' work experience, and have sufficient financial resources to settle in Canada for six months. The system limits likely immigrants to a middle-class, educated group.
"There can be additional factors of assessment that can make it easier," said Singer. "Having an educated spouse or family ties in Canada can lessen the burden for you."
But whether you qualify or not, think hard before abandoning the U.S. As Auntie chided readers: "Unpack your bags ... and gear up for a long, dirty struggle for the soul and spirit of your country."
You can take a test assessing your immigration status at http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/skilled/assess/.