I am not bothered or unsettled by the MTV VMA performances or what they may or may not say about the state of culture. And least of all I’m not bothered by the Google trending elephant in the room. This post isn’t about the particular VMA performance that blew up the social interwebs Sunday. Instead, it is about the gullible, shallow assessments of something we all—as consumers, marketing professionals, designers and generally sophisticated and sentient beings—should be more aware of: that anything connected to or representative of culture is complex and encoded with multiple layers of meaning. The VMAs, like many cultural activities, are spectacles and unearth a wide spectrum of emotions. They make you feel something, for better or worse; attraction or aversion, allegiance or avoidance, appreciation or appall. The VMAs are also designed to serve as entertainment. All of the performances were designed, truly conceptualized and constructed, to cause a reaction. Inevitably some were better executed than others. To place sole ownership of the performance squarely on the performer is short-sighted, and frankly quaint, given what is known about the level of planning, design and marketing that goes into displays like this. As marketers, designers and social commenters, we, of all people, should be sensitive to products (including people as products) and experiences that are coded with multiple layers of meaning and references. This is our professional livelihood. Everything about the VMA performances was full of subtext and referential to another past, often MTV-centric, cultural event. It’s also important to remember nothing cultural is a “this or that” dichotomy as everything is increasingly intertwined and complex. It’s not just female versus male, white versus black, modesty versus lasciviousness; it is all of these things and many more. Culture, in one of the broadest definitions, is all of the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. Groups pledge and express their allegiance to culture by their behavior, values and attitudes. It helps others understand where they belong and how they relate to others. Culture is owned by the individuals that express it. Though, there can obviously be missteps and offenses measured when culture is misappropriated. However, cultures—and the memes that encode and transmit them—are contagious and can be shared. As long as the societies allegiant to the culture exist, Culture (as defined in the broadest sense) cannot die and a spectacle like the VMAs certainly does not stifle it. Culture, like entertainment (an expression of a culture) and cultural spectacle, are as complex as humans are. We owe ourselves, our business and our clients more: more critical, robust, thoughtful (not vitriolic-ly thoughtless) analysis of culture even if it doesn’t match our own culture, our company’s culture or even our sense of cultural reality. To avoid this by applying reductive reasoning to cultural phenomena, is what will truly stall and suffocate culture. We all need to serve as stewards of culture, for ourselves, our profession and others we meet. We must try not to meddle or pass judgment but instead observe and expand our understanding of those who are and are not like us. After all, complex systems, like culture, need diversity in order to thrive.

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