04 May 2009

Business in Popular Culture

You are a young rising star in the manga publishing/anime producing business, recently promoted to chief operating officer by a CEO and owner with other things on his mind. You were a business school legend. You are feared and loved by your employees for your hard work, exacting standards and public willingness to exact consequences for failure, muted by private acts of mercy.

Your idea for a prime advertising contract is stolen by a competitor. You bounce back and secure the contract with an idea you secure over a beer from a promising young story teller who has inspired your newly hired, critically acclaimed graphic artist. The idea, which you recognized as valuable, wins you the contract. You pay the story writer after the fact for what his contribution was worth to your company, at a time when he direly needs money, and hire him on.

All looks good for your company as the story teller and graphic artist collaborate perfectly to develop an idea for a major new multi-media product. A group of investors put tens of millions of dollars into this new project to give it a splash opening, but with tight strings as you are an unproven company in this field.

Then disaster strikes. A reckless accident caused by your story teller costs your bankable graphic artist star the ability to draw, and makes your story teller despondent and unable to work. Your company's two most valuable creative assets are out of commission. You lie to your investors telling them that all is well for the first couple of weeks. You break the news carefully to your loyal and hardworking staff, explaining that their jobs and the company are on the line. Without telling you, your loyal staff finds new investors who save the deal. They reveal this to you only as you walk, head held high, into a meeting with investors whom you expect to economically ruin you and the company, now that they have learned that they were deceived early on and have missed contract deadlines.

You move heaven and earth to find a way to use your graphic designer's star talents again, despite a permanent injury and despite having become emotionally frozen. You prevail, the company is saved and a new big dollar production beckons.

This storyline is more Harvard MBA case study than TV miniseries, but this key subplot of the 2006 Korean Drama Someday isn't all that atypical in Korean and Japanese popular culture, where the travails of business people and office workers at work are explored in much greater depth than in comparable U.S. popular culture genre. With the notable exception of the movie "Jerry McGuire," and a few biopics about business people, the dramas the happen within the office are usually deemed by Hollywood and New York to be unworthy of popular culture treatments. In the U.S., we like to keep our work and our play separate, or at least, at odds with each other.

While American popular culture is as rich as any other when it comes to role models for growing up, falling in love, solving crimes, and responding to disasters, it has barely started to have a conversation about business ethics and business success, outside the non-fiction self-help genre. These kinds of plots don't fit easily into the American ecology of popular culture genres. They don't have a home that seeks out and nurtures and demands these stories.

Too often, American business writing falls into the trap of implying that business is all about numbers and charts, without capturing the human dimension of this activity which is critical to our society's survival, which consumes a large share of a large number of people's daily lives. This lack also hurts our public life, leaving the general public without a living language of references to talk about and think about how our economy works in any detail at the level of individual workplaces and business decisions. We have documentaries that disclose corporate malfeasance, but few positive role models, and few discussions of the ambiguity the pervades real life business decisions that managers must lead us all through.

Perhaps the real life divide between the business managerial class and the rest of the workforce in the United States has left us in a state where the decisions of the bourgeois have been rendered irrelevant and uninteresting to everyone else. Writers in the U.S. are taught to write what they know, but apparently not many writers and publishers know about this part of American life. Perhaps the discussions that happen in the U.S. are different in our more mature and perhaps more stagnant economy, than in more recently transforming economies in Asia. Or, perhaps there is room for a new popular culture of business to emerge in the United States that is still untapped. I find the translated business stories we receive from across the Pacific engaging, thought provoking, and relevant to my work life in business law. Perhaps, others would too.

1 comment:

Michael Malak said...

Yes, Hollywood is insulated from real life. They are a victim of their own success. They are live in their own wealthy bubble of their industry, and have no knowledge about how the real world works.

Most humorous are the daytime soaps. No one has any visible source of income -- they have all day long to get into trouble in their personal lives. A close second to that are sitcoms. The struggling young couple in Mad About You lived in a multi-million dollar New York Apartment. The struggling single mother in Gilmore Girls lived in a large urban house (albeit in a small town, though one would expect her job at the inn to be comensurate with a small town salary).

With so many moviegoers living their lives in cubicles, movies and television show surprisingly few of them. They're like toilets in that regard. Maybe they're like toilets in many regards.