On Madonna’S Brand Ambition: Presentation Transcript

ABSTRACT - Madonna is a marketing genius, on a par with P.T. Barnum. This presentation extracts Madonna’s marketing secrets and explains why they are relevant to the consumer research community. It sets out the ASeven S’s@ of Madonna Marketing and contends that she is an icon, a metaphor, a symbol of America’s constantly changing commercial psyche. Madonna is a rock ’n’ roll role model. She goes all the way up to eleven. She’s the greatest show-off on earth. She’s a bone fide marketing superstar, with chutzpah to spare.


Stephen Brown (2003) ,"On Madonna’S Brand Ambition: Presentation Transcript", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 199-201.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 199-201


Stephen Brown, University of Ulster, UK


Madonna is a marketing genius, on a par with P.T. Barnum. This presentation extracts Madonna’s marketing secrets and explains why they are relevant to the consumer research community. It sets out the "Seven S’s" of Madonna Marketing and contends that she is an icon, a metaphor, a symbol of America’s constantly changing commercial psyche. Madonna is a rock ’n’ roll role model. She goes all the way up to eleven. She’s the greatest show-off on earth. She’s a bone fide marketing superstar, with chutzpah to spare.


Twenty years ago, "Living in a Material World" was a worldwide smash. To this very day, the artiste responsible has provoked, entertained and astonished us with sartorial excess, dancing prowess, video artistry, and hit after hit after hit.

However, I’m not here to talk about Russell Belk, whose materialism scale is still going strong, who has had hit after hit after hit in JCR, whose video artistry was on display first thing this morning, and whose dancing prowess has to be seen to be believed.

Instead, I’m going to do it with Madonna, the Russell Belk of rock music, as hundreds have done before me. The only problem is that the literature on Madonna is almost mind-boggling in its abundance. There’s the mound of commentary on her music and art. There’s the thicket of magazine and newspaper articles. There’s the innumerable biographies, all of them unauthorized. There’s the copious Madonna apocrypha, such as the Encyclopedia Madonnica and the I Hate Madonna Handbook.

And then, of course, there’s the academic literature. As you may be aware, "Madonnology" is a recognized sub-discipline of Cultural Studies, with its own courses, textbooks and associated scholarly apparatus. Indeed, when you read some of the stuff that academics have written about Madonna, such as her subversion of the subversion of the subversion of the male gaze in the Material Girl video, then you’re inclined to conclude that certain scholars should get out more. But marketing and consumer researchers, fortunately, are much too sensible to attend to self-indulgent academics squawking on about Madonna. Aren=t they?

Actually, the more you read about Madonna, the more obvious it is that she’s a kind of postmodern projective, a rock ’n’ roll Rorschach test, a musical metaphor elicitation technique. People find in Madonna arcana what they want to find. What people say about Madonna says more about them than it says about the singer. So, I’ll be choosing my words carefully from here on in...

Still, if there’s one thing that Madonnaholics agree on, it is that she’s a personification of the postmodern. If, as someone once argued, the postmodern condition is characterized by fragmentation, de-differentiation, pastiche, retrospection and anti-foundationalism, then Madonna fits the postmodern bill. The multiple personae, from Street Urchin to Earth Mother; the blurring of sexual, ethnic and artistic boundaries; the pick ’n’ mix pastiche of every passing fad; the career-long fascination with the Golden Age of Hollywood; the serial shock tactics, such as her recent shocking decision to abandon shock tactics, are there for all to see.

However, there’s no need to poke around, as it were, in the wild and wooly crevices of the postmodern in order to get to grips with Madonna. We can look much closer to home. Because it seems to me that Madonna is first and foremost a marketing genius, on a par with P.T. Barnum. Bearing in mind that popular music is one of the toughest markets in the world, where innumerable identikit brands battle day and daily for the fickle consumer’s attention, anyone who bestrides that market for more than twenty years is manifestly a marketer of supreme ability. Madonna, lest we forget, is one of the best selling artistes of all timeB140 million albums and countingBsecond only to Elvis and The Beatles. Madonna, what’s more, made it without a behind-the-scenes marketing mastermind, like Colonel Tom Parker or Brian Epstein. She is a self-made star. She represents the triumph of toil over talent, or so she likes to insinuate. She epitomizes the American Dream, as her current album makes clear.

Madonna, in short, is someone everyone can learn from, although the lessons run counter to the 4P’s, customer-first ethos that we know and love. Madonna marketing, rather, is based on theBwait for it!BSeven S’s of Subversion, Scarcity, Secrecy, Scandal, Sellebrity, Storytelling, and Sublimity. Yes, I know, I know. The Seven S’s. It’s pathetic. But, if you can’t beat them, batter the bastards into submission, I say!

Subversion. Madonna is a subversive in many waysBher fondness for underwear as outerwear says it allBbut nowhere more so than in her attitude to consumers. Whatever else it is, Madonna Marketing is not predicated on customer coddling. To the contrary, she treats her audience abominably and they love her for it. Her stage persona during the Drowned World tour of 2001, for example, was profane and contemptuous by turns. Her inter-song patter eschewed "love you all" showbiz platitudes for "fuck you, motherfuckers." With the exception of Holiday, she refused to play any of her greatest hits and the show ended not with several hand-waving, lighter-holding curtain calls, but a giant video clip informing the audience "she ain’t coming back, so go on...piss off!"

Scarcity. According to the eminent social psychologist Robert Cialdini, "things seem more valuable to us when they are less available." And Madonna is a master of strategic scarcity. From the very start of her career she has refused to do encores, preferring to leave the audience desperate for more. She performs compartively rarelyBonly five major tours in twenty yearsBand, when she does, the number of dates is strictly limited. Her sets, at ninety minutes or thereabouts, are relatively short, though what they lack in length, they make up for in intensity, if you’ll pardon the parallel. The upshot of this scarcity strategy is that the shows are instant sellouts, which dramatically reduces associated promotional expenditure, her ticket prices are premium-plus, the highest in the industry by far, and her tours are extremely profitable, despite the enormous staging costs.

Secrecy. People may be attracted by the contrived scarcity factorBhurry while stocks last!Bbut they are intrigued and enraptured by Madonna’s carefully manufactured mysteriousness. Her constant changes of image help keep the audience guessing, as does her predictably unpredictable off-stage behavior. Consider her "secret" cliff-top wedding to Sean Penn, which she leaked to the press, fomented a tabloid feeding frenzy and duly got herself on the front cover of everything from Time to People. Consider her second clandestine wedding to Guy Richie, the extreme secrecy of which drove the media wild with speculation and sent the price of a paparazzi snapBany snapBup to a quarter of a million dollars. Consider too the controversial Sex book of 1992, a 128-page fantasy photo-essay that came encased in an opaque Mylar sheath, retailed at the then stunning price of $49.95, and because its secret steamy contents could only be seen by paying peeping toms, sold 1.5 million copies in a matter of days. Eat your heart out, Hugh Heffner!

Scandal. Magnificent as the Mysterious Girl is, Madonna’s inscrutability pales beside her ability to offend. She is a serial controversialist, a sensationalist supreme. From her schoolyard exhibitionism, through the Pope’s threat to excommunicate her for blasphemy, to her bare-breasted canter down Jean-Paul Gaultier’s catwalk, Madonna has perfected the art of affront. Profanity, promiscuity, sacrilege, bisexuality, abortion, rape, child abuse, masturbation, war mongering, and many more taboo topics are grist to her marketing mill. In 1990, to pick one incident among many, our Warren Buffett of the shock market engineered an MTV ban on her "lesbian kiss" video Justify My Love, and, thanks to the ensuing publicity eruption, proceeded to sell 400,000 copies of the $9.99 videotape, conveniently released in time for the Christmas market. She pulled a similar stunt earlier this year when she sensationally "withdrew" the video of American Life and garnered more shock-horror, Madonna’s-gone-soft press coverage than she would have done had she actually released the thing.

Sellebrity. Madonna, of course, doesn=t just sell scandal. She sells the selling of the scandal. That is to say, Madonna’s popularity is partly predicated on her command of the music business, whose manifold marketing tactics she simultaneously exemplifies and exposes. She shows people how it’s done, invariably in an ironic, conspiratorial and occasionally hilarious manner. Take the diva’s dubious date with Michael Jackson, when they attended the 1991 Academy Awards as a star-crossed couple. Everyone knew it was a shameless publicity stunt for their latest projects, but the press and the public went along with it anyway, not least on account of Madonna’s cheeky comments on her then reclusive companion, "Michael’s coming out more." In this regard, Madonna is very similar to P.T. Barnum, whose success, according to Barnum biographer Neil Harris, was based on reflexive revelation of the machinations behind the manipulations. Just as Barnum’s success was based, not on the fact that he suckered people, but his understanding that people like to be suckered, so too Madonna appreciates that people like to be shocked. They secretly enjoy being affronted, expressing outrage and tut-tut-tutting at her latest transgression. If Barnum’s byword was "there’s a sucker born every minute," Madonna’s is "there’s a motherfucker born every minute."

Storytelling. There’s much more to adonna than snappy slogans, however. Her fame and fortune aren=t simply due to the fact that sex sells, shock sells, and shocking sex sells best of all. Her marketability is built on telling tales. On selling tales. People buy the rags-to-riches myth that Madonna brilliantly peddles, even though the details are decidedly dubious. They buy the gnarled narrative that mediocrities can make it to the top through hard work, even though she is clearly someone of prodigious showbiz ability. They buy the parade of personae that go with the plots, even though Madonna is less a woman of many parts than a megastar playing herself in a variety of roles (just like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts). They buy the calculated controversies, premeditated provocations, and hate-the-media-but-ready-for-my-close-up fits of anti-paparazzi pique, even though everyone knows that they are an integral part of the celebrity marketing storyboard.

Sublimity. Whatever else she is, then, Madonna is a master of excess. Whether it be her staggeringly spectacular stage shows, or her staggeringly striking video performances, or her staggeringly sharp business instincts, or her staggeringly shameless headline hogging, or her staggeringly stunning professional failuresBstage, screen, and talk show, in particularBMadonna is not only larger than life, she is larger than larger than life. As exemplified by her remarkable Marie Antoinette-themed performance at the 1990 MTV Video Awards, flamboyance, exuberance, hyperbole and chutzpah-plus are the hallmarks of this sublime marketer. Her sublimity is apparent in the consistently spiritual cast of her corpus, from Catholicism to the Cabbala, and also in her shaman-like ability to straddle different worldsBsacred and profane, gay and straight, art and commerce, material and ethereal, avant-garde and mainstream, S and M. Celebrities, Rojek contends, are the shamans of the 21st century. They are the mask wearers of our tribe, special people who possess mana, a mysterious charismatic power that enables them to transgress, transcend and take our collective breath away. Or, as Madonna puts it when describing her artistic objectives, "I don’t see the point of doing a show unless you mind-boggle the senses. It’s about theatre and drama and surprise and suspense."

It’s about shock and awe, in other words. Shock and awe.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my Seven S’sBand, if you disagree, what else can I say but "fuck you, motherfuckers"you’ll surely concur that Madonna Marketing is in tune with our times. The ubiquity of scandalous advertising, such as FCUK and Opium; the popularity of corporate storytelling, as the airport bookstands remind us; the commonplace creation of contrived shortages (Exclusive! Limited edition!!); the appeal of pseudo secrets ("Who’ll be killed off in the new Harry Potter novel?") and so on and so forth all suggest that the Seven S’s are capable of giving the 4P’s a run for their money. Indeed, such is the power of subversive sellebrity that sales of the items stolen from Saks by Winona Ryder spiked suddenly after her arrest for shoplifting. What’s more, the designer who has his goods stolen, Marc Jacobs, is planning to use Winona in an upcoming advertising campaign. In this world turned upside down, Madonna seems like a model of propriety and if that’s not sublimely subversive, then nothing is!

Madonna, to be sure, has often been described as a bellwether, a harbinger, a metaphor for American society. In the 1980s, her Material Girl persona was held up as an embodiment of the "Greed is Good" decade. She was once famously described as the musical equivalent of a junk bond. In the early 1990s, her obsession with sleazy sexuality and the art of seduction not only anticipated the degradation of the Clinton-Lewinsky epoch but also preempted the rise of the so-called "slut feminism" of Camille Paglia and co.

Analogously, it can be argued that Madonna, of all people, offers a model for corporate life in the post-Enron, post-Andersen, post-Worldcom era. Ten years ago, her obscene outburst on The David Lettrman Show met with the kind of response that is strikingly reminiscent of the language used to describe Bernie Ebbers, Kenny Lay, Martha Stewart and the rest of our millennial malefactors. "Shock," "Horror," "Outrage," "Disgrace," "Damaged Goods," "Reputation Ruined," "Never Again," "Heads Must Roll," "Steps Must Be taken," "Something Must Be Done," etc, etc, etc.

Madonna, moreover, responded to her mid-career slump by getting back to basics, working harder than ever, and embracing a kinder, gentler, Maternal Girl persona. In this regard, her post-Letterman posture parallels the low-key, Good-to-Great, seriously socially responsible ethos that characterizes contemporary management sentiment. It may seem almost inconceivable that someone who once advocated urinating in the shower should be considered a corporate role model. But it seems to me, at least, that the Material Girl is now a Managerial Girl. With knobs on.

Rather than leave you with that somewhat unsavory thought, there is a concluding lesson that we can take from the Madonna phenomenon, a lesson that is relevant to each and every one of us, a lesson that we often overlook in our non-stop pursuit of scholarship, our preoccupation with publications, our unhealthy obsession with rigor, rectitude, reputations, research assessment exercises and all the other accoutrements of intellectual endeavor. It’s a lesson inscribed in the title of this track. It’s a lesson artfully articulated by Angela and Simone, our previous speakers. It’s a lesson derived from Madonna’s initial form of artistic expression. Dance. Madonna reminds us of the joy of dancing, the pleasure that comes from shaking our bodies, the life-enhancing thrill that we academics remain reluctant to introduce into our work, even though we love what we do. When was the last time you saw someone dance their presentation at an academic conference, or indeed dance during a presentation about dance?

Well friends, I have some frightening news for you. You’re about to see a middle-aged man dance. Be afraid, be very afraid. You remember that email I sent you, asking you to pack your dancing shoes? Well, now’s the time to get them on. I want to see you dance. Hey, folks, it’s 1985 all over again! Lock up your daughters, or your livestock at least



Stephen Brown, University of Ulster, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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