Falling stars: Is celebrity culture over?

The death of celebrity culture has been predicted many times before but if recent reports are indicative of an overarching trend, it seems that our our pathological obsession with "the stars" may finally, truly, be on the wane.

The most heartening evidence of our declining interest in all things Hollywood is seen in the paparazzi's declining fortunes. Earlier this month, The Daily Beast reported that the market for unauthorised photos of the stars has plummeted with the result that now, "a typical celebrity shot sells for 31 per cent less than it did in 2007". In some cases, far less than that. Two years ago exclusive rights to a photo of a drunken dishevelled Lindsay Lohan sold for $US150,000, but these days Lilo shots typically fetch between $US500 and $US1000. Meanwhile, in the same period, celebrity obsessed American newsmagazine US Weekly's overall photo budget has fallen from $US8 million to less than $US5 million.

It's the economy, stupid! I hear you argue, and that is undoubtedly a contributing factor. But as early as July last year, well-regarded consumer analysis group Datamonitor warned of celebrity fatigue amongst consumers. In its report, The Cult of Celebrity: Exploring the Implications for Effective Consumer Packaged Goods Branding, Datamonitor counselled against celebrity-based marketing strategies saying the market was saturated with over-exposed stars and low-recognition "non-ebrities" of limited appeal to an ageing population. Apparently, we've moved on from Hollywood and are now enamoured of innovative, interactive products that sell themselves on their own merits, ie. iPhones.

Mirroring Datamonitor's dismissive assessment of celebrity sway power is this month's survey of career ambitions amongst teens and young adults conducted by UK charity icould.com. The online mentoring program's poll found that "celebrity" was a profession to which only 14 per cent of its 1000 respondents aspired. To the surprise of icould.com's spokesperson David Arnold, the vast majority of survey participants nominated their parents, Barack Obama and British entrepreneur Alan Sugar as their preferred professional role models. In Arnold's words: "This is counter-intuitive to what we are led to believe - that youngsters these days only dream of being reality TV stars."

Most telling though is the sudden collapse of the celebrity-fashion nexus. The Wall Street Journal reports that "US sales of celebrity-licensed products fell to $US2.9 billion last year after peaking in 2006 at $US3.5 billion". Amongst the fallen fashion stars are Jennifer Lopez's Sweetface label and Paris Hilton's sister, Nicky Hilton's lines, Nicholai and Chick by Nicky Hilton. WSJ quotes US Vogue editor Anna Wintour's prediction that "Every D-level celebrity who thought they could make a quick buck by designing a handbag or whatever is going to disappear." In her view, "that's a good thing."

Be that as it may, New York Magazine writer Kurt Anderson notes that celebrity fascination is a cyclical phenomenon that's always been with us to a greater or lesser degree. Nonetheless, he's certain that this time it's different. The web is the game changer that fractured celebrity's mass-media platform. Anderson posits that our increasingly diversified media landscape will, in enabling the exponential increase of celebrities, inevitably debase their cultural currency.

Sounds like a reasonable argument but exclamations of Hallelujah! may be premature. Urban theorist and famed author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida, refutes Anderson's position saying that rumours of the death of celebrity due to digital media's saturation Hollywood coverage are much exaggerated. While the proliferation of celebrity sites may have redefined our conception of celebrity, Florida reminds us that "with every new technology - from the rise of film, recorded music, talking pictures, transistor radios, FM radio, cable TV, and now the digital revolution - experts have predicted the death of celebrity. But each advance has generated celebrities bigger than the past. New technologies, as the work of German economist Peter Tschmuck has shown, open up new distribution channels and new markets that give birth to ever bigger stars." Far from burying celebrity, Florida predicts the rise of the super-celebrity: an interent-enabled mega-star of unprecedented global reach.

If pop music is an accurate barometer of popular culture, Florida is right. The Buggles foresaw the coming of the MTV juggernaut with their 1979 hit Video Killed The Radio Star. Thirty years later Robbie Williams is bemoaning how Reality Killed The Video Star, the title of his just released album. So what will kill the reality star? Second Life? Or our second thoughts about the centrality of celebrities in our cultural life?

Are celebs dead?

According to leading celebrity agent Max Markson, inquiries for celebrity ambassadors are stronger than ever. "With reduced budget, hiring a celebrity for your brand is one of the most cost effective ways to stand out" SheMarketing e-news.

However, do we believe hiring celebrities to talk to people when they are scared of loosing their jobs, drowning in debt and struggling to make ends meet is a good idea?

There is the view that people are starting to get tired of self righteous celebs who drive their Prius one day and step onto their private jet the next, telling them what products to buy.

Are the whimsical powers of celebrities fading as the reality of the real world smacks us in the face?

To end this post on a positive note...here is a good use of celeb power by Jamie Oliver...check it out.