When did consumers get so interested in the business of things?

From player contracts and collective bargaining agreements in sports to box office receipts to Mad Men, consumers now seem as interested in the business of Media & Entertainment as they are the Media & Entertainment itself. What's behind it?

September 3, 2013
Jonathan Libov

My cousin, Jeff, is a Washington Redskins fan. As we were watching football together one Sunday, flipping through games via DirecTV's Sunday Ticket, he asked me to stop on a Buffalo Bills game. When the Bills running back broke free from the line and started sprinting toward the end zone, my cousin started cheering "Go! Go! Go!"

I thought it was strange that he'd be so invested in a game that his favorite team wasn't involved in. Perhaps he had bet on the game? I wondered.

As the ball carrier closed in on the end zone, my cousin started cheering, "Get him! Get him! Get him!". It was the first time I'd seen someone root for one team at the start of a play and then against that same team by the end of the very same play. Allegiances change in sports fandom, but never that fast.

Jeff explained that he had one of the other running backs on the Buffalo Bills on his fantasy team. He knew that if the Bills got close to the goal line, they'd bring that running back onto the field and put him in position to score a touchdown. Not only was I surprised that my cousin was processing the game on a completely different plane than I had, but when he saw the runner take off, he had instantly computed a complex and unlikely scenario: a player on the field giving another player on the bench the opportunity to score on the next play.

Fantasy football is a tremendously beneficial development for the NFL because it makes fans interested in every single game Sunday game, not just their favorite team's one game per week. What's also brilliant is that it makes fans appreciate the managerial, rather than the athletic, side of the game. Much as we imagine ourselves as our favorite player during two-hand-touch, fantasy football is a way of acting out the role of team executive.

Media executives as unlikely heroes

In Madden NFL 25, there is an Owner Mode in which you can move a team from one city to another. You could, for example, move the the Dallas Cowboys to Oklahoma City. This is strange for a few reasons:

  • In real life, moving a team from one city to another is a financially-driven maneuver that has nothing to do with the actual sport of football
  • Generally speaking, people revile "greedy" owners for moving their beloved sports franchises out of their city
  • The NFL endorses having its fans play in a fantasy world in which the fundamental elements of their brand—their teams—are created and destroyed

It makes you wonder, what's coming in Madden 26? A Television Executive Mode where you bid on the rights to broadcast NFL games? A Commissioner Mode where you have to testify before Congress about steroids and concussions?

Of course I'm kidding, but what really is strange about Owner Mode in Madden NFL 25, as well as fantasy football, is that it engages fans in ways that would have them sympathize with the NFL's business personnel as much as the athletes. It's no coincidence that casual fans now regularly know the details about player contracts, collective bargaining agreements, and the odd rules that govern salary caps.

Pardon the wistful nostalgia, but if you had told my 10-year-old self playing Madden 95 on a Sega Genesis that one day I'd be able to manage my team's salary cap or relocate the franchise, I'd have asked you to be quiet because I was busy trying to score touchdowns.

Beyond sports

In watching Mad Men, we're observing Don Draper and Peggy Olsen market cigarettes, candy and a slew of products you didn't know you needed until you saw the commercial. It would a natural reaction to find this offensive, as it dashes our notion that we are rational consumers who purchase products for their merit. Yet when watching Don making a pitch to a client, we're often rooting for him to work his magic and succeed.

In fact, we rarely think "Oh, I'm not foolish enough to fall for those tricks!" or "People in the 1960's must have been awfully gullible!" Part of this is because Mad Men is set in a different era, giving the viewer some distance from the subject matter. That NFL players in Madden are rendered as digital avatars provides a distance that is different in form to Mad Men but similar in function.

Follow this trend into the future and you'll find that it leads to a strange place: manufactured corporate hyper-transparency. Corporations and marketers will increasingly realize that consumers sympathize with them. We want to know the details of the marketing campaigns for products which are being marketed to us. We want to know, and perhaps will even feel we have a right to know, how the sausage gets made.

Sometimes it's even literally how the sausage gets made. McDonald's award-winning "Your questions" campaign answers customer questions by "exposing" a facet of their business operations. Take this video response to the question, "Why does your food look different in the advertising than what is in the store?"

Only 13 years ago, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation made waves in actually exposing the grisly inner workings of the fast food industry, from where they source their meat to the chemicals they create to simulate the smell of a cheeseburger. The observations in Fast Food Nation are still alarming when read today, yet this is a narrative that McDonald's now owns.

While the business and manufacturing methods of McDonald's were once held tightly under wraps—much in the way that a magician never reveals his tricks—McDonald's marketers can now leverage the fact that consumers are genuinely interested in how they create, market and sell their product.

Hitting the mark

If this trend is real and true, it doesn't spell out any obvious formula. Yahoo's "30 Days of Change" invites everyone to participate in their "renewal" by presenting a new logo for 30 days until their real logo is revealed, yet, as I've argued, this campaign misses the mark. By forcing upon the audience a premise—"a renewed sense of purpose and progress", as laid out by the Yahoo's CMO—that observers should have no reason to accept, the campaign comes off as an exposure of nothing at all.

Believe me, if I knew exactly what the formula was I'd be putting my services up for auction right now. But I do have a theory why we're so interested in the business of media, and it has to do with my own infatuation with the movies. I'll often check the box office receipts at the upper right of IMDB, both to find out what's popular and to find out how movies I've been tracking have fared. Very often these are movies I haven't seen, but even when it is a movie I have seen, it's strange that I should care how it performed financially. I'm not in the movie business, and I'd like to believe that box office receipts have no bearing on how I enjoyed a particular movie. So why should I care?

Because I can't get enough of movies and I can't be in the cinema all day, so I turn to the next best thing: movie news.

I'm as guilty as anyone at being so infatuated with media and so habituated at consumption that I can't get enough of a product at its normal portion size. Football games can't be made longer, Big Mac's can't be chomped on all day long, and movies can't span an entire weekend. With greater demand for consumption than supply, consumers like my cousin and I turn to the things which surround the product: The business.