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Celebrities, controversies, and social bandwagons: A rational explanation of why celebrities court controversies (Part 1)

Of the 15 pages of news I get on my daily newspaper for 5 rupees, at least one page is dedicated to celebrities, particularly those from the film industry. If we dig deeper, there isn't a dearth of news focus on these celebrities. Starting from what Kanye West commented to what Kangana Ranaut did, news channels are always on their toes to report everything they could find at the first instance. 

But what is so intriguing about the cultural industry that continuously keeps courting controversies? There sure are other industries that should be more important to us as a society, like the R&D industry or the non-profit sector. And there, of course, are more popular topics like defence and politics. But why is it that the B-town always gets to the limelight?

Interestingly, there might be an economic rationale behind the same! In the course of our discussion on 'why celebrities are always in the limelight', we'll proceed in two steps:

First, we'll see why controversies are indeed the lifeblood of the cultural industry (on in the layman's terminology, music and film industry). Do controversies affect the revenues in these industries? If yes, how? Is there an incentive for the producers to act in a certain way? We'll use insights from behavioural economics to explore this proposition. 

Secondly, we'll see why the cultural industry only - why carpenters or lawyers don't get the same celebrity status as film stars. Is there something special about this industry that promotes stardom? I have seen really skilled blacksmith and carpenters who arguably maybe the best in their fields; but they don't get stardom, or get referred to as a celebrity. Why is Tom Cruise or Shahrukh Khan, then?

Controversies: the lifeblood of cultural industries

What makes us go to the theatre to watch a movie? As with other goods, quality and cost matters here, too. Given a choice, we shall prefer a movie that we believe to be enjoyable, and is available at a cheaper price - thus maximising the utility we derived therefrom. 

However, there is one additional consideration at play, generally. In addition to thinking about our own choices, we also give a thought to 'log kya kahenge'! And so strong this 'log kya kahenge' motivation is, that it commands a field of study called 'social influence over consumption'. So, how exactly does social influence play a role in our choice of which movie to watch? 

Social influence can play a role not only in our movie choice but also a lot of other consumption decisions including which car to buy and which clothes to wear. However, let's stay focused on movie choice for now. Social influence may arise due to multiple reasons, like people wanting to signal their belonging to a group, people trying to blend into a social circle, status symbols, personification of standards etc. 

One significant factor is conformism, popularly known as the water cooler effect. As evident from the name itself, the water cooler effect makes us consume something so that we can gossip about it near our office water cooler with our colleagues. Under this, when we watch a movie or TV show, part of the pleasure comes from the immediate experience of watching it, and part of the pleasure comes later from being able to gossip about it with our friends!

This water cooler effect sets in motion something called the social bandwagon, and leads to reduction in the diversity and increase in the concentration of consumption. This effect makes producers worry about another aspect of market apart from quality and price of their movies; the social bandwagon. The rumours surrounding their movies. This explains why producers prefer to go for famous actors. This explains why producers are willing to invest on sequels to already famous movies over a new one. This also explains why soap operas and series are more popular than single episode dramas (remember why you started watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S. in the first place?). 

Important to our discussion, this also explains why celebrities are benefited by controversies. It sets the social bandwagon in their favour. They suddenly become the focus of gossips and water cooler talks. And what can be a better promotion than this?

However, it's important to keep in mind that there exists certain amount of uncertainty associated with how the controversies will turn out to be. The history is full of examples where controversies did set the bandwagon against the celebrities, leading to a total disruption of their careers (remember Sadak 2?).


In the second part to this post, we'll discuss the next and a more basic aspect of the celebrity controversy. Why celebrity film stars or musicians only? Why not celebrity barbers, or celebrity carpenters?

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