Consumerism and the Fan: A LOST Case Study

As the hours of the LOST scrolled by, so did the list of auction items and the constant stream of ever-higher bids. If nothing else, this final official LOST event makes a statement about fans as consumers of popular culture, even in a sluggish economy.

Like many long-time LOST fans, I followed the official memorabilia auction online on August 21, the first day of the two-day, multi-hour sale. The view from the auction floor must have been much more invigorating and illuminating. After all, the auction site encouraged ticket buyers, whether they registered as bidders or simply wanted to browse, to come early to peruse the merchandise. Visitors could have their photo taken with wreckage from Oceanic 815, and Kate or Hurley impersonators could participate in costume contests. The on-site activities offered much more than an auction, although that itself was entertainment. The auction “show” featured fast and furious bidding, a bid war or two, and the adrenaline-fueled anticipation of exactly how high those bids would go.

Much of that excitement was necessarily lost in the shift from in person to online, but the view from the screen became riveting in its own way and provided a very different interpretation of the auction’s cultural significance. Images of upcoming items slowly queued up the left side of the screen, with the memorabilia currently up for bid taking center stage one final time. A rapidly changing list of bids scrolled along the right side of the screen. When the bids—marked Floor or Internet to indicate the source of competing offers—slowed for a few seconds, yellow warning signs reminded prospective buyers to hurry. Another prompt indicated that the current lot was about to be closed.

Even for a television series spanning six years and involving several literally out-of-this-world twists, LOST’s list of auction items was unique. DHARMA lab coats, jumpsuits, beer cans, and even a van went on the block. (The beer cans received one of the highest numbers of before-sale bids faxed by remote bidders.) Props as unwieldy as they are intriguing attracted a great deal of attention: Lot 35, a section of the fuselage later used to build Jin and Sun’s beach shelter, went for $3,500.

As expected, iconic items related to a favorite character or pivotal plot point raked in the most cash. The miniature airplane Kate stole from a safe deposit box was hardly a steal at $6,500, an amount matched by the “Dear Mr. Sawyer” letter around which James Ford’s life revolved. Charlie’s DS ring (Lot 178) incited rapid-fire bids topping at $9,000.

Perhaps the consumerism on display during the auction should not be surprising. After all, we are encouraged to buy products, and television series provide plenty of opportunities for fans to consume more than episodic stories. To online-only watchers or bidders, the steady flow of bids became a testament to consumerism rather than the ultimate going-away party for a groundbreaking TV series. Thousands of dollars—sometimes for a single item—changed hands within a few seconds. And the bids just kept coming, item after item, hour after hour.

Watching the online auction provided a perverse sort of online entertainment. In effect, this was the last onscreen episode of LOST, and it was broadcast live around the world. The fictional television story has been concluded, but the series’ saga continues. At times the auction seemed as interminable as the “cage” episodes from Season Three. Then a high opening bid (such as $1,400 for Lot 114, Jack’s passport) upped the excitement and provided a welcome infusion of drama. The sale of a beloved character’s “personal effects” turned the mood bittersweet, making the event seem more like an estate auction of now-deceased family members. As the auction progressed from Season One items through those from Season Three, hardcore fans could easily relive the many highs and lows from each season’s episodes and track favorite characters’ development. What remains when the people are gone—their clothing, personal effects, most treasured possessions—can still haunt us, whether the items are from real life or reel lives.

The fan experience can be costly for those who want a unique item or that impossible-to-duplicate experience, such as participating in person in LOST’s auction. (I am as much a consumer as the next fan; earlier this year I successfully won an auction of a day on a movie set, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.) Window shoppers and thwarted bidders from Saturday’s auction tweeted about the high bids for their favorite items, and many who posted on Facebook commented that bidders had a great deal more disposable income than they themselves did.

Even the companies and investors who likely bought the most costly items (and may not have any personal investment in LOST’s story) understand the power of consumerism. In the years to come, many of these auctioned items will turn up in displays commemorating this landmark series. LOST fans with a limited budget are still likely to pay admission fees to see special exhibits or to visit a restaurant, club, or shop featuring LOST memorabilia. The price may change, but fascination with favorite television series seldom does. In time, as the series settles into its place in television history, LOST’s nostalgia value may increase the auctioned items’ monetary value.

Just as LOST established a new baseline for television creativity and found new ways equally to mesmerize and frustrate viewers, so did the LOST auction set a new standard for television-based consumerism. Once the tally from this weekend’s sales is published, more TV series may want a piece of the auction action.