West Coast Sound: Is Disney Victim to the “Decision Illusion”?

What’s really behind Disney’s decision to let go of its subsidiary Marvel’s entire West Coast marketing team? Probably nothing as interesting as what this decision signals about the entertainment industry as a whole.

MIT-based behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls it the “decision illusion”. The big idea is that simply expressing contextually-primed preferences in no way equates to decision-making.

To illustrate, Ariely begins his 2008 TEDtalk with a sequence of very simple visual illusions. One of which asks the audience to focus on two blocks in a super-complex, multi-colored, 125-block Rubik’s Cube (with only 75 blocks shown). The blocks in question are differently colored, one brown, the other yellow. A quick screen-change to whites-out the 73 extraneous blocks. Now we see clearly both blocks are actually a dull gold. Yet when the 73 blocks reappear, the colors return to brown and yellow. It’s as if we’ve learned nothing, as Ariely himself puts it.

The main thrust of Ariely’s talk is simple. If we a so easily duped when it comes to visual cognition (by far the predominant function of the brain), what of more complex cognitive systems, ones we’re not evolutionarily geared to deal with? Systems like financial markets, for example.

Ariely’s most powerful argument comes from a study of organ donation. Across Europe, organ donation is expressed in extremes. Some countries wildly favor, others wildly oppose. Ariely observes that traditional economists would cite cultural differences as being responsible. Yet similar cultures (Germany, Austria; Belgium and the Netherlands) take opposite views. Behavioral economists explain this odd occurrence by going to the DMV. It’s a DMV form in some countries that provide residents with an opt-in. Check this box if you want to be an organ donor. Other countries give applicants an opt-out. Check this box if you don’t want to donate your organs.

Upwards of 80% of applicants fail to check the box provided. This has radical implications for their choices. Rather than make decisions that reflect our value-systems, Ariely shows how the situational context of the decision prefers one choice for us. The extension of his argument shows how this context-driven preferencing (as opposed to actual decision-making) might be behind Disney’s choice to terminate the contracts of its entire Marvel’s West Coast marketing team. The bigger picture might be that companies structured around principles that shaped the entertainment industry during the 20th century, might be in a death-spiral.

Ariely’s thinking provides a theoretical framework for describing our incapacity to make rational decisions, but other thinkers have observed large shifts in the entertainment industry for some time now. In his books The Long Tail and Free: The Future of a Radical Price, WIRED Editor Chris Anderson has articulated how infinite shelf-space has changed the media landscape. Co-founder of Creative Commons and Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig has been describing cultural shifts in ownership and distribution of content since the 90s. Particularly notable is his 2007 lecture on user generated content. Media mavin Johanna Blakley contends that the automatic assumptions of similar taste based on age and gender demographics as all but at an end. The internet has already allowed men and women of all ages and cultures to gather around the same cultural product.

Building bland, standardized cultural products that appeal to everyone by offend no one is popculture project that’s time has already passed. Is this the darker truth behind Charlie Sheen’s “meltdown” and his railing against the show that made him a household name once more? Bret Easton Ellis hints heavily at the context-driven nature of Sheen’s “post-Empire moment”. Perhaps in the same way, terminating Marvel’s West Coast marketing team’s employ is simply evidence that the one-size-fits-all, father-knows-best monolithic entertainment industry of the 20th century is in its death throes.

But what of the future? How will entertainment find us in this brave new world without Nielsen ratings?

People who speak of the Big 2 comics publishers often forget that the third major publisher with an 70 years of unbroken publishing history. The third publisher is Archie comics of course. In the hands of newly-minted co-CEO Jon Goldwater, Archie looks to be making all the right moves. They’ve introduced a new player on the Riverdale stage in the person of Kevin Keller. Goldwater has led the company on to massive digital distribution that syncs up print and digital release dates. And Archie has made the canny move of hiring the plugged-in Alex Segura as Head of Marketing.

Goldwater has witnessed the pressures of the digital economy firsthand. He held an executive position in the music industry at the time of Napster. While Napster sank the music biz, Goldwater contends that digital distribution will save the comics industry. Goldwater has had years to learn the lessons of record labels, and can now begin to apply them to comics.

But the question framing Archie’s success may well be questions of the attention economy. Is Archie weighted down by its thousands of IPs, or is it liberated by these intellectual properties. It’s time to see Sabrina again, on the big screen this time. Katy Keene should have as much appeal as Katy Perry. Sonic and Mega-Man need to reclaim their transmedia status as simultaneously played-out cartoon shows and videogames. Will we see Archie explode in the popular culture again?

Surprisingly the most hopeful of the new companies comes at our darkest hour. Radical was established during the 2007-2008 financial crisis by Barry Levine and Jesse Berger. In conversation Levine demonstrates that kind of indomitable will that Warren Buffet alludes to when he says “do you want to be fearful when others are fearful?”. Before they had offices, they met with investors at a Coffee Bean. “So much that they must have thought we owned shares in the place”, Levine jokes. But it’s not just simply Levine’s unapologetic defense of creators that drives Radical, it’s that Radical is arguably the first fully transmedia company.

Rather than conceive of projects as segregate ventures in different fields of the entertainment industry (it’s a comicbook that might be a movie at some point), Radical is geared towards transmedia. Projects are simultaneously developed as comics, movies videogames. Creators become creators in the truest of senses.

Radical’s project certainly seems to be succeeding. Not only have they lured major comics names like David Hine, Peter Milligan, David Lapham, Joshua Dysart, but they’ve secured deals with A-list stars like Tom Cruise, Hilary Swank and Sam Worthington. Radical’s advantage is twofold. Not only is it not weighted down by 20th century organizational principles, but it also embraces the social media-driven aspect of the 21st century. Very convincingly, Levine and Berger have built something that reflects what entertainment is at its fullest.

Disney’s “decision” will by be analyzed at length in the media. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will slip away unnoticed in a media-cycle that will undoubtedly be dominated by Steve Jobs stepping down as Apple CEO. But any pronouncements on Disney’s motivations for the move may lack the punch of a fuller picture. The real story of course is context, and how context shapes “decision-making”.