Claims to Fame

I have tried all my life to understand my fellow humans but have failed. If I understood them better, perhaps I would share more of their interests.

Take reality TV, for example. Returning to France recently, I discovered by chance that a family called the Gayats had become famous. For what, exactly? Mainly for their number—two parents and nine children. As far as I can tell, they were not in any other way remarkable. A television chain had found them and turned them into stars. One can, if one feels so inclined, follow their daily lives; there are web pages devoted to them that answer such important questions as “Which member of the Gayat family is pregnant?” Hundreds of thousands of people “follow” them.

Even more inexplicable to me is the fact that they are now regarded, and generously paid, as “influencers”; that is to say, when they mention a brand of some commodity—soap or mustard, for example—they receive a payment.

Can such a mention really influence people to copy them? Since the world of commerce is hardheaded and would not part with money unless to some commercial advantage, I have to suppose that there is reliable, or at least plausible, evidence that influencers do really influence.

Let us grant, then, that when the Gayat family (whose income per month as influencers is greater than its income in a year from other sources) is shown using a certain brand of something, the sales of that brand rise. Whether the demand for that something is elastic or inelastic hardly matters. From the point of view of the owners of the brand, what counts is the total sale; whether the increase is at the expense of other brands or the result of increased demand for the brand’s commodity, whatever it might be, is irrelevant.

But what kind of person is influenced to purchase a certain brand of something simply because he has seen on television a member of the Gayat family use or consume that brand? Can shallowness go deeper?

Equally mysterious to me is the attention given to the opinions of celebrities on subjects such as global warming or the situation in Burma. Of course, like everyone else they are entitled to an opinion of their own, but not to anyone’s attention to it. That attention is in fact given to it is dispiriting. What they say consists mainly of cliché, but when, as happens rarely, they step out of line with the party line, the party being that of the reigning orthodox liberals, they are turned upon with a ferocity reminiscent of that of lynchers. This prospect alone is enough to make most celebrities cleave closely to the preordained orthodoxy. Many of them know that their celebrity is founded on shifting sands.

The cult of celebrity, as a quality in itself irrespective of the value of what it attaches to, is likewise mysterious to me. Many are those who seek celebrity detached from anything else of discernible worth. Fame for its own sake is sufficient for them. But what does it mean that people can be famous for being famous? As the late Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko pointed out, it takes two to be corrupt, and likewise fame that attaches to a person for no reason in particular requires someone—by definition, many people—to confer it upon him.

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