Sunday, April 17, 2005

Large well-hidden subcultures in America

One question I get asked a lot, especially in the context of HowStuffWorks, goes along the lines of, "why did you write an article about XYZ -- nobody will read that." XYZ can be any topic you can imagine. The flip side of the question is, "You should write about XYZ -- everyone wants to know about it." One thing that has been impressed upon me over and over again since starting HowStuffWorks is that: a) with very rare exceptions, there is nothing that everyone cares about, and b) there are certain topics that have surprisingly huge and well-hidden followings.

I got my first noticeable taste of the large, well-hidden subcultures in America some years ago. I had a friend who raised rabbits. He had built a special shed beside his house, and he kept maybe 50 breeding pairs of show rabbits. As I got to know him better, I realized that his wife was a certified show rabbit judge. "Peculiar..." I thought, but he was a nice enough guy.

He had invited me to rabbit shows before, but one day he told me about a rabbit show just a few miles from my house at a national guard armory. I figured "what the heck", and I went. I was expecting to see 10 or 15 people there.

Walking into the armory what struck me first was the smell. Then there were the (seemingly) thousands of people. And then there were the (what felt like) millions of rabbits, all in their identical metal mesh cages. Many of these people were fanatics -- outright lunatics -- about rabbits. They talked to their rabbits. They screamed at judges if their rabbits did not win. They, to some degree, lived for their rabbits. They were nuts. I left that show thinking, for the first time, "there must be millions of rabbit lunatics in this country, and they live among us, completely invisible." It was an eye-opening experience, and a very bizarre feeling. The movie "Men in Black" taps into that same feeling to some degree.

I was reminded of that feeling when I opened Parade magazine this week and found this ad:

What we have here is the "May God Bless You, Little Grace" preemie doll by "renowned doll artist Tinneke." You can see the price of $25.99 in the above image, but let me blow that part of the ad up for you:

It is five payments of $25.99. The asterix refers to the shipping and handling charges, so the full price of Little Grace is $142.97.

The ad copy mentions that, "A one-of-a-kind doll by Tinneke can sell for thousands, but this extraordinary first is only $129.99 -- a truly remarkable value. Orders will be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis." Thousands? Wow.

Now, I know what I was thinking when I looked at this ad. Perhaps you have the same thought: Who would buy a vinyl doll that costs $142.97? I have a large circle of friends and acquaintances, and, to be honest, I cannot think of a single person who would spend $142.97 for a vinyl doll. Not a single one.

Here is what is remarkable. The fact that I do not know a single person who would buy this doll is completely, totally meaningless. Because there must be a MASSIVE hidden subculture that buys these dolls. Walk with me over to the rate card for Parade magazine and you can understand why:As you can see, Parade magazine reaches 35 million people, and a full-page color ad like this costs over $850,000! They have to sell tens of thousands of these dolls just to recoup the advertising costs. If you are going to drop nearly a million bucks on a single magazine ad, you have a pretty good idea that the demand is there. Go to the Ashton-Drake web site and you will see what I mean. There must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who are collecting dolls like these.

They live among us, completely hidden....

What I want to know, is what the person who is being paid 50 cents (or less) an hour to assemble these thinks...
When first saw the ad I thought you were going to talk about the doll being a preemie. It seems strange to me that they would make a preemie one. I assume it has no health problems.
I wonder what percentage of people order this thing thinking it only costs $25. With the circulation that parade has, I bet that results in significant sale.

Here is another way that concentraion of wealth occurs. People who are not carefully observant give their money to liars.
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I think that's very interesting. We are so consumed with our everyday lives that we hardly ever stop to think about the habits and hobbies other people have. Something that is completely outlandish to us probably has a huge following, or like you said, a sizably subculture. Likewise, our own interests that place us into a subculture probably seems very strange to others.
It seems strange to me that they would make a preemie one.
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