A world without the Kardashians. Unimaginable, isn’t it? Last year, there were rumours – and the foundation stone of the whole Kardashian enterprise is rumour spiced with gossip plus a soupçon of mischievous fibs – that the show that launched a zillion products may be cut by the E! TV channel because of declining audiences.
Nothing has happened to the show so far, but if in the future, it does ever disappear, the family certainly won’t. Kim and the rest of the clan are as ubiquitous as air and as famous as any rock star, actor, supermodel or entrepreneur-cum-TV-host-turned-US president. Since Keeping Up With the Kardashians (KUWTK to aficionados) first aired in 2007, every member of the family has annexed our consciousness and infiltrated our lives, usually in a way that persuades us to part with our money. In the process they have all become multimillionaires – 20-year-old Kylie Jenner is set to become the youngest self-made billionaire in history.
People idolise Kim almost as much as she seems to idolise herself, but without quite knowing why. She’s uncoupled greatness from achievement in the sense that she’s acknowledged as one of the best known and distinct women in the world – she has a certain eminence and aura, yet boasts few tangible achievements beyond her own gravitational sphere; she appears and sells stuff, but not much else. (Though she did release a 2015 book called Selfish.)
Then there is the feeling of intimacy with others who are, at once, proximate and remote. Other celebrities of the early 21st century created bonds of digital familiarity but none exploited the possibilities offered by web 2.0 interactivity more fully than Kardashian and her family. When audiences were drawn to the Twitter feeds of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears in the 2000s, Kim Kardashian was studying Paris Hilton.
Kim and her family were sovereign and unrivalled for their craft and ingenuity; but if they’d surfaced in, say, the 1990s, the Kardashians would be greeted with shrieks of derision and dismissed as unwholesomely talentless, self-adoring exhibitionists – or probably not greeted with anything at all. The whole family would likely have been totally ignored in an era of Madonna and Michael Jackson, artists who somehow managed to provoke and disturb audiences and produce entertainment of the first magnitude.
Kim Kardashian also produced entertainment; in fact, she fascinated people, though exactly how and why was not abundantly clear – at first. But in 2007, the year when KUWTK started on TV, something was happening to culture, alongside the rise and rise of social media sites such as Twitter.
“Why is she famous?” has an obvious answer: no woman in history has ever been afforded such lavish media coverage. Maybe Diana, Princess of Wales. For now, Kim Kardashian is never out of the media. And we continue to scratch our heads. This is a woman from a family we know about basically from watching them sitting on sofas, eating salads and taking pictures of themselves (a practice Paris Hilton modestly claims she invented in 2006).
When KUWTK launched, it seemed just another derivative of the countless reality TV shows that had been populating the broadcasting landscape for the previous 15 years. But since then it has grown to be arguably the most formidable force in television history. And, if you think (as you doubtless will) I’m exaggerating, think of how much of the world’s attention the Kardashian family collectively commands. And how much money they encourage the world to spend – mostly on inessentials.
Nice little earners
It’s not known whether the Kardashian family members are adherents of the school of thought that propounds advertising is at its most effective when recipients aren’t aware it’s advertising (its earliest proponent was Walter Dill Scott, 1869-1955, whose book The Psychology of Advertising was first published in 1913). But they probably wouldn’t have opposed it.
Even if they did, they couldn’t argue with the money ad agencies offered them to commend, approve, allude to, hint at, speak favourably of or just name a product. Kim can reach millions of Instagram followers with one tap of her manicured index finger. Cost-benefit calculations lead advertisers to believe that paying Kim up to $500,000 a time is decent value. Sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner boast 105m and 128m followers each (at the time of writing) and can only command $400,000 per post. Khloé, who has over 88m followers, and Kourtney, with 74m, limp by on $250,000 a time. Kardashian product endorsements aren’t so much advertisements as cattle prods.
In a world where the ownership of commodities is synonymous with the Good Life, the Kardashians have every legitimate claim to being major talents. Talent isn’t, as popularly assumed, a gift or natural ability we possess: it’s an attribution. If we, the audience, think Kim et al have talent, they have. It’s like beauty: a subjective benefaction.
In a properly run world, you might suppose a successful long-running TV programme would address issues such as injustice, inequality, poverty, racism, sexism, violence or other issues of concern. But this is not a properly run world – whatever that might be – and the Kardashians authentically draw on audience’s real-life experiences. The family’s almost defiant success also hints at a future for celebrity amid the decline of old media. In the digital age, the skill set required of anyone who aspires to celebrity-level influence is uncertain, but involves relatability. If people identify with you, then you have a shot at greatness.
Social media, like art, journalism and entertainment, contributes to our understanding: it is there to inform audiences but not necessarily with responsibility. The Kardashians will endure. You might not like them; you might even despise the misplaced devotion of their global following. We’re used to middle-aged males controlling our media, not upstart young hellions with limitless influence.
Ellis Cashmore, Honorary Professor of Sociology, Aston University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.