The Reproducibility Trap, Or Why Everything Original and Curated Becomes Re-Heated Crap

Somewhere on I-81 in Virginia, there’s a billboard for Cracker Barrel, because of course there is. If you find yourself on the interstate and there isn’t a Cracker Barrel within 30 miles of you, then start taking pictures of the alien plants and the non-Euclidean geometry, because you’ve slipped into an alternate dimension. Anyway, this particular billboard caught my eye because of the slogan: “What’s the secret ingredient? Care.”

Now, I’ve eaten in many a Cracker Barrel, and enjoyed it every time, so I’m not coming from a place of dismissal. But there are 665 Cracker Barrel locations in the United States. How many Uncle Hershel’s Breakfasts do you suppose get served in them on a given day? Who invests care in them? How much?

To ask the question is to answer it. The cooks at Cracker Barrel are trained in making the food the way Cracker Barrel wants it done, so that whether you order an Uncle Hershel’s Breakfast in Tennessee, Arizona, or Maine, you are assured of getting the same meal. The cook doesn’t really care about the food, not in the same way as if he’d be cooking his own recipe. He’s following the Training. He’s working his shift.

Instead of care, the food at Cracker Barrel gets Quality Control, with Food Policies. Everything is 100% Sustainable and/or Raised Domestically, whatever that officially means. Stipulate that this isn’t just advertising, that the people who run Cracker Barrel actually want their food to have a level of quality and wholesomeness you won’t get at Denny’s. This is on-brand for them, and for the other thing they’re selling: nostalgia.

My point is that the ubiquity of Cracker Barrel is contrary to the image it’s selling. This isn’t their fault; it’s just what happens at scale. Perhaps the most relevatory film about American business of the last ten years is The Founder. Watch it and you’ll realize that there was a time when McDonald’s was revolutionary, a masterpiece of motion-study, space-management, and quality-control, when these things were new on the ground. The food was good too, simple and well-prepared. But the film also demonstrates, that at scale, commitment to care and individualization goes out the window. Why spend money refrigerating milk and ice cream when you can just make a milkshake with powder?

But at that moment, you’ve surrendered the thing that got you started. You’re no longer a chef, not even a businessman anymore. You’re a CEO, part of the network, part of the System. You may run your shop better or worse than others, but you’re a million miles removed from the customer experience. Yet however bad that sounds, it really doesn’t matter, because once you’ve created a product that reaches sufficient recognition, you don’t need to curate customer experience anymore. McDonald’s isn’t a burger joint, competing with other burger joints, it’s a brand, competing with other brands. The brand sells the burgers, not the other way around.

This is what’s happening in entertainment as well. People who bemoan the loss of original content might as well be speaking in Linear-A, for all the suits will hear them. A movie can succeed or fail at the box office. An Intellectual Property cannot fail once its hit critical mass. People screamed to the heavens about the Ghostbusters remake, and it bombed, but they made another movie, didn’t they? It doesn’t matter that its dumb, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t manage to create a Cinematic Universe out of it. It’s an Intellectual Property. It cannot fail, it can only require new recycling. There’s still a market for Halloween movies, isn’t there?

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s been talked about on Shallow & Pedantic: the point at which the product no longer requires editing, because people who like it have become FANS. Fans aren’t always uncritical, but they’re always customers, and a hater’s dollar is just as good. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Therefore, you can screw up Star Wars as much as you want, and people will still buy tickets for it. This creates a perverse incentive for the creators. If I can butcher the story as much as I want, and pissed-off fans still buy tickets, then what difference does it make?

This is why they keep making Terminator movies. Of course they suck. Any film after T2 was destined to suck, because they could only make them by wrecking or rewriting the lore of the first two films. But if angry fans keep showing up, then announcing their criticisms to the world, then the brand still exists. Everyone hated Terminator: Genysis; but Terminator: Dark Fate happened anyway. Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a Terminator movie since 1991. I am utterly at peace with its flailing.

The only thing that kills brands is indifference. Either indifferent leadership and bad management, or worse yet, public indifference. People have been hating McDonald’s as long as I’ve been alive. It’s still there. The day people stop caring about it, forget in their head that it even exists, that’s the day it stops being a brand, and becomes an artifact for historians.