Pop Culture References: Hot or Not?

one-does-not-simply-talk-more-about-writing-than-actually-writing

Let’s face it—a lot of business and technical writing can be pretty dry. To keep the audience engaged, there are all kinds of tricks a writer can deploy, from storytelling to active language to the now-overused listicle format. Fun pop-culture references have long been another way to make technical concepts more relatable. Recently, I was working on a white paper that described security as a castle or citadel. To jazz it up a little, I wove in a couple of light-hearted Games of Thrones references.

The client liked the references but ultimately didn’t keep them. They were worried that instead of making the piece more relatable, the pop-culture analogy sounded like an attempt to seem cool—which was hardly the point of the white paper. It was a minor point for this project, but my curiosity was aroused. What makes for a good pop-culture reference these days? And in today’s fragmented cultural landscape, is it a device that ought to be retired?

Perhaps tellingly, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones myself. But for years the memes, references, and buzz pieces about it have saturated the internet to an unavoidable degree. In my research, I learned that although 16 million viewers watched the finale of GoT, the majority of viewers were males under 30. My client’s instincts were right. The target audience for our think piece was senior professionals, age 40+. Within their industry, only about 15% of the end users are under 30. Our target audience would be far more likely to connect with a snappy reference to The Voice or This is Us. 

But the issue is more complex than age demographics. While 16 million may sound like a lot, it actually reflects the slicing and dicing of our popular culture into specific interest groups. Back in the 1980s, 120 million people watched the finale of M*A*S*H. Today, even the top rated shows reach vastly fewer viewers than they once did. Gone are the days when everyone got an immediate chuckle of recognition from “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Party on,” or “Festivus.”

My Toastmasters club has a theme for each meeting, and a while back a member used the theme of “The Sound of Music.” In its day, the classic musical was one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and was broadcast annually on television at holiday time. Everyone knows “The Sound of Music,” right?

Not so fast. It turned out the film, the songs, and the characters were unfamiliar to our group’s younger members and even more of a mystery to our many members who hail from outside the U.S. Since 1990, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born has doubled. Today, over 44 million people living in the U.S. are immigrants to this country. Our pop culture is not only fragmented. It’s increasingly self-referential, an in-joke that is unrepresentative and irrelevant to the actual day-to-day culture being lived by millions of Americans.

I’m glad this issue came up. I’m starting to think that the use of pop culture references in business communications is dated. Spending time and energy on more creative and inclusive approaches to lively pieces would be well worth the effort.

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