August 22, 2008

A Question of Taste

Ordinary people may have better taste in culture and the arts than their choices in consumption suggest.


Critics, as professional judges of culture and the arts, tell audiences what’s good and what’s bad. Yet, audiences often bypass critics’ recommendations: Hollywood blockbusters are often hugely popular and successful, regardless of negative reviews by experts. Critics might highly recommend an artsy, independent or foreign film, yet those films rarely achieve the same level of box-office success as their Hollywood rivals. “Many studies have found a weak relationship between critical reviews and popularity with the ordinary consumer,” Professor Morris Holbrook says. “If we agree that a professional critic has good taste, then this suggests that the mass audience has little or bad taste.”

Holbrook and coresearcher Michela Addis of Università degli Studi Roma Tre in Rome studied the difference between what the critics recommend and what the public consumes to examine whether consumers have bad taste. Using movies as the focus of their study, Holbrook and Addis considered three factors: popular appeal — which movies people recommend to one another — expert judgment and ordinary evaluation, or the unobstructed opinion of ordinary consumers, distinct from what they may actually prefer.

“There is a lot of promotional communication, including advertising, trailers, celebrity guest appearances, number of opening screens, and more advertising generated due to box-office success, such as mentions in the news,” Holbrook says. There is also a great disparity in promotional efforts. Independent or foreign films are usually shown on only a few screens, while the blockbusters are in every shopping mall in America. In other words, one reason blockbusters become popular and take in big revenues is that the range of choices a moviegoer has is relatively narrow.

To explore the weak link between expert taste and public taste, and to learn more about ordinary evaluation, Holbrook and Addis had to find a way to isolate movies from all that promotional communication and marketing activity. The researchers examined hundreds of expert reviews that were published before a movie’s release, on the Web site Rotten Tomatoes, which gathers online reviews from various critics. The researchers measured market success by box-office and rental revenues, ordinary evaluation through the public’s average ratings on the Web site IMDb and popular appeal by the number of such ratings.

Holbrook and Addis found that, when controlling for market-related phenomena, regular moviegoers expressed similar views to those of the professional critics and were five times more likely to exercise good taste than previously expected by the researchers.

Does this mean better films, which are often independent, have a better shot at becoming popular? Not so, Holbrook explains. Big studios don’t always have the best scripts but they have the most powerful budgets, and the success of blockbusters, good or bad, encourages big studios to put their advertising dollars into those pictures. Independent films often rely on word of mouth to gain momentum, which can propel them into the blockbuster category by generating post-release advertising that’s driven by audience interest. But such success, as was the case with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is uncommon.

The findings suggest that ordinary people’s consumption of art isn’t always aligned with what they believe is good. “But if you take away the contaminating influence of the marketplace — advertising dollars, promotional budgets and putting a movie on every screen in every shopping mall — you find that people actually do like what’s good,” Holbrook says. “People seem to have good taste.”

Morris Holbrook is the William T. Dillard Professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Morris Holbrook

"Taste versus the Market: An Extension of Research on the Consumption of Popular Culture"

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