Jersey Shore Conference: The hard life of a “star employee”

Professor Alison Hearn of the University of Western Ontario examined “Jersey Shore’s” contributions to the culture of branding from various perspectives in her keynote, “The Monetization of Being: Reputational Labor, Brand, Culture, and Why “Jersey Shore” Does and Does Not Matter.”.

By Anastasia Golovashkina

Professor Alison Hearn of the University of Western Ontario examined “Jersey Shore’s” contributions to the culture of branding from various perspectives in her keynote, “The Monetization of Being: Reputational Labor, Brand, Culture, and Why “Jersey Shore” Does and Does Not Matter.”

Hearn began by emphasizing the show’s value as a “self-branding vehicle.” The show increased MTV’s ratings by 65 percent and increased parent company Viacom’s yearly earnings by 20 percent, accounting for 97 percent of the company’s overall profits, according to Hearn.

“Monetization of persona—it has a kind of liquidity,” she said. “Everyone understands that their true selves have nothing to do with it; is delivering their effective labor and MTV is generating a brand with it.”

Before each season, the program’s producers discuss possible story lines with the cast in order to safeguard, in a sense, their investments—they own a percentage of cast member Snooki’s public image, according to Hearn.

“As long as Snooki is under contract with MTV, the network takes a cut of all her earnings,” Hearn said. “They are literally star employees. Their life is labor.”

Hearn said that MTV’s decision to continue running the show is increasingly common in what she called the “age of spin,” where “winning” is prioritized over truth.

“They’re going to keep this bus rolling until its wheels fall off,” she said.

One audience member asked Hearn about the buyers of “Jersey Shore” memorabilia, like Snooki’s book, A Shore Thing. The PowerPoint operator said he buys the merchandise because stars will always attract popular attention.

“Stuff on t-shirts will always sell. That’s the basic level of star emulation. I mean, this is a woman who claims she’s read two books in her life, and now she’s writing her second full-length novel,” he said.

University of Virginia Professor Andrea Press, a panelist in the conference who spoke on feminism and was in the audience for Hearn’s keynote, said she finds that the show appeals to many “high-achieving” college students. “Like a lot of ‘reality shows,’ it’s a carefully constructed spectacle of lower-class individuals. It appeals to people who are different,” she said.

This article is part of our full coverage on the UChicago Conference on “Jersey Shore” Studies.