Whole Earth

The merchants of cool: “cool hunters seek us out for our opinions and then sell them right back to us.”.

The merchants of cool: “cool hunters seek us out for our opinions and then sell them right back to us.”. – video recording review

Mamie Rheingold

The Merchants of Cool

As a teenage girl, the word “cool” is crucial to my vocabulary. It is a universal code that lets us all know which trends and fads are in, like low-cut yellow washed jeans and silver hoop earrings. Where do these trends come from? How did they become “cool”?

The Frontline presentation of “The Merchants of Cool” by pop culture critic Douglas Rushkoff, goes behind the scenes to reveal that “cool” does not spontaneously emerge from youth culture. “Cool” is meticulously researched and engineered. In fact, there is an invisible, interconnected web behind the creation of cool For example, MTV produces hip-hop concerts where popular rap artists perform for free because MTV will showcase videos that promote the artists’ CDs.

Meanwhile, large advertisements for Sprite, an MTV sponsor, are displayed in the background of the telecast concert. These interlocking, interpromoting companies have made a science of finding out what kids think is cool and then selling it back to us. They even pay anthropologist-investigators known as “cool hunters” to keep up with what the coolest kids are doing, and use that knowledge to design products. It is a perpetuating cycle, and we as teenagers are the instigators. We are involved in a symbiotic relationship with consumerism and media that shapes our opinions and influences our buying decisions–whether or not we are aware of that influence. Cool hunters seek us out for our opinions and then sell them right back to us. And we buy it without a thought about why. How do we fall into this trap? Watch “The Merchants of Cool.”


DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, FRONTLINE: [voice-over] On a summer afternoon, in a downtown New York loft, corporate America is on a very serious mission. Five boys are here to be questioned about what they wear, what they eat, what they listen to and watch. For $125 each, they’re expected to answer. At 32 million strong, this is the largest generation of teenagers ever, even larger than their Baby Boomer parents. Last year teens spent more than $100 billion themselves and pushed their parents to spend another $50 billion on top of that. They have more money and more say over how they’ll spend it than ever before.

BOB BIBB, TELEVISION MARKETING EXECUTIVE: Teens run today’s economy. There’s an innate feeling for moms and dads to please the teen, to keep the teen happy, to keep the teen home. And I think you can pretty much take that to the bank.

SHARON LEE, TEEN MARKET RESEARCHER: They’re given a lot of what we call guilt money. “Here’s the credit card. Why don’t you go online and buy something because I can’t spend time with you?”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: For today’s teens, a walk in the street may as well be a stroll through the mall. Anywhere they rest their eyes, they’ll be exposed to a marketing message. A typical American teenager will process over 3,000 discrete advertisements in a single day, and 10 million by the time they’re 18. Kids are also consuming massive quantities of entertainment media. Seventy-five percent of teens have a television in their room. A third have their own personal computer, where they spend an average of two hours a day online.

BRIAN GRADEN, TELEVISION PROGRAMMING EXECUTIVE: I think one of the great things about this information age is, with so many channels, you can say my business is 12 to 15, or my business is 21 to 24. As a result, you have the most marketed-to group of teens and young adults ever in the history of the world.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It’s a blizzard of brands, all competing for the same kids. To win teens’ loyalty, marketers believe, they have to speak their language the best. So they study them carefully, as an anthropologist would an exotic native culture.

ROB STONE, TEEN MARKETING EXECUTIVE: If you don’t understand and recognize what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and then be able to take that in and come up with a really precise message that you’re trying to reach these kids with in their terms, you’re going to lose. You’re absolutely going to lose.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What makes this market: so frustrating is that they don’t operate the same way as the rest of us. They’re a stubborn demographic, unresponsive to brands and traditional marketing messages. But there is one thing they do respond to: cool. Only cool keeps changing. So how do you map it, pin it down? What is cool anyway? The search for this elusive prize has its own name: “cool hunting.”

MALCOLM GLADWELL, WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: “Cool hunting” is structured around, really, a search for a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of player in a given social network. For years and years on Madison Avenue, if you knew where the money was and where the power was and where the big houses were, then you knew what was going to happen next. And cool hunting was all about a kind of revolution that sets that earlier paradigm aside and says, in fact, it has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect and admiration and trust of their friends.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Many companies don’t trust themselves to do this kind of research, so they hire experts who can find these cool kids and speak their language. Dee Dee Gordon is a sought-after cool hunter. Just 30 years old, she commands high fees as a consultant to some of the largest corporations in America and has been the subject of a New Yorker profile. Gordon and Lee have put together a team of what they call “correspondents”: all young, all former cool kids themselves. They’re culture spies, who penetrate the regions of the teen landscape where corporations aren’t welcome.

DEE DEE GORDON: A correspondent is a person who’s been trained by us to be able to find a certain kind of kid, a kid that we call a trendsetter or an early adopter. This is a kid who’s very forward in their thinking, who looks outside their own backyard for inspiration, who is a leader within their own group. These kids are really difficult to find. So this correspondent goes out and they find and identify these trend-setting kids. They interview them. They get them interested in what we do. They send all that stuff in. We look at it. We compile it. We look for trends or themes that are happening through all the information, and that’s the stuff that we put on our website [].

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: For a subscription fee of $20,000 each, companies are granted access to the Look-Look website, a Rosetta Stone of teen culture. If companies can get in on a trend or subculture while it is still underground, they can be the first ones to bring it to market.

DEE DEE GORDON: And that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then eventually kills it.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And that’s the paradox of cool hunting: It kills what it finds. As soon as marketers discover cool, it stops being cool.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: The faster you pick up on these trends and blow them out and show them to everybody and reveal them to corporate America, the more you force the kind of person who starts them and spreads them to move on and find the next. There’s no kind of solution to this. You can’t ever solve the puzzle permanently. By discovering cool, you force cool to move on to the next thing.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: This creates a problem for marketers. Kids begin to see them as the enemy. So what do marketers do? Market to kids without seeming to do so, become cool themselves, as Sprite did a few years ago.

In the early ’90s, Sprite was an also-ran brand in the competitive soft drink category. Their focus groups with teenagers were designed to find out what was wrong.

PINA SCIARRA, DIRECTOR OF YOUTH BRANDS, SPRITE: What we found by talking to teens is that they had seen so much advertising that they were on overload and became very cynical about that traditional approach to advertising.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Then they launched this ad campaign aimed at teens, which pokes fun at marketing itself.

PINA SCIARRA: There was really no one in the market at the time that was saying, “Discount it all. Don’t believe it. It’s all BS, and we know that you know that. And you’re smarter than everyone else.” So it put them in a position to feel like we understood them, so that they were feeding back to us, “You know, Sprite understands me. Sprite is one”–you know, “It’s really one of us.”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Former record executives John Cohen and Rob Stone run a New York marketing firm called Cornerstone. Their specialty is under-the-radar marketing. For instance, Cornerstone hires kids to log into chat rooms and pose as just another fan of one of their clients. They also recruit incoming freshmen to throw parties, where they pass out promotional material to their classmates.

The days of developing cute campaigns or whatever don’t work anymore. You have to really get involved in what their culture is. You have to understand where they’re coming from. You have to think how they think.

… It worked. Thanks to the teens who buy it, Sprite is now the fastest-growing soft drink in the world. Sprite invited us to a kick-off party for their new website, Scores of kids were paid to show up and revel in the sounds and styles of urban authenticity. While we were there, some of the biggest acts in rap music appeared on stage under the company logo. Here it was, the ultimate marriage of a corporation and a culture. Sprite and hip-hop had become one and the same, each carrying the other to its audience.

PINA SCIARRA: Sprite has really become an icon. It’s not just associated with hip-hop, it’s really a part of it. As much as baggy jeans and sneakers, Sprite has become an icon in hip-hop culture.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: IS it nostalgic to think that when we were young it was any different, that the thing we called “youth culture” wasn’t something that was just being sold to us, it was something that came from us, an act of expression, not just of consumption? Has that boundary been completely erased? Today five enormous companies are responsible for selling nearly all of youth culture. These are the true merchants of cool: Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY, COMMUNICATIONS PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS: The entertainment companies, which are a handful of massive conglomerates that own four of the five music companies that sell 90 percent of the music in the United States-those same companies also own all the film studios, all the major TV networks, all the TV stations pretty much in the ten largest markets. They own all or part of every single commercial cable channel.

They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they’re colonizing. You should look at it like the British empire or the French empire in the nineteenth century. Teens are like Africa, that’s this range that they’re going to take over, and their weaponry are films, music, books, CDs, Internet access, clothing, amusement parks, sports teams. That’s all this weaponry they have to make money off of this market.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Of the five media giants, the coolest conglomerate on the block is Viacom. And Viacom’s crown jewel is MTV, which last year earned the company a billion dollars in profits. MTV launched twenty years ago with a simple but brilliantly commercial concept: use record companies’ promotional music videos as creative programming. Since then, the cable channel has grown into a youth marketing empire, but its basic business model has remained the same.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: Everything on MTV is a commercial. That’s all that MTV is. Sometimes it’s an explicit advertisement paid for by a company to sell a product. Sometimes it’s going to be a video for a music company there to sell music. Sometimes it’s going to be the set that’s filled with trendy clothes and stuff there to sell a look that will include products on that set. Sometimes it will be a show about an upcoming movie paid for by the studio, though you don’t know it, to hype a movie that’s coming out from Hollywood. But everything’s an infomercial. There is no noncommercial part of MTV.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Take MTV’s daily program Direct Effects. Sprite rents out the Roseland Ballroom and pays kids fifty bucks a pop to fill it up and look cool. The rap artists who perform for this paid audience get a plug on MTV’s show, Direct Effects, for which Sprite is a sponsor. MTV gobbles up the cheap programming, promoting the music of the record companies who advertise on their channel. Everybody’s happy.

But while this cross-promotional free-for-all may maximize returns for MTV and Viacom, it also violates the first rule of cool: don’t let your marketing show. MTV learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when their ratings began to slip.

BRIAN GRADEN, PRESIDENT OF PROGRAMMING, MTV: There was a perception that MTV had lost its way a bit with the young consumer. Ratings were down somewhat. Some of the trend studies said that we were less cool, less creative than before.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So MTV had the humility to realize that cool was not their birthright, that it belongs to kids, and kids keep changing. If they wanted to stay cool, they’d have to change right along with them.

BRIAN GRADEN: We immersed ourselves in research about the fall of ’97 and have been able to turn that around to where now our rankings, when it comes to creative or original or funky or anything you would care about musically relevant, have went way, way up, and our ratings are their highest in their history.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The new MTV is all about learning what kids really want, then delivering it to them. Their signature show, Total Request Live, plays music videos by popular demand. And every afternoon, mobs of kids crowd into Times Square to gaze up at the windows of the TRL studio to see whichever mega-band might be making a guest appearance. To insure that bond stays strong, MTV must understand where teen culture is moving. Market research is the mantra, and its guru is Todd Cunningham.

TODD CUNNINGHAM, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF BRAND STRATEGY AND PLANNING, MTV. The research efforts at MTV are certainly legendary. There’s been a kind of feverish addiction to research and understanding young people. And that’s been embraced from the very top down.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: MTV let us in on their techniques. Todd Cunningham told us to meet him at an address in the small town of Iselin, New Jersey. A short time after we arrived, a black Town Car pulled up. Cunningham, a former advertising industry executive, emerged with a member of his staff. This little field trip, Cunningham had explained, is called an ethnography study, in which MTV market researchers visit a typical fan in his home.

TODD CUNNINGHAM: We shut the door in their bedrooms and talk to them about issues that they feel like are really important to them. We talk with them about what it’s like to date today, what it’s like dealing with their parents, what things stress them out the most, what things are, like, really on the hearts and minds of them and their peers. It’s captured on video, so we have a camera crew, sound and light crew there. We cut that videotape together, put it to music, edit it in an MTV-style way. We then take that around and show it to various department meetings.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So what happens to all this careful research, all the hours and dollars that MTV spends learning about who our kids really are? When all the tape is reviewed, what portrait of the American teenage male emerges? His critics call him “the mook.” That’s right, m-o-o-k, mook. And you can find him almost any hour of the day or night somewhere on MTV. He’s not real. He’s a character–crude, loud, obnoxious, and in-your-face. He’s Tom Green of The Tom Green Show. And he’s the daredevils on Jackass who indulge in dignity-defying feats like poo diving. He’s those frat boys and their whip-cream bikini girlfriends on MTV’s constantly recurring spring break specials. He has migrated to MTV’s sister network, Comedy Central, where he’s the cartoon cutouts of South Park or the lads on The Man Show. The mook is perhaps Viacom’s most bankable creation. Once programmers discovered his knack with teenage boys, they replicated him across the length and breadth of their empire. Take Howard Stern, perhaps the original and still king of all mooks. Look how Viacom leverages him across their properties. He is syndicated on fifty of Viacom’s Infinity radio stations. His weekly TV show is broadcast on Viacom’s CBS. His number one best-selling autobiography was published by Viacom’s Simon and Shuster, then released as a major motion picture by Viacom’s Paramount Pictures, grossing $40 million domestically and millions more on videos sold at Viacom’s Blockbuster video.

… There is no mook in nature. He is a creation designed to capitalize on the testosterone-driven madness of adolescence. He grabs them below the belt and then reaches for their wallets.

ROBERT MCCHESNEY: What MTV is struggling with is what’s going on with all our cultural industries. We have fewer and fewer owners but more and more choices, so they have to desperately find ways to keep people looking for gimmicks, and they don’t have a huge timeframe to establish an identity. With the remote control, you know, your shelf life of chances to keep someone, to get them to stay there, is very short.

You can’t develop a character for six weeks. They’re going to be gone after two minutes. So it puts pressure on commercial culture providers, like MTV, to try to find the sort of things that their research shows will click right away, recognizable things, and play on those.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And girls get dragged down there right along with boys. The media machine has spit out a second caricature. Perhaps we can call this stereotype “the midriff.” The midriff is no more true to life than the mook. If he is arrested in adolescence, she is prematurely adult. If he doesn’t care what people think of him, she is consumed by appearances. If his thing is crudeness, hers is sex. The midriff is really just a collection of the same old sexual cliches, but repackaged as a new kind of female empowerment. “I am midriff, hear me roar. I am a sexual object, but I’m proud of it.”

The midriff archetype is undoubtedly teenage mega-star Britney Spears, whose latest album, Oops I Did It Again, has sold over eight million copies. She hit the scene at 16 with “Baby, One More Time,” as a naughty Catholic schoolgirl bursting out of her uniform. When it came time for a spread in Rolling Stone, the 17-year-old self-professed virgin Britney struck the classic nymphet pose. And at the Video Music Awards when Britney finally and famously came out of her clothes, she wasn’t just pleasing eager young boys, she was delivering a powerful missive to girls: your body is your best asset. Flaunt your sexuality even if you don’t understand it. And that’s the message that matters most because Britney’s most loyal fans are teenage girls.

BOB BIBB: Everyone else was going the edgy route, so maybe we ought to go completely different. And there was about a year period where we went family-friendly. And I think our slogan was “Where America’s families can watch television together.” That was a novel approach at the time because, except for maybe The Wonderful World of Disney, families could not watch television together. So you know, programming and marketing met, and we thought that’s going to be our angle.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: But the WB’s family-friendly shows had to compete against programming like the eye-grabbing sex scenes of Beverly Hills 90210 and other risque teen dramas. By its third season, the WB made a course change. Their new trajectory: Dawson’s Creek, a show about a group of sex-obsessed high school friends in an idyllic Cape Cod town. On Dawson’s first episode, one of its lead characters, 14-year-old Pacey, begins a sexual affair with his teacher. In bringing teen sexual content to what had always been network TV’s 8:00 family hour, Dawson’s Creek and the WB made the headlines. However reluctantly, they had raised the sexual stakes even further. What would teens come to expect from TV now? Who would top Dawson’s? MTV, that’s who, by launching a new nighttime soap unambiguously entitled Undressed. Dispensing with plot almost completely, its quick-cut, channel-surf-resistant vignettes draw their characters so thinly they nearly disappear. It’s sex TV’s answer to wrestling, stringing together explosions of “pop” to keep its teen audience hooked.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The makers of teen TV argue that they’re only reflecting the real world. Sex is a part of teens’ lives, so it better be in their media, too. Media is just a mirror, after all. Or is it?

… Take the annual migration of college and high school kids to spring break. For the past fifteen years, MTV has packaged spring break into a staged television performance, and then repackaged it through the year on show after show.

… Kids are invited to participate in sexual contests on stage or are followed by MTV cameras through their week of debauchery. Sure, some kids have always acted wild, but never have these antics been so celebrated on TV. Who is mirroring whom? Real life and TV life have begun to blur. Is the media really reflecting the world of kids, or is it the other way around? I’ll never forget the moment that 13-year-old Barbara and her friends spotted our crew during a party between their auditions. They appeared to be dancing for us, for our camera, as if to sell back to us, the media, what we had sold to them. And that’s when it hit me: It’s a giant feedback loop. The media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves. Then kids watch those images and aspire to be that mook or midriff in the TV set. And the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them, and so on.

Is there any way to escape the feedback loop?

The Merchants of Cool (video)

Douglas Rushkoff, correspondent and consulting producer. Rachel Dretzin, writer. Barak Goodman, director. Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin, producers

Original airdate: February 27, 2001

60 min. $19.98 ($24.93 postpaid)

PBS Video

PO Box 791, Alexandria, VA 22313-0791 800/328-7271, /frontline/shows/cool/etc/tapes.html

Transcripts may be downloaded from same website.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group