Frontline: The Merchants of Cool is a fascinating, albeit highly cynical look, into the way teenagers and children are marketed to.
Narrated by Douglas Rushkoff, it is close to ten years old, having been first broadcast in February 2001.
One of the programme’s key themes is that teen culture is fast-moving and transitory. Yet hindsight has proved this to be false.
It would seem that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
The programme was made pre 9/11, pre X Factor, pre Youtube, pre Facebook, pre Obama and pre Spotify (to name just half a dozen things that have shaped our entertainment culture in the intervening years). Yet it remains highly recognisable and relevant to teen culture today.
And so despite the assertion being wrong, it still remains required viewing for marketers, researchers and media folk – each of whom have the spotlight placed on them within the programme.
Discovering what teens want
Even back at the turn of the millennium, teens were seeing 3,000 discrete ad impressions per day, meaning that they would have been exposed to 10m of them by the age of 18.
Yet the programme asserts that surly teens are unresponsive to brands – they instead respond to what they perceive to be cool.
In order for content makers and marketers to know what kids think is cool, they need either formal research or an informal direct line to teens. The programme highlighted four methodologies used:
1. Cool Hunting – as typified by Dee Dee Gordon and Sharon Lee’s’s Look-Look. They start of by identifing teen influencers – early adopters, vocal advocates and people that regularly explore outside of their regular sphere of interest. After speaking to these people to find what they think is cool, they might recruit and train these kids up to be correspondents. They in turn go off and identify the next generation. All information goes into a database that their clients pay a subscription fee to access.
This seems like a great business model for several reasons
- It is a relatively low-cost model of both intelligence gathering and recruitment, meaning that the company can operate on a relatively small income
- Due to the proliferation of research agencies and consultants, they will never have more than a small share of the market and so anyone that subscribes to the database stands a good chance of having a comparative advantage over rivals sourcing their information from elsewhere
- The business is perpetual. Once something is identified as cool, it has been taken away from the cool kids and so is no longer cool. Thus they need to move onto the next thing
2. Under the radar marketing – Represented by Cornerstone Promotions, this odious tactic pays kids to “smuggle messages” onto forums or even in conversations, essentially paying kids to be walking, talking billboards without disclosure.
3. Ethnographic visits – Self-explanatory (though perhaps it was less well-known in 2001), where researchers and execs go spend time in people’s homes to observe them in their natural environment
4. Screen tests – Inviting kids to test to agents for various entertainment professions. Jessica Biel was discovered in one of these tests.
From these techniques, two key role models/personality segments were discovered – one for males to aspire to and one for females
- The Mook – where arrested adolescence and crudeness are celebrated, typified by Tom Green and Jackass
- The Midriff – where your body is your best asset so flaunt it even if you don’t understand it. Britney and Christina were the key role models
Does it sound familiar? So does teen culture perpetuate across generations, or are we on an irreversible trend towards sexualised stupidity?
A critique of these research techniques – and research in general – is that they don’t understand teens as people. Instead they are just customers. After all, the industry is named marketing research and not human research.
Although this is primarily a semantic argument, I think that, broadly speaking, the programme makes a valid point and it is still something that hasn’t been properly addressed in either marketing research or brand/market planning. Something to think on.
Content and marketing trends
Without a true understanding, it means there is essentially a giant feedback loop in play. The media sells kids images of themselves to themselves, and they in turn aspire to it.
There was the example of a Sprite party on MTV. Guests were paid $50 to show up, artists that played got paid and PR, MTV got cheap, aspirational TV and record labels got their exposure and sale. Yet, while it seems to benefit everyone, it ended up being quite conspicuous marketing, and thus a turn-off for teens.
To be new and exciting to teens, boundaries need to be broken. After all, teens are about rebellion and anti-authority. If Dawson’s Creek is primetime (don’t laugh, it did cover some pretty edgy themes at the time), specialist outlets need to up the stakes. This meant that counter-culture icons such as the Insane Clown Posse and Limp Bizkit eventually got packaged up and sold to teens
A line from the programme I liked is that ICP are “so crude and intolerable that they are essentially indigestible”.
So is this an irreversible trend to the gutter? The edges are always different to the centre, and it would appear that for anything to reach a teen mainstream it needs to be largely digestible. Despite the questionable authenticity, contemporary trends such as 3oh!3 and Look at this fucking hipster seem largely harmless, while Jersey Shore et al keep up the trend of sexualised stupidity.
Frontline have maintained an excellent website with a full discussion of the trends and coverage of the various interviews – it can be found here. The programme is also available to watch in full – either there or on Youtube (part 1 is embedded below, for RSS readers)
The situation today
The programme does maintain a sense of middle class adult bemusement throughout, but it still makes some great points about the attempts of marketers to pass off fake authenticity, with continually more explosive and extreme angles that try to stand out in the onslaught.
Yet one thing that has exploded over the past decade is the sheer supply of media and entertainment – I’m sure these 3,000 impressions a day have been far surpassed (particularly with the rise of branded entertainment). So marketers are needing to move away from disruption to find ways of actually engaging with teens on their terms – through opt-in involvement rather than unwanted interruption.
Will this fragmentation reduce the power of the mainstream? Rather than two teen idols, is there now two dozen? I’m not so sure. Teens have always been tribal and the hierarchies of social groups within schools aren’t going to fundamentally shift as we get more technologically advanced and savvy. They may not sell as many tickets or items as they would have a decade or two ago, but Lady GaGa, UFC and the Twilight saga are just as important cultural icons for teens today as Madonna, WWE and Point Horror were for previous generations.
But rather than focus on the markets, should we shift our focus back to the audience? I think so. Researchers and planners should essentially be an ombudsman for their target markets – representing them with a clear voice to be heard and respected when designing strategies and tactics.
Filed under: online resources, research, strategy | Tagged: Add new tag, douglas rushkoff, frontline, Jackass, Jersey Shore, Jessica Biel, juggalos, limp bizkit, Marketing and Advertising, mtv, pbs, the merchants of cool, the midriff, the mook |