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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Frontline: The Merchants of Cool

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.

sk

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Two years old, and recommended reading

It’s been two years since my first, tentative, blog post at this address. I’m pleased that it is still going strong but I have been a bit neglectful of it. So, over the coming months I’m going to attempt to do the following

  • Refresh my blog roll – something which is long overdue
  • Post more regularly – I don’t want to commit to an artificial schedule, despite the recent regularity of my Sunday posting. The content on this blog is the most valuable thing – certainly to me, since it helps me formalise my thinking – and it shouldn’t be compromised for the sake of frequency
  • Start a blog project/series – due to a rather hectic start to the year, my news-gathering is on hiatus. However, there are a couple of things I think would work as part of an ongoing theme, rather than a single entry blog
  • Investigate porting the blog over to a hosted domain – I bought a URL and hosting a year ago, and then did nothing with it. There is no overwhelming need to have my own website, and I’m slightly concerned about porting over links and the RSS feed, but it should be something I look into to
  • Resume my link updates

And this last bullet is where I am going to start. We are who we know, and I am regularly educated and inspired by a whole range of content across the web – both “professional” and “amateur”.

When posting new content on my blog, my priority will always be to first be selfish – write content I want to, that can help benefit my understanding or thinking. However, I haven’t been generous enough recently, and I want to resolve that by sharing my inspiration.

My link updates stopped around a year ago, pretty much when I changed jobs (draw your own conclusions) but I’m going to attempt to resume them on a weekly basis.

I’m also going to be changing the names of the posts to “Recommended reading”. “Link updates” sounds too automated. What I am trying to do is curate the best things I have recently read, and convey why I think they’re so good.

So, without further ado, here are eighteen posts I’ve read over the past month that I’d recommend (future posts won’t be this long, but I’ve got some catching up to do:

Learning and working

I loved this Wired article on how athletes are increasingly turning to video games in order to help them learn their strategies. It makes sense, since the Madden series is arguably the most complex game on the market. Technology democratises information, and augments and improves our talents in our chosen fields.

This article struck a chord with it. In striving for perfection, the Duke Nukem game has been in development for over a decade, and indeed has just shut down. There is a point where we have to say that something is “good enough”.

This is quite a short Havard Business blog post on setting goals but I liked the notion that they tend to promote mediocrity rather than excellence. Should we be looking to improve where our skills are lacking – to be well-rounded but average – or should we be looking to push ourselves further in the areas we excel in.

This great post on how to hire programmers is applicable for all industries. Are they smart? Can they get stuff done? Can you work with them?

I liked this New Yorker piece on the reviewers for the Michelin Guide, and the inherent tension there is between objectivity and subjectivity when assessing.

Business strategy

Suw Charman-Anderson has written the best refutation of Google Buzz, and its privacy implications, I have seen. I continue to be amazed that Google just launched this on unsuspecting users, without either a gradual roll-out or a beta label.

I read Venessa Miemis’ post on the Apple iPad after I had posted up my own sceptical viewpoint. A shame, as she offers a comprehensive summary of the different views and issues surrounding the product, with regard to design thinking

Wired has a piece on how a Monopoly online game, intended to be a quick promotional tool, became far more popular than anticipated. Should they end the game as intended, or take advantage of its success and continue to operate it?

It has already made several circuits of the blogosphere, but if you are still yet to read it, I would thoroughly recommend Bud Caddell’s views on what the advertising agencies of the future should be

Julie at Brandtwist says that we need a brand building strategy rather than a social media strategy, and I completely agree.

Consumer understanding

I mentioned Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management concept in a previous post, and this blog post conveys how it can be of benefit to us

An interesting article on the confessions of a book pirate. It is vital to understand people’s motivations, rather than simply castigating and criminalising them.

Village Voice looks at the decade in music hype. I find it fascinating how large swathes of culture can be completely transitory, yet remnants remain and get repurposed by subsequent generations

Marketing and advertising

Helge Tenno’s expanded version of his seven actionable marketing trends presentation is extremely detailed, and packed full of inspirational ideas and quotes on how marketing is and should be evolving.

This Big Spaceship post has some excellent thoughts on why we should move away from trying to create a “viral”, in order to understand how people share and why things spread.

Chris Heathcote looks at all of the different types of screen available, and puts them into context for advertising.

Blogs

Rather than a single post, I urge everyone to visit Roger Ebert’s blog. Ebert is a widely respected film critic who has been suffering with cancer and can no longer eat, drink or talk. He has put a great deal of his energy into his writing, and it is wonderful.

And for those that want yet more reading, Rex at Fimoculous has linked to his thirty favourite blogs of 2009.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boxercab/427774884/

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