geert lovink on Tue, 1 Jan 2002 09:12:47 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> TV Documentary: The Merchants of Cool

Dear Nettimers,

first of all a happy 2002.

I have recently seen this documentary on TV which I can highly recommend. It
is a report on the creators and marketers of popular for teenagers. It's
quite shocking to see how youth/pop/rebel culture is being manufactured.
Douglas Rushkoff has been a correspondent for this program. I believe this
program deserves a wide, international screening.

Homepage of The Merchant of Cool:

You can order a copy (probably NTSC... no PAL option):

There is also a URL for the script:

The documentary starts like this (an excerpt):

ANNOUNCER: They want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the
cash. They are corporate America's $150 billion dream.

  NEAL MORITZ, Movie Producer: Teenagers have a lot of disposable income.
They want to go spend their money. And you know, we're more than happy to
make product that they want to go spend money on.

ANNOUNCER: MTV, Madison Avenue and the dream makers of Hollywood have
targeted our teenagers.

  ROBERT McCHESNEY, Communications Professor, U. of Illinois: They look at
the teen market as part of this massive empire that they're colonizing.
Teens are like Africa.

ANNOUNCER: They are the most studied generation in history.

  ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: If you don't understand and recognize
what they're thinking, what they're feeling, you're going to lose. You're
absolutely going to lose.

ANNOUNCER: But what does this relentless focus on the teenager do to the

  MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU: They're going to do
whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means
that they will drag standards down.

ANNOUNCER: And to the teenagers themselves?

  BARBARA: I have to look good for people. I need to look good.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, author and media critic Douglass Rushkoff takes a
journey through the complex world of buying and selling cool.

  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: OK, so I'm going to take attendance here. Christopher.




  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right there. OK. Adam. OK.

  You guys can all have a seat right over here. Has anybody ever done a
focus group before? Do you remember what you talked about?

  PARTICIPANT: After-school sports.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, FRONTLINE: [voice-over] On a summer afternoon, in a
downtown New York loft, corporate America is on a very serious mission.

  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: You know, it's all going to be sort of, like, what you
guys think. You guys are sort of the experts today, and it's going to really
be just you guys telling me your opinions.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: These 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.

  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Tell me some of the things that are really hot right
now, some of the things that are really big right now, popular trends,
things that you sort of see everywhere. What's, like, going on? What's hot
right now? Just shout them out.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: OK, so they're no more responsive than most teenagers, but
that's not going to stop this market researcher because the information he's
looking for is worth an awful lot of money. 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 on line and buy
something because I can't spend time with you?"

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I'm Douglas Rushkoff, and tonight we'll tour through a
landscape that has both attracted and repelled me during the decade I've
been studying it. It's the world in which our teenagers are growing up, a
world made of marketing.

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 on line.

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

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.

  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Is there anybody in your group of friends in
particular that is, you know, always really following the trends?


  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: No? So it's just sort of all of you together kind of
keep each other in check? OK. Cool.

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?

  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: As I'm moving up, stop me when I get to, like, two
years ago.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What is cool anyway?

  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Like right here? OK.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The search for this elusive prize has its own name: "cool

MALCOLM GLADWELL, Writer, "The New Yorker" Magazine: "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

DEE DEE GORDON, Teen Market Researcher: We look for kids who are ahead of
the pack because they're going to influence what all the other kids do. We
look for the 20 percent, the trendsetters, that are going to influence the
other 80 percent.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: 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.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: How good is she? I think she's as good as anyone is at
this game, and it's something- it's a difficult thing to quantify, of
course. It's not a science. It's really a question, ultimately, of how much
do you trust the person who's doing the interpretation and how good are
their instincts. And I think, in both cases, she's at the top of the field.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Three years ago, Gordon and her partner, Sharon Lee, left
the small advertising agency where they worked to start their own business,

  DEE DEE GORDON: All the photos are really busy, so somebody has to shoot a
skateboarder in the air or a cyclist in the air-

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Gordon and Lee have put together a team of what they call
"correspondents": all young, all former cool kids themselves.

  DEE DEE GORDON: The Slipknot story came in, and our writer did a really
good job.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: They're culture spies, who penetrate the regions of the
teen landscape where corporations aren't welcome.

  "CORRESPONDENT": Can I take your picture for a street-culture Web site I
work for?

  TEENAGE BOY: Go ahead.

  "CORRESPONDENT": I got to get your piercings. Can I get your tattoo?

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

These kids are really difficult to find. So what this correspondent does is
they go out and they, like, 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 Web site.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: For a subscription fee of $20,000 each, companies are
granted access to the Look-Look Web site, 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. So you simply- there's no kind of solution to this. You can't
ever solve the puzzle permanently. By having- by discovering cool, you force
cool to move on to the next thing.

[ Learn more about "cool hunting"]

  FOCUS GROUP LEADER: For those of you who crossed out Madonna, why did you
cross out Madonna?

  PARTICIPANT: Because she's old.


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.

  SPRITE COMMERCIAL: [singing] I like the way you make me laugh. I like the
funny things you do-

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: 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.

  BRAD HILL: [Sprite commercial] Hi, I'm Brad Hill, professional basketball
player for the Detroit Pistons.

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

  BRAD HILL: [Sprite commercial] -because it's the only drink with that
cool, crisp, refreshing taste that satisfies even my manliest thirst.

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: It worked for a while. But soon Sprite's own focus groups
revealed that kids were getting wise to this anti-marketing marketing

  PARTICIPANT: They had Grant Hill telling you not to listen to some
celebrity telling you to drink a beverage.


  PARTICIPANT: Well, that's what you're doing. You're listening to Grant
Hill telling you to drink Sprite.


  PARTICIPANT: I don't know how much they probably paid all those stars to
come on and say, "Don't listen to what a star says."

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So Sprite crossed an entirely new threshold into the
innermost sanctum of teen culture, where they cloaked themselves in genuine

PINA SCIARRA: Hip-hop for us became the sort vehicle, or the lens, for us to
get to teens and talk to them in a credible way. And the way we did that was
to develop relationships with artists.

ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: They all of a sudden put their arm
around that kid that was drinking Sprite and said, "We understand you. We
recognize you. We want to be part of your life," and not just, "Please drink
our product." They didn't- they almost weren't even selling the product.
They were selling the fact that they understood the culture.

JOHN COHEN, Co-President, Cornerstone Promotions: They were selling a
lifestyle, and I think that's why Sprite's been so successful and one of the
leaders in terms of reaching youth.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Former record executives John Cohen and Rob Stone run a
New York marketing firm called Cornerstone. They're 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.

  1st CORNERSTONE RECRUITER And that's what the focus group is about.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: They also recruit incoming freshmen to throw parties,
where they pass out promotional material to their classmates.

  2nd CORNERSTONE RECRUITER: If we're- you know, maybe we've got a bunch of
promo Busta Rhymes CDs, and that would be great to give out at the hip-hop

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Cornerstone helped Sprite tap a network of radio DJs and
hip-hop artists to smuggle their message into the world of kids.

ROB STONE: The days of developing cute campaigns or whatever don't- they
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.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: 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 Web site, 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

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, U. 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 10 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 19th century. Teens are like Africa. You know, 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.

[ Read more on the media giants]

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Of the five media giants, the coolest conglomerate on the
block is Viacom. And Viacom's crown jewel, there on the second floor, is
MTV, which last year earned the company a billion dollars in profits. MTV
launched 20 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

But everything's an infomercial. There is no non-commercial part of MTV.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: This strategy keeps MTV's airwaves filled with cheap and
easy content.

  MTV HOST: Now he's over there doing his thing! Let's check in with him.
All right, let's do it over there!

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Take MTV's daily program Direct Effects. See anything
familiar? That's the party we showed you earlier. We didn't know
it at the time, but the cameras swirling over our heads belonged to MTV.

  MTV HOST: Let's make it happen! The launch party, it's crazy!
And right now I've got two of the hottest in hip-hop for you right now!

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So let's connect the dots. Sprite rents out the Roseland
Ballroom and pays kids 50 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, MTV President of Programming: 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

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.

DAVE SIRULNICK, MTV Exec VP of Programming and News: MTV felt like we needed
to get a closer connection to the audience. We said, "If we know more about
them - know more about their lives, know more about who they are, what they
want, what they don't want - we can make a better MTV that has a better
connection with the audience if we talk to them and listen to them a lot

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

  MTV AUDIENCE WARM-UP HOST: Five, four, three, come on!

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. Today it's a TRL favorite, rap
metal artists Limp Bizkit, whose videos are frequently voted into the top
10. More on them later.

DAVE SIRULNICK: It was really the first time MTV was able to give over the
control of a show to the viewers and say, "You know what? You tell us what
you want to hear, what you want to see, what the videos are." And they've
been in control of it since it went on the air. So I think that's one of the
reasons that it's really important to us. And it's really important to the
audience because there's that real bond.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: 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, MTV Sr. VP of Brand Strategy and Planning: Some of this
music is dead on for exactly what kind of stuff that our audience is going
to want. 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 adve
rtising 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.


Merchants of Cool

Produced by
Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin
Directed by
Barak Goodman

Written by
Rachel Dretzin

Correspondent and Consulting Producer
Douglas Rushkoff

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