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Merchandising “Cool” – The Never-Ending Search

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PBS Frontline, in 2001, ran a frankly prophetic documentary on what were then cutting-edge techniques in brand marketing. It’s interesting to note how quickly these trends proliferated until now, nine years later, they seem frightfully commonplace. The transcript can be found here.

The piece begins by remarking that the “teen generation” of 2001, the one to which I belonged, had been the largest and most sought-after generation to date – even larger than the baby boomers.  It collectively spent $100 billion dollars per year on itself, and induced its parents to spend an additional $50 billion. It had more disposable cash then ever before, and economic freedom to spend it. And so finding the best way to appeal to that generation became a pressing concern for the Madison Street advertising firms – and a lucrative one.

Early research quickly focused upon that implacable question – What is ‘cool’?How does one become cool? A species known in the marketing business as “Cool Hunters” made its niche to find that answer. As Malcolm Gladwell says in the piece:

“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.

PBS takes us briefly through the life of a corporate spy:

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 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.

But there was a problem. The process essentially cannibalizes itself. As it turns out, a big part of being “cool” is having nothing to do with avaricious marketers with an intent to exploit. As soon as a certain trend becomes blatantly marketed, kids move on to the next thing. Trying to pin down “cool” is an infinite game of whack-a-mole, a perpetual cycle.

The piece details how Sprite improbably became the symbol of hip-hop by sponsoring DJs and MC’s to promote their drink. By the way, this is the reason contemporary music is awful:

[Advertising Executive] 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.

And it worked. Sprite’s sales skyrocketed, and in 2001, when the piece was done, had attained supremacy in the youth market.

The reporter, Douglas Rushkoff, intones chillingly:

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.

Those companies own all of the networks. All advertising must go through them. And MTV, one of our primary outlets of branded youth culture, became a virtual laboratory, where the results of thousands of focus groups, undercover fact-finding missions, and interviews got to be tested on real consumers.  Viacom, MTV’s parent, happened to be the ‘coolest’ conglomerate when this piece was made, and I have no doubt it still is. After all, they still own Jon Stewart, the White House court jester, who is authentically popular with the 18-24 demographic.

Exploring Viacom’s success, PBS examines how it gained popularity with the male demographic with several case studies, all centered around the idea of a “mook”, an advertising term that translates roughly to “boor”. In males, the “mook” takes its manifest in the lowbrow comedy acts like Howard Stern, Tom Green, the phenomena of professional wrestling, The Man Show and the Jackass franchise. The impulse there is always not to think, not to worry about anything in particular; just embrace your “manhood” – your penchant for slapstick comedy and outrageous statements – and above all, keep buying things.

The female counterpart to the “mook” emphasized overt sexuality, typified by Britney Spears. As the piece remarks of Ms. Spears:

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 last year, 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.

PBS takes us through several other case studies, and the trend of anti-intellectualism pervades throughout. Through endless focus groups and iterations of the cool chase, our marketers have programmed us to be unthinking, unfeeling, buying machines. It would be easy to dismiss these techniques as rather severe examples of the sort of anti-intellectualism that prevailed around the time President Bush was elected; that they were a small part of an overall scheme to make a purely corporate candidate electable for office. Perhaps, many would argue, President Obama, the university intellectual, repudiated that culture.

However, to those detractors I would offer this last bit of evidence: the lyrics to a song entitled “Blah Blah Blah” by our newest musical sensation, 22-year-old “Ke$ha”, who has just released a best-selling record, one year into Obama’s presidency.

Coming out your mouth with your blah blah blah
Just zip your lips like a padlock
And meet me at the back with the jack and the jukebox
I don’t really care where you live at
Just turn around boy and let me hit that
Don’t be a little bitch with your chit chat
Just show me where your dick’s at

Music’s up
Listen hot stuff
I’m in love
With this song
So just hush
Baby shut up
Heard enough

Stop ta-ta-talking that
Blah blah blah
Think you’ll be getting this
Nah nah nah
Not in the back of my
Car-ar-ar
If you keep talking that
Blah blah blah blah blah

Boy come on get your rocks off
Come put a little love in my glove box
I wanna dance with no pants on
Meet me in the back with the jack and the jukebox
So cut to the chase kid
‘Cause I know you don’t care what my middle name is
I wanna be naked
But your wasted

For anyone who would like to know how these lyrics came to be, and still wonders how the machinery of political suppression is exercised, I highly recommend PBS Frontline’s investigation.

Update: You can watch the documentary online here.

Tapes & Transcripts

Merchants of Cool
Program #1911
Original Airdate: February 27, 2001Produced by
Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin

Directed by
Barak Goodman

Written by
Rachel Dretzin

Correspondent and Consulting Producer
Douglas Rushkoff

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 culture?

    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.

    PARTICIPANT: Here.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: OK. Hadad.

    PARTICIPANT: Here.

    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 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.

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

    PARTICIPANT: No.

    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 hunting.”

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 language.

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, Look-Look.

    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 group.

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.

[www.pbs.org: 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.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: 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.

    GRANT HILL: [Sprite commercial] Hi, I’m Grant 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.

    GRANT 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 campaign.

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

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right.

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

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right.

    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 cool.

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.

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Written by pavanvan

March 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm

One Response

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  1. props to calling Jon Stewart the White House court jester – well said, it’s very true.

    I’ve said it before, we need anti-propaganda classes starting in kindergarten, going on until the PhD level to make people aware of the extent to which they (and to a lesser extent, we) have been deceived.

    And damn, are those lyrics dehumanizing or what? Although girls with that attitude do serve a valuable purpose in society 😛

    Aditya

    March 21, 2010 at 3:16 pm


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