Perfect Sound Forever

Merchants of Cool:
The art of teen marketing

Douglas Rushkoff interview
by David Manning (March 2002)

On the subway, a young woman was laughing loudly to herself. Even in a mind-your-own-business climate like New York, you see people doing this in public now and then. What was unusual this time was that she decided to engage anyone in earshot in conversation. She told how she was remembering a scene in the film The Royal Tannenbaums and asking if anyone else remembered it. A couple took her up on her charge and said that they liked it too. The woman went on to tell all of us what a wonderful film it was and that if we didn't know what she was talking about, we needed to see the film. Being a New Yorker, you're usually suspicious by nature of such good-natured qualities (how sad) but it was fairly evident after a while what was going on here. She was a buzz-marketer- someone who's paid to stir up interest in a movie or an artist or such. If you think I'm being a smug cynic (the film is a very good one but I knew that before I met her), I actually walked up to her to ask her if this is in fact what she was doing. Though she didn't answer me directly, she gave me a big grin and raised her eyebrows. Question answered.

The idea of buzz marketing, street snitches (who will be in a roving group, loudly talk up a band or such in public just to still up interest) and going through teen's bedrooms and closets might have seemed like lowest ebb of commercial fetish a few years ago but it is a fact today and who knows where this will lead to or how much more invasive this will become?

The PBS program Merchants of Cool studied this phenomenon, trying to understand who are the players behind this as well as looking at how they work and what effect this will have on popular culture. This proved to be a rather sobering expose of the world of commercial marketing to teens. One of the guiding lights of this project was writer Douglas Rushkoff who has taken a special interest in this subject in numerous articles and books. I spoke to him about what exactly is happening with teen advertising and why the stakes are so high not just for the companies and teens themselves but also for the rest of us.

See the Merchants of Cool website at PBS and Douglas Rushkoff's home page

Q: Merchants of Cool paints a bleak picture of television and its adverse effect on teens. In light of that, do you think there's some kind of need for regulation of the airwaves? Is that a real concern?

I'm concerned with the creative output of artists being filtered and limited to this very narrow bandwidth of music and entertainment that feeds corporate culture. The problem with creating a government-run filter is that government-America and corporate-America are basically the same thing. What you end up with is the same sort of filter that WalMart uses or anyone else uses. The stuff that is going to be able to sell the highest volume is going to succeed. Meanwhile, the stuff that's actually interesting or is culturally-provocative for the kids (rather than making them feel unworthy or fat or whatever pop music does to them) isn't going to happen because it doesn't serve the three or four corporate conglomerates who own the whole thing.

Q: So you think the problem then is that the large corporations are trying to force-feed teenagers a select group of artists and then get the kids' stamp of approval to further legitimize this?

Yes but it's more than that. It's definitely a very big problem that four or five companies own 95% of the media space. These corporations are basically servicing their debt and are most interested in the very short-term bottom line, rather than allowing kids to have a culture. Kids in America are the consumer. When women went back to work in the 1970's, soap operas and marketing to women diminished in importance and then, teens became the new target market because of the billions of dollars that they spend. When you have four or five companies owning the entire media space which have no purpose other than to make as much money in as little time as possible, the culture of teens ends up being compromised.

Q: Some would say that the bloody schoolyard rampages that have gone on in the last few years in the States are related to some of the violent music that they've listened to. What are your thoughts about this?

I get asked a lot about the increase in rampage shootings and 'isn't it terrible.' People are looking at a cause-and-effect where they see the increasing violence in media and the increasing murders of innocent people in high schools. But what you have to do is to point them to the actual data, which is that school violence is down over the last 10, 20 years, even though the reporting of school violence and the media coverage of school violence is way, way up. You have to start asking 'how is it that we've created a media system in which we see more violence even though there's less?' It's not a conspiracy or that anybody is sitting up at a glass tower deciding this. This is a system that's trying to perpetuate itself. You scare parents into thinking that the media which the kids are listening to is damaging them and making them kill, while at the same time, you've got another branch of your media company telling kids 'this is a cool thing.' If parents can be led to believe that Marilyn Manson for instance can lead kids to do violence things, then parents will get all upset about it. Then, if you can advertise Marilyn Manson to kids as a cool and dangerous thing that your parents don't want you to see, that stuff is going to end up selling. It's kind of absurd to me that you'll see a company like Viacom or AOL/Time-Warner both promoting media out of one arm and on the other hand, frightening parents about how bad the same piece of media is.

So no, I don't think that music or television or video games lead to violent behavior, certainly not the Littleton type. The research that's actually been done shows that people who have committed these rampage shootings are less likely to play violent video games than the general population is. If you're actually going to try to make a media argument about this violence, you'd have to say that it isn't that these people are involved in too much violent media but that they're not involved in enough of it.

Q: In your experience with studying advertising, do you find that they're always dealing with teens in a malevolent and unintelligent manner?

Actually, they're dealing with teens in an extremely intelligent manner- they're very intelligently attempting to dumb-down or frighten teenagers. Sprite's, and a few other marketers, ability to completely co-opt the hip-hop movement speaks of intelligence and strategy and great skill. In the early and mid '80's when we were listening to rap, nobody thought that corporate America would be able to co-opt it. Now, you've got someone like Eminem doing the most, if not only, lyrically dangerous stuff in rap. You really have to wonder what happened here! (laughs) When did it become more about Sprite and Timberlands than about the inner city or race or cops or what was actually going on. So they market very intelligently to teens by co-opting the most important and vital cultural imagery that's come out of a genuine counter- or sub-culture or by really just hitting them below the belt and provoking good ol' fashioned sexual insecurity and inadequacy. The Abercrombie and Fitch catalog can be compared to a Leni Riefenstahl (official Nazi film director) film if you want to see how imagery can be used to create this idyllic fantasy world that any teen can't help but want to be a part of because it looks like a place where nobody worries about sex, everybody gets laid and everybody's beautiful.

Q: Since it's used as a punching bag for many media critics, do you believe that that MTV has done nothing positive for teen's lives?

MTV was developed as a way to advertise music. It was really a way to use commercials as programming- to use promotional videos and really create a nice, inexpensive marketing channel. It ended up being much more successful than people wanted. In my book Media Virus, I'd two or three chapters explaining a lot of what's great about MTV. One of the things that was certainly great about it was that it had no programs. It just kind of flowed. So you didn't have the same kind of commercial television where you had to tune in at 8 o'clock to see the 'show.' It was just kind of ambient television, which I think was a tremendous breakthrough for the medium. They had to abandon this kind of format though because it was very difficult to sell commercial time- you couldn't say 'we're going to have this-many kids watching at this time.'

It's hard to make the kind of money that they wanted to make with a channel that was like radio-TV, which I thought was fun. I think 'Beavis and Butthead' was a tremendous show- that was really media-deconstruction. It was after that where MTV stopped playing rock videos- the reason why was because 'Beavis and Butthead' deconstructed them. They analyzed in a comedic way, all the techniques that are being used in rock videos to the point that kids couldn't watch them with the same awe that they used to be able to. I think for a while, MTV News was interesting. I think some of the social justice campaigns that MTV does (even though they're designed more to make MTV look cool than to help kids) are tremendous.

But I think that over the last ten years, I think that MTV has become more and more about the bottom line. I don't think it's run by human beings anymore. I think it's really just a machine that processes music and culture and then spits it out in a way that neutralizes its fertility and any kind of genuine sexuality or creativity and turns it into either a provocation for violence or a provocation what's passing as 'sex' (MTV-Undressed styled 'sex,' which isn't even really sex). Sex was youth culture's power- if you look back in the '60's and the '70's, the thing that made adults afraid of kids was their genuine sexuality. Now MTV has been able to reduce teen sexuality to something like Britney Spears. She's a sweet girl and she works hard but that's not actually sexy or sex. That's something else- it's Barbie-teen porn.

idealistic teens?

Q: How hip do you think teens are to this manipulation that's going on with them?

It depends on the teen. I can't look at teen culture as monolithic so I think some teens are absolutely hip to it and actually don't watch MTV or at they don't look to it to define their sense of culture. I don't think there's a problem with a 10-year-old watching MTV and being into N'Sync. But I'd feel bad for the 16-year-old to have N'Sync instead of Bob Dylan. (laughs) Or Britney Spear instead of almost anybody else. There's still great music being produced. It's just not being marketed as part of American mass culture. This is dictating more and more of what's available.

There ARE smart kids but they're increasingly disenfranchised. The cultures they create, if they are vital, usually get co-opted much more quickly now. It's very hard to part of a sustained, vital music-based culture without becoming the next 'thing.' MTV's A&R people are smarter than most of us are and they're really good at locating what's going to be the next vital, interesting culture. It's possible that rage-rock would have developed into something interesting had MTV not grabbed it before it really had a chance to mature. It's kind of locked in the 15 or 16-year-old stage and can't get out of that.

Q: What about other TV programming that tries to plug into youth culture like Nickelodeon or the Saturday morning cartoons on the major networks? Are they any better or worse for young people?

They don't do quite the same kind of market research that teen marketers do. It's because little kids aren't buying as much stuff as teenagers. What teen marketers do is try to turn their programming into actual commercials for the stuff. Kid marketers, like Disney, do create programs around products- Pokeman was a show that was created in order to sell merchandise. I guess that's similar in the way that it's test marketed.

I guess the reason that I personally don't get quite as upset by it is because for me, teen culture and music culture are the places where overall cultural change emerges from. You see that with the environmental movement, the psychedelic movement, the anti-war movement. These kind of things emerge from teen and college-age culture. If the cultural creation is completely dominated by corporations and if kids increasingly lose the ability to find anything out or participate in anything else, then I'm more worried for our culture as a whole.

Q: Do you think that other forms such as radio or movies factor in these discussions involving media and youth?

Radio is over. It's more monopolized now than television. It's two companies that pretty much own the whole dial because of the last round of deregulation. It was originally that one company could only own six stations in a town. Radio in some ways is sadder than what's happened to TV. You used to be able to find cool, weird FM radio stations.

Movies are a problem too. There was for a moment this sort of independent film culture with Mirimax and New Line. They ended up getting bought by big studios so they've become really feeders for big stuff.

The place where it's interesting though is Internet radio. I'm actually starting to learn about music again here. When I was a teenager, you learned about music by listening to the college FM radio station and you'd hear that weird stuff. Now on Internet radio, even just Apple I-Tunes, you click on the radio (software) program and there's 30, 40 stations there at a time that are playing some weird stuff. It'll be interesting to see what's going to happen there. If the record industry decides that it's really going to make its CD's incapable of being transferred to MP3's but indie artists decide to be MP3-compatible, it might just end up being like the old days- AM radio was for pop music and FM was for weird music. It might be that CD's and unsharable music are going to be that kind of AM, pop, top-40 stuff and the people doing interesting things that want it spread and have people know who they are will be staying in sharable formats.

That's where Napster and LiveWire are going to go. Intelligent teens and people who don't want to hear N'Sync all the time will go there. It'll be like the UHF dial was when I was a kid or how public access television is now where you can see some freaky things. And like MTV was- there was a time when it was freaky and there were somewhat counter-cultural things on there. Now, the danger on MTV is not the danger of a new and vital cultural strand coming through and arresting cultural at large. The danger of MTV is just 'ooh, are they going to show a nipple on Undressed??' That's just not dangerous in the good sense of the word, that's just imitation dangerous. It's not challenging the status quo of society. That's really the job of youth culture. The true job of youth culture is to turn over the soil. The parents should be running in horror, not because it's so inane but because there's so many new, revolutionary and conscious-changing ideas that only a kid can tolerate it.

Q: With buzz marketing and street snitches and MTV going into kids' closets, do you think the corporations have pushed the boundaries of privacy and that there's no turning back?

In one sense, yeah, they've certainly crossed a line in the way that they analyze kids but what happened is that they pushed so hard that most kids have been exposed to that kind of invasive marketing. Now, they're conscious of it and it's kind of flipped around in a way where that's become part of the equation. What we were showing the 'Spring Break' section of the documentary is that kids are doing the things that they're doing in order MTV cameras to photograph them or in order to get market researchers to care about them. In a way, marketers don't like that because the kids aren't behaving 'naturally' but they're behaving for the cameras instead. It's like the marketers would get off on a kid acting natural and not knowing that he's being observed. But when the kid starts acting like he's being observed, then it's screwed up again.

I think this is interesting because this is going to be the next phase of teen creativity. Teenagers, by manipulating the marketers, are going to start creating culture again. The marketers themselves are the medium. It's kind of a bizarre concept. The easiest way to have an effect on what you see on the tube is to tweak the marketers, to make them think this or that. If you're in a focus group for Sprite, especially if a couple of friends are going to be there, if you say something and you can get someone to say a similar thing, you're going to make their next commercial, their next tour. You can get them to do almost anything because these people are desperate and mindless. You can create a trend if you get one of those girls with the Poloroid cameras that's following you around and you tell her ANYTHING. Tell her 'sticking a pinky in your ass during a party is a big thing now'- they'll take a Poloroid of it and you'll see it in a Nike commercial. If you can do that, that's a form of art.

Q: Have you seen this happen?

A little bit. Little tweaks are starting. It's kind of fun. But things get co-opted so quickly that it's strange. Like in Canada, you had the WTO protests where the kids were spray-painting windows. The Gap had a campaign where they put graffiti all over their own store windows to look like WTO protestors. It turned out that it wasn't even really spray paint because they wanted it to look the same at every store so they got these big pieces of clear plastic film and just overlaid it on the windows so it would look like it's sprayed on. That was interesting but there, you'd taking something that's kind of vital and neutralizing it. It's like take the original outrageousness of rap and reducing it to a bunch of inner city kids saying what kind of sex they want to have. It's a co-option of the danger of something just to sell (things).

Q: Nevertheless, it seems that the marketers are doing a good job of selling teens back their own culture. Do you think it's troubling at how well they do this or how malleable the overall teen audience seems to be?

I hate to blame anything on the teens themselves. Eventually, you're going to adopt the values of the culture that you're living in. By being able to dominate the media space to the extent that they do, if 95% of what you see is this stuff, you're going to just start picking which is the best of this stuff. In the world you're raised in, you adjust, you adapt and people do. That's been the strategy- to eliminate the possibility of alternatives in these kids' lives so that they're going to have to pick from column A or column B. If you own both column A and column B, then that's fine.

If kids have nothing other than the cable dial and the music that's available at WalMart or the videos that are available at Blockbuster, how do you expect them to develop another cultural sensibility? When the kids who do develop something and become a cool neighborhood rock band, if they're scooped up by Jimmy Iovine when they've been playing for six months and told to play exactly the thing, how are they even going to develop another culture?

Q: Since a lot of advertisers focus on a youth market, do you find that people growing out of that age group are lost then?

The scary thing to me is that like in American Beauty where Kevin Spacey is lusting after his daughter's friend, parents are looking back and still longing for that teenage world that they never got to live. Kids who are looking in these clothes catalogs and doing everything they can to become part of that world and then you pass through that age and you realize 'I still feel awkward. I had pimples and now where is it?' They look back at it and want to get that back. You see these women in their 30's and 40's wearing these Catholic girls shirts. Now they're going to get to live this fantasy?

American marketers realize that the youth market was the ideal market- they have the most disposable income and the most time available to spend it. So we started a market exclusively to 16-to-24 age person. All our media, all of our music, all of our billboards are all saying 'this is the greatest time in your life. Your teens is when it happens. You're going to have the biggest, firmest tits and you're going to have the best sex and everyone's going to like you and you're going to have smooth skin and get to not have the responsibility of an adult but still have all the sexual and drug pleasures of an adult.' But no one had a teen life like that- we all remember that being a teenager sucks! (laughs) The best music (and maybe I'm being a bit of a Goth here) is the music that acknowledges 'oh my god! This is so hard. I want to fuck so bad and I look really stupid. My parents are horrible and I can't respect them and the world is polluted. This is insane.' That's the actual experience of being a teen.

MTV, at the beginning, almost promised that. 'I Want My MTV' was a way of saying 'we're going to have on television something reflecting back this senselessness. There's not going to be any stories. It's just going to be like wallpaper of images and we're going to put it together ourselves.' That's gone. They put together the image for the teens now so that they could spoon-feed them. But when you grow up and grow out of that, you either look back longingly like Bruce Springsteen "Glory Days" to this time that actually wasn't great or life just sucks anyway so there's nothing for you. They come out with one record a year for adults and usually it's a Beatles anthology or Buena Vista Social Club or something else like that. All the boomers go and they dutifully buy the record that was made for me.

Q: What kind of shows/programs would be respectful to teens then?

I would think something like what The Real World is pretending to do now. The sickest thing I've seen on MTV is that The Real World is now where these kids get together in this loft and they're training them to be record executives. They're learning how to make a band. It's really, really sick.

I think the best thing would be to get kids with camcorders to share what life is really like. To get kids to go and try to find bands that they really do like that nobody's heard of. I don't know if TV is really the place for it to happen. I think now that business has given up on the Internet as a vital money-making place, it's going to be freed up to allow for some genuine cultural development again. So it could be interesting.

Q: What about them also discussing issues that concern them at that age? Wouldn't that be important too?

Yeah, the more that they're involved in the making of the media, the better it is. Most of what's going on with MTV is that it's trying to look like it's kids making media but it's not. It's adults and marketers finding kids who'll make the kind of media that the adults and marketers want them to make. There's a big difference. Total Request Live is actually 'which from this group of things will the kids pick from.' Jimmy Iovine is much more responsible for what goes on TRL than some 15-year-old from Tulsa. It's part of the assembly line.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER