An extremely revealing and disturbing television documentary was aired on America’s Public Broadcasting System in February of last year. Entitled The Merchants of Cool, the show examined the way big business and the advertising industry have targeted our young people. More specifically, it explores the way youth culture is largely the creation of marketers, corporations and those interested in getting rich off of our youth through popular culture.
Although primarily discussing the American situation, the globalisation of youth culture means the findings are relevant to most of the world. Indeed, given the global reach of such icons of American popular culture as MTV, McDonald’s and Coke, almost no culture is immune from its effect.
Money for the taking
The bottom line is that there is a huge amount of money involved in the youth culture. Consider some of the figures. In the US there are some 32 million teenagers, most with money to burn. Marketers know that this is the largest generation of teenagers ever, even larger than their Baby Boomer parents. In 2000 American teenagers 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.
For the first time in human history, teenagers are growing up in a world made up of advertisers, marketers and corporate giants who are doing all they can to drain every last dollar out of the lucrative youth market. And they are succeeding. As the presenter of the show, media critic Douglas Rushkoff, explained, “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, President of MTV Programming, notes the change that has taken place over the last 10 to 15 years. There is now a keen recognition of the power of the teen consumer:
“I think even five years ago, believe it or not, Madison Avenue would not really have recognized teens or even 18-to-24s as a viable consumer block on their own. I can remember a day when shows . . . with humongous teen numbers or 18-to-24 numbers, like ‘My So-Called Life’ on ABC get canceled because that’s not viable. One of the great things about this information age is that with so many channels, you can say, ‘My business is 12-to-15,’ or ‘My business is 21-to-24.’ And you can make a business out of that, which is great.
“As a result, you have the most marketed group of teens and young adults ever in the history of the world. These consumers are so brand-savvy that they know exactly if they’re being hyped to, if they’re being marketed to. They can see right through an ad that is just empty hype. At the same time, they don’t resent brands. If you’re Levi’s or Pepsi or one of these brands, that’s okay, as long as you’re cool. Probably ten years ago that wasn’t the case.”
The Merchants of Cool documents how corporations dish out millions of dollars to find out what is cool and what is not. The problem is, cool keeps changing, simply because kids keep changing. Just trying to keep up on the trends is a full time job for hundreds of researchers, consultants and marketers. The job of mapping cool, of pinning it down, is one of the main pursuits of corporate America today.
Experts are hired to inform corporations on what is hot and what is not. One consultant, for example, puts the results of her market research on an exclusive web site, charging corporations a $20,000 subscription fee to learn what the culture spies have discovered.
One problem, however, is whenever the culture vultures and marketing experts discover what is cool, it stops being cool! Cool changes. Madonna for example is old hat – she is not cool. And the corporations struggle to keep up with the rapid changes in cool.
Part of the way the corporate entertainment world deals with this problem is to not just map cool, but to create cool. This in fact has become much of the strategy of the merchants of cool – create cool, while claiming to simply be reflecting cool. Thus they are no longer selling a product, they are selling a lifestyle. It becomes a “giant feedback loop” where the media presents images to youth, which the youth culture in turn seeks to emulate and imitate. The media then sells it back to them.
This process is done in part by doing market research into what teens like, then repackaging and re-selling it back to them. For example, with teenage boys there is what is known as “mook”. Mook is a caricature of what a typical trendy cool young male is supposed to be about. Marketers extensively interview young males to see what they wear, what they eat, what they buy, what they listen to, and so on, then repackage the results into a sellable commodity. The mook then is a testosterone-laden lout who craves sex, violence and mindless entertainment. Which is why wrestling is so popular. As are the countless teen films saturated with sex and violence. This is supposed to be what young males want, so the entertainment media force-feeds them on it in excess. The crudity and banality of South Park, Howard Stern and the recent “reality” shows (Temptation Island, Big Brother, etc.) are the results of the merchants of cool.
And again, the whole aim of the exercise is about creating and maintaining demand. It is not a person that is targeted, but a consumer. It is not a human that is pitched to, but a customer. That is why the term is ‘market research’, not people research or human research. The goal is to create and perpetuate a steady stream of ‘coolness’. The aim is simply to create ever more products and services, convincing young people that they need them, that they will make them cool.
Communication Professor of New York University, Mark Crispin-Miller says the merchants of cool listens to young people simply so they can sell to them. They capitalise on the flippancy and short-attention span of youth to hook them on entertainment and pleasure. If ancient Rome kept the masses in subjection by offering them bread and circuses, the merchants of cool hypnotise a generation by offering them pizza and rock concerts. More specifically, they offer them Sprite and Limp Bizkit.
Lowest common denominator
And if the bottom line is to make money, then to appeal to the crassest motive, to offer the most degrading product, and to rope in ever younger audiences is the order of the day. This in part explains the cultural decline so apparent everywhere. The entertainment industry deliberately reaches for the gutter to hook in as many young people (and their seemingly bottomless pocket books) as possible.
Thus teen culture is full of the worst examples of sex and violence run amuk. The borders are continuously being pushed. Entertainment that was once daring and radical quickly becomes blase and boring. What was cool in March becomes uncool in April. To deal with the continual boredom and desensitisation, ever more shocking and controversial forms of entertainment have to be offered. So hate rappers like Eminem and shock-jocks like Howard Stern are offered in endless supply.
An example is Warner Brothers, a network which realised that the teen market was saturated with sex and violence, so they decided a few years ago to offer an alternative – family-friendly viewing. Shows like Seventh Heaven were produced and ran for a few years, but WB saw they couldn’t compete with the other networks. So they dropped the family programing in favour of what every one else was offering – mindless sex and violence. Shows like Dawson’s Creek were produced instead, which concentrated on sex and the fast life.
And children are always being targeted here. The teen sex and horror film I Know What You Did Last Summer was test-marketed to 11 and 12 year olds! And shows like South Park (which the producers assured us was for adults only) have a whole range of spin off products – toys and tee shirts, eg. – specifically aimed at children.
Indeed, the marketing seems to always appeal to the lowest common denominator. For example, many of the pop stars of today are clothed (or unclothed) in such a way that 20 years ago they would have been called tarts. But today they are called role models. Female pop stars especially are leading a downward trend which seems to show no sign of bottoming out. Rushkoff calls this the “midriff”, the female version of ‘mook’. It seems everywhere today we see young girls walking around with bare midriff. Where did this trend arise? It came from the mass-marketed, stage-managed and ubiquitous pop stars, and their corporate creators.
These young female pop stars are portrayed in the most seductive and sensual fashion possible. As an example, I recall reading an interview with singer Mariah Carey a few years ago. She said her promoters were urging her to change her image, to push the sex button. She said she felt she was being made to look and act like a prostitute. Well, her managers and promoters have obviously won the debate. Whenever she appears today, she is in varying degrees of undress and seductiveness, including the mandatory bare midriff. Many others could be mentioned. Consider but one – teen sensation Britney Spears. Rushkoff makes this observation of the teen idol:
“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.”
Sex sells, and popular culture is absolutely saturated with it. As another example, I read just the other day of the new version of the popular children’s video game, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which was recently made into a feature film. In the new version the creators have decided to make her already ample breasts even bouncier and more life-like. Just the stuff young boys would want to feed on. And just the kind of stuff most parents would/should want restricted, if they knew it was happening.
But that is part of the problem: most parents wouldn’t have a clue what kind of computer games, video games and music videos their young people are involved in. Most are loaded with explicit sex and violence, but most parents assume they are simply harmless games. What the parents do not know the marketers and advertisers do.
The combination of sex and violence comes to a powerful head in the most popular entertainment for teenage boys in America today: professional wrestling. If you are thinking about the kind of wrestling that you might have grown up on as a kid, think again. Today’s version is light years beyond the old variety. Today rock music, porn stars and wrestling superstars unite to wow the teen market, with dozens of spin-off industries, including action figures, Hollywood films, and pay-per view matches.
The end result is sheer spectacle, with 15 hours a week of wrestling spread out over 5 networks in America. It is big business, and it is hooking teen boys by the millions. If you are not convinced, simply do a few searches on the Net. Hundreds of sites are devoted to the wrestlers, their matches, and the associated entertainment. All in all, a multi-billion dollar a year industry.
Another clear message of The Merchants of Cool is how a handful of powerful media and entertainment corporations call the shots. Media giants like News Corp, Walt Disney, Viacom, Sony and AOL Time Warner make up the leading mega-monopolies. Mark Crispin Miller, a media critic and the author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV, makes these incisive comments:
“When you’ve got a few gigantic transnational corporations, each one loaded down with debt, competing madly for as much shelf space and brain space as they can take, they are going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down. They’re not going to be too nice about what they choose to do. They’ll go directly for the please center. They’re going to try to get you watching and buying right away, and what this means is that they are going to do as much trash as they can, because that will grab people.
“The word ‘trash’ is old-fashioned, because this is a state-of-the-art, highly sophisticated venture that we’re talking about. They’re using all the most brilliant means of measurement and surveillance to figure out what we’re all about. They focus group everything in a million ways. So we have a highly sophisticated enterprise that’s engaged in a kind of regressive project. They’re trying to sell as much junk as they can by appealing to the worst in all of us, but they do it by some extremely civilized means.”
Robert McChesney, media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, also explores this idea:
“The entertainment companies 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, and pretty much all the TV stations in the ten 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 or the French empires in the nineteenth century. Teens are like Africa. There’s this range that they’re going to take over, and their weaponry is 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, to colonize this market. And that’s exactly how they approach it. So they look at music as just one small part of it. They aren’t music companies; they’re moneymaking companies, and music is a weapon that generates money for them.”
Ben H. Bagdikian, author of Media Monopoly, takes up this theme of the corporate entertainment industry. His comments are worth repeating at length:
“When one large firm controls all forms of the major media, it becomes the delight of Wall Street’s love of ‘synergy,’ a combination of two or more forces that creates a result greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part of such a firm feeds business to other parts of the same corporation.
“The Disney Company, for example, describes its Consumer Products division as offering ‘a dazzling array of toys, books, apparel, magazines, computer software, animation art, and collectibles to Disney fans around the world.’ Just one example is that the once gentle appeal of A. A. Milne’s Pooh Bear has now been parlayed into a major Disney product, with five hundred different Pooh books, eleven Pooh magazines, and a line of LEGO toys based on Pooh. More than fourteen hundred worldwide Disney retail stores sell Disney memorabilia, from Pooh to Cinderella, from The Lion King to the father of them all, Mickey Mouse (when the copyright on Mickey runs out in 2003, the public might see more mouse ears than ever). In a Disney retail store, one can buy a Mickey Mouse trinket for a dollar or a painted art scene from The Lion King for $2,500.
“The problem is not that Disney is evil, unlovable though its internal politics may be. Most Disney media images, in fact, stress cuteness, gentleness, and adventure. Nor is it because there is no place in an affluent society for toys, games, films, media entertainment, and other Disney products. The problem is a system that permits a single corporation to have such overwhelming power, not just over the media marketplace but over youth culture in the United States and globally. That power is so concentrated, ubiquitous, and artful that, to a degree unmatched in former mixtures of entertainment, it dilutes influences from family, schooling, and other sources that are grounded in real-life experience, weakening their ability to guide growing generations.”
He goes on to document the decline in competition and the growth of monopoly in the media world:
“When the first edition of this book was published in 1983, fifty corporations dominated most of every mass medium and the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal. At that time, the strategy of most of the fifty biggest firms was to gain market domination in one medium – to have the largest market share solely in newspapers, for example, or in magazines, or broadcasting, or books, or movies, but not in all of them.
“But today there is an even smaller number of dominant firms – six – (even excluding the AOL-Time Warner deal), and those six have more communications power than all the combined fifty leading firms of sixteen years earlier. It is the overwhelming collective power of these firms, with their corporate interlocks and unified cultural and political values, that raises troubling questions about the individual’s role in the American democracy.
“At each step, the leading firms’ dominance in one medium gave them the money, power, and the enthusiasm of Wall Street investors who encouraged and supported them in dominating other media. Today, the six firms are so large and control so many enterprises that their prosperity is seen as necessary to prevent a slide into a Wall Street disaster.”
The inevitable decline of culture
The shrinking world of media ownership in large measure explains the coarsening and cheapening of the media in general and popular entertainment in particular. As Bagdikian puts it, “The trend in violence and crudity has become contagious. Today in movies and mainstream TV, for example, ‘comic effects’ have been achieved by a teenager masturbating with a pie, a talk show host vomiting on air, and a character in a film drinking excrement. Talented scriptwriters are replaced by scripts so unfunny and tawdry that they would have been turned down by the greedy managers of pre-World War II New Jersey burlesque houses.
“For advertisers whose corporate goods are promoted by such acts, violence and sex are literally cheap, that is, less expensive than creative, original, artistic programming. The violence is cheaper than ever, thanks to modern computerized effects that can impose digital images of massive explosions and Armageddons of slaughter.”
The decline of culture then is in large measure due to the nature of corporate entertainment. The Merchants of Cool highlights the dangers but does not offer any solutions. But it does perform the great service of enlightening us to the real world of the mega-media industry. What we do with that information is up to us.