From “The Merchants of Cool” to “Generation Like”

February 18, 2014

As a high-school English teacher in Cincinnati, Ryan Weber used to show his freshmen class FRONTLINE’s 2001 film The Merchants of Cool. Then he had them read George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The film examines how big media companies manipulate teen culture, and Weber saw a connection to Orwell’s message about the power of language to influence and control. It also opened his students’ eyes.

“The first year of high school, they’re not really doing a lot of critical thinking, so I like to catch them early,” he said. “It made them uncomfortable, which I think is a good thing.”

But over the years, Weber found that The Merchants of Cool had beome so dated that his students could no longer relate. “The [first] kids I taught it to were TV creatures,” he said — obsessed with MTV. “The kids I teach now are social media creatures.”

Eventually, the students started protesting that they weren’t even born when some of the celebrities featured in the film, like Britney Spears, were rising stars. (They’re right, by the way. Brit’s breakthrough album was released in 1999.)

So in 2012, Weber contacted writer and Merchants of Cool correspondent Douglas Rushkoff, suggesting an updated film on the teen marketing machine for the digital generation. He felt it was important that teens understand that “you’re the product, essentially,” he said. “And I don’t think people think about that. A lot of adults don’t think about that, let alone 14- and 15-year-olds.”

Rushkoff said he’d been getting emails for years from teachers who said they taught the film in school. But this note had something else. Weber said the dated references had become such a distraction for the kids that he had to give up showing the documentary in class.

“That’s when I knew I had the winning piece of evidence,” Rushkoff said. “I knew this would pull at [Executive Producer David] Fanning’s heartstrings. And after I forwarded him that email, he sent a message to me and Raney [Aronson-Rath, deputy executive producer] saying, basically, ‘We have to do this thing.’”

Now, a little more than a year and a half later, FRONTLINE is premiering Generation Like, an exploration into how companies are reaching — and influencing — teens online. Watch a preview in the clip above, and watch the film tonight online beginning at 10 p.m. EST or on air. Check local listings here.

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