"...Some of the biggest and savviest corporations in the world are drooling over the cash smoldering in the pockets of your teenagers' name-brand jeans. And these commercial commandos are so skillful at extracting it that the poor lambs think each purchase is all their own idea.
That's the warning sounded in a thoughful, witty report, 'The Merchants of Cool,' part of the Frontline series on PBS...
...Douglas Rushkoff, a writer and media analyst, conducts this tour through the intersection of adolescence and avarice, where the buyer wants what's cool and the seller must find it, or invent it, and close the deal in the nanosecond before that rock band or beverage brand loses its volatile appeal...
...What's a parent to do? Maybe you can't lock up your daughters or tie down your sons. But if you have a teenager or two around the house, you'll find this report fascinating. Hide the remote while it's on, though, so no one clicks over to MTV before Frontline is over."
"...Frontline's ultimate message to teens is that big business things their style can be plugged into easily digestible chapters of a copy of 'Cool for Dummies' - and sold right back to them as required reading.
The show's assertion that being fed this image offal is leading to an epidemic of Mad Cool Disease - just look at all the Jackass wanna-be's! all the girls dressed like that highly sexualized, world weary sophisticate Britney Spears! - is too simple: None of this is particularly new or surprising. But seeing how cool is actually concocted, from Sprite getting in bed with MTV to [cool hunter Dee Dee] Gordon videotaping kids' tattoos, is well, kinda cool."
"...The hourlong broadcast doesn't tell us a lot we don't already know in general about the cynicism of marketers or the corporate underpinnings of popular teen culture and fashion. But a wealth of sharp details keeps the production fresh. Its accounts of how teen tastes for Sprite and pro wrestling and other cultural products are both whetted and satisfied creates an alarming panorama. And within it is an informative and withering picture of today's 'cool hunters'...
...[correspondent Douglas] Rushkoff's points are often blunted by an overheated writing style, but the program's imagery-including clips of wrestling footage and MTV's obsession with bare buttocks-makes the arguments stick.
'The Merchants of Cool is to be commended for raising important, scary questions about the corporatization of teen culture and whether it has displaced virtually everything honest and original.
On the other hand, and quite remarkably for a program apparently allied with the interests of young people, 'The Merchants of Cool' ignores teenagers as on-camera sources of ideas or opinion or in any way as active collaborators. We see them, of course, but only as pawns of focus groups or as they are commodified in soft-drink promotions, teen flicks, and 'Dawson's Creek.' Unfiltered commentary from teens themselves would have deepened and enriched-and truly completed-Frontline's treatment of this provocative subject."
"...[The program's] focus on commercialism excludes any discussion of the artistic aspects of pop culture, and that's regrettable. The show's larger point, though, is that business always trumps art anyway. That's hardly a revelation, but the documentary provocatively deconstructs the process through which it happens."
"Attention parents: This show's for you. PBS's Frontline examines the current media environment in 'The Merchants of Cool' and helps explain why today's pop culture climate is so toxic.
Whenever the subject of sex and violence in the media comes up, the ultimate answer to protecting children comes down to parental involvement. But except for the most pop culturally aware parents, it's a daunting task to keep abreast of the latest trends that tempt teens. Investing one hour in 'Merchants of Cool' gives viewers a crash course in today's pop culture and those who exploit it.
...You can't hover over your children to see what they're watching or listening to every moment of the day. But 'Merchants of Cool' at least gives parents a working knowledge of the societal and market forcers they're fighting."
"...Even if you're not a parent, this program has snake-oil fascination. If you are, then drag along the kids, because every smart adolescent should see how the nation's marketers work that voodoo that they do.
...Not every marketing trick is as fresh as Frontline seems to think, and there are some minor oversights.
MTV gets innovation kudos for creating 'Total Request Live' to revive ratings. The show's gimmick of viewer input, though, is as old as 'American Bandstand.'
And while Frontline profiles the WB's 'Dawson's Creek' in a segment on teen sex, it fails to note that the wholesome '7th Heaven' has the network's highest ratings and many young viewers.
'The Merchants of Cool' is better organized in the first half, when it lays out and illustrates discoveries. The latter half jumps around randomly.
But it's never boring. The breadth of material is impressive and the theories presented have a persuasive ring. Nor do the show's producers attempt to leaven unpleasant truths with trite glimpses of hope..."
"...While provocative, 'Merchants' lacks both humor and historical perspective. Can anyone look at Carson Daly's 'Total Request Live' and not recall Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand'? Yes, MTV packaged Limp Bizkit's rebelliousness. What else is new? Didn't Nirvana benefit from MTV saturation? Was John Belushi the first mook? Or did the Three Stooges fit that bill? And how about former Mouseketeer showing some skin and dating a manufactured teen idol? Are we talking about Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake or Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon? Rushkoff needs to get his head off his marketing research and start watching reruns. He just might learn something."
"In this eye opening Frontline documentary produced by Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin, correspondent Douglas Rushkoff takes a disturbing look at the popular culture's - and five media giants' - never-ending quest to capture the $100 billion teen market, one in which 'even those with the best intentions get caught in the downward spiral of sex and violence'...
...this Frontline documentary provides another proof of what I'll call the 'Survivor Theorem': When folks have an eye on the big cash prize, they'll swallow just about anything, no matter how disgusting."
"...Rushkoff says what's happening among media, marketers and teenagers is circular: the media and marketers watch kids and sell them an image of themselves, then kids watch and aspire to be what they see. The media capture that and repeat the process. It's no accident, then, that Rushkoff ends the hour with 'Californication,' the Red Hot Chili Peppers' song about cultural pollution.
Watch the show with your teenagers. There's a whole lot her that they - and you - ought to know."
"...The fascinating (even repugnant) story of how giant corporations court the teen consumer is the subject of 'Merchants of Cool'...a smart analysis produced by Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin and reported by Douglas Rushkoff. It could have used another couple of hours' worth of deconstructing. Maybe it should be an ongoing series..."
"...When this program ends - and despite its discouraging message, I could easily have watched two hours instead of one - I felt sorrow for the kids more than anything else. 'Do they have anything that's theirs alone?' Rushkoff asks. The answer, delivered in his generally witty and perceptive narration, would appear to be no.
His explanation, however, is not that new: The entertainment industry is in a 'giant feedback loop,' which gives kids what it thinks they want, and the teens then reflect back the culture that surrounds them.
Thus television's celebration of annual spring break debauchery (see MTV) has produced even worse behavior as kids now show off for the cameras..."
"...Entertaining and disturbing at the same time, this deftly produced hour talks to the marketers of youth culture, those who study them and those who advise them. Most fascinating of all are the ones in the last group, the professional 'cool hunters' who predict which $120 athletic shoes and parent-plaguing CD will be next year's must-haves."
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