THE MERCHANTS OF COOLFRONTLINE
carson daly
Carson Daly, Host of MTV's Total Request Live
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a talk with the producers of the merchants of cool

Rachel Dretzin and Barak Goodman have been exploring the landscape of America's youth for the past three years. Many may remember their 1999 FRONTLINE film "The Lost Children of Rockdale County." Its examination of a syphilis outbreak in a well-off Atlanta suburb uncovered the secret life of the community's teenagers: group sex, binge drinking, drugs and violence. There was a memorable sequence toward the end of the program--three little blond girls on a bed, 13 and 14-years old, discussing the loss of their virginity and singing along with some misogynistic, violent rap lyrics as they explained sexual positions of a menage a trois.

It was perhaps that sequence more than anything else that made Goodman and Dretzin want to keep exploring the world of young people. The result is a second documentary by them--FRONTLINE's February 27 broadcast, "The Merchants of Cool," which looks at the creators and marketers of popular culture to teenagers.

FRONTLINE talked to Goodman and Dretzin shortly after they had finished editing their documentary.

What's different about this demographic group--teenagers--compared to other sectors of our society targeted by marketers?

Rachel Dretzin: Teenagers have become the hot demographic for marketers in the last decade because of a few salient facts. First, sheer numbers: they are the largest generation of teenagers ever--at 33 million, larger even than their baby boomer parents.

Second, they are undoubtedly the wealthiest generation of teenagers. Last year, for example, they spent about $100 billion dollars themselves and influenced the spending of another $50 billion by others.

Third, they probably have more discretion over their purchasing decisions than ever before. Fourth, teenagers are subject to the influence of marketers because they have few loyalties to brands or companies built up over years, and because they have few real needs. They are able to buy what they want not what they must. Finally, despite a lifetime of bombardment, teens are still less inured, and more plugged into marketing messages through the media than any other demographic.

Do you sympathize with the marketers of youth culture? Teens certainly appear to be a difficult demographic group to get hold of. And there seems to be an inescapable logic to the system--marketing needs to be set up and pushed hard to draw people in. It's just the way it works; if you don't do it you can't compete.

Barak Goodman: We did come to sympathize with the challenge youth marketers face. The very appeal of this market--its openness--is also a curse. Teens will leap from product to product, fashion to fashion, musical style to musical style like madly pollinating bees.

What they respond to most reliably is this maddeningly elusive thing called cool. Most frustrating is that cool is most often defined in opposition to mainstream marketing. So, like opposite polarized magnets, the closer corporate America comes, the faster cool kids flee in the other direction, dragging the rest of youth culture along.

The challenge for teen marketers becomes how to market to teens without seeming to do so. The smart marketers know they can't sound any false note, so they must learn as much about youth culture as they can, anticipate where it's going, and remain on the cutting edge.

We've seen in the last decade an explosion in teen market research experts, or cool hunters, who help track and translate what cool is to corporate America. In our film, we profile one such cool-hunter, Dee Dee Gordon, and her company Look-Look. But understanding teens is only the first step. Then a marketer must craft a message that takes advantage of this knowledge, and the chances for failure remain very high.

We look at Sprite which has cleverly draped itself in hip-hop culture as a way into teens' hearts and minds. Ultimately, though, we feel that the anxiety felt by companies which attempt to capture this market is a destructive force. In the entertainment field, it leads many producers to disregard traditional caution in the way they approach what is after all a special market. In the name of limiting their risk, hedging their bets, they have created crude lures, stock characters--for boys, what we call the "mook", and for girls, the "midriff"--which hook their audience at a primal level.

Having taken the journey into this world, what have you learned? Not long ago Congress sharply criticized the entertainment media for the sex and violence it was offering youth. Is the media causing a greater degree of sex and violence in our kids?

Rachel Dretzin: One of the things we learned is that the question of "cause and effect" that has dominated the discussion of teenagers and the media is basically moot. So tight is what we call the "feedback loop" between the media who study kids, and the kids who consume media, that it is impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

It is certainly true that kids are influenced by media portrayals, but equally true that media is influenced by kids' behavior. It's a tango, and it creates this peculiar world in which our teenagers are so conscious of being on display, so media-savvy and camera-ready as if they know they're being watched all the time.

So what? Why do we care if our kids are targeted, or have become the demographic flavor of the month? It seems it might be good to be more responsive to the needs and wants of teens-- be more aware of who they are. Doesn't this help us as a society, as parents?

Barak Goodman: First, we should care because marketers are asserting a greater and greater degree of influence over the lives, attitudes, beliefs, and values of teenagers, and to the same degree we as parents, teachers, and community leaders are asserting less.

As Mark Crispin Miller says in the last quote in our program, the corporate sponsor has emerged as the "tacit superhero of consumer culture--the coolest entity of all." The problem with that is that fundamentally, corporate America doesn't have the best interests of our kids at heart, unless our kids are shareholders. The "needs and wants" of our kids are defined narrowly as their purchasing impulses, rather than their deeper yearnings as spiritual beings or citizens.

The world that marketers have created, and in which our teens are increasingly living, is one in which looks matter most; status and prestige often go to the loudest, crudest, or most revealing; parents and other adults are jokes; anything older than last week is irrelevent; and the only form of culture is popular culture. And then of course, by the logic of the feedback loop, as kids start to act in these ways, the media takes it as encouragement to reinforce these values even more. So as marketers become more powerful in the world of teens, parents have to work harder too to offer other kinds of messages.

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