Merchants of Cool
Original Airdate: February 27, 2001
Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin
Correspondent and Consulting Producer
ANNOUNCER: They want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the cash. They are corporate America's $150 billion dream.
NEAL MORITZ, Movie Producer: Teenagers have a lot of disposable income. They want to go spend their money. And you know, we're more than happy to make product that they want to go spend money on.
ANNOUNCER: MTV, Madison Avenue and the dream makers of Hollywood have targeted our teenagers.
ROBERT McCHESNEY, Communications Professor, U. of Illinois: They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they're colonizing. Teens are like Africa.
ANNOUNCER: They are the most studied generation in history.
ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: If you don't understand and recognize what they're thinking, what they're feeling, you're going to lose. You're absolutely going to lose.
ANNOUNCER: But what does this relentless focus on the teenager do to the culture?
MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU: They're going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down.
ANNOUNCER: And to the teenagers themselves?
BARBARA: I have to look good for people. I need to look good.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, author and media critic Douglass Rushkoff takes a journey through the complex world of buying and selling cool.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: OK, so I'm going to take attendance here. Christopher.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: OK. Hadad.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right there. OK. Adam. OK.
You guys can all have a seat right over here. Has anybody ever done a focus group before? Do you remember what you talked about?
PARTICIPANT: After-school sports.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, FRONTLINE: [voice-over] On a summer afternoon, in a downtown New York loft, corporate America is on a very serious mission.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: You know, it's all going to be sort of, like, what you guys think. You guys are sort of the experts today, and it's going to really be just you guys telling me your opinions.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: These five boys are here to be questioned about what they wear, what they eat, what they listen to and watch. For $125 each, they're expected to answer.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Tell me some of the things that are really hot right now, some of the things that are really big right now, popular trends, things that you sort of see everywhere. What's, like, going on? What's hot right now? Just shout them out.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: OK, so they're no more responsive than most teenagers, but that's not going to stop this market researcher because the information he's looking for is worth an awful lot of money. At 32 million strong, this is the largest generation of teenagers ever, even larger than their Baby Boomer parents. Last year teens 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.
BOB BIBB, Television Marketing Executive: Teens run today's economy. There's an innate feeling for moms and dads to please the teen, to keep the teen happy, to keep the teen home. And I think you can pretty much take that to the bank.
SHARON LEE, Teen Market Researcher: They're given a lot of what we call guilt money. "Here's the credit card. Why don't you go on line and buy something because I can't spend time with you?"
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I'm Douglas Rushkoff, and tonight we'll tour through a landscape that has both attracted and repelled me during the decade I've been studying it. It's the world in which our teenagers are growing up, a world made of marketing.
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, Television Programming Executive: I think one of the great things about this information age is, with so many channels, you can say my business is 12 to 15, or my business is 21 to 24. As a result, you have the most marketed-to group of teens and young adults ever in the history of the world.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It's a blizzard of brands, all competing for the same kids. To win teens' loyalty, marketers believe, they have to speak their language the best. So they study them carefully, as an anthropologist would an exotic native culture.
ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: If you don't understand and recognize what they're thinking, what they're feeling, and then be able to take that in and come up with a really precise message that you're trying to reach these kids with in their terms, you're going to lose. You're absolutely going to lose.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Is there anybody in your group of friends in particular that is, you know, always really following the trends?
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: No? So it's just sort of all of you together kind of keep each other in check? OK. Cool.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What makes this market so frustrating is that they don't operate the same way as the rest of us. They're a stubborn demographic, unresponsive to brands and traditional marketing messages. But there is one thing they do respond to: cool. Only cool keeps changing. So how do you map it, pin it down?
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: As I'm moving up, stop me when I get to, like, two years ago.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What is cool anyway?
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Like right here? OK.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The search for this elusive prize has its own name: "cool hunting."
MALCOLM GLADWELL, Writer, "The New Yorker" Magazine: "Cool hunting" is structured around, really, a search for a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of player in a given social network. For years and years on Madison Avenue, if you knew where the money was and where the power was and where the big houses were, then you knew what was going to happen next. And cool hunting was all about a kind of revolution that sets that earlier paradigm aside and says, in fact, it has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect and admiration and trust of their friends.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Many companies don't trust themselves to do this kind of research, so they hire experts who can find these cool kids and speak their language.
DEE DEE GORDON, Teen Market Researcher: We look for kids who are ahead of the pack because they're going to influence what all the other kids do. We look for the 20 percent, the trendsetters, that are going to influence the other 80 percent.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Dee Dee Gordon is a sought after cool hunter. Just 30 years old, she commands high fees as a consultant to some of the largest corporations in America and has been the subject of a New Yorker profile.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: How good is she? I think she's as good as anyone is at this game, and it's something- it's a difficult thing to quantify, of course. It's not a science. It's really a question, ultimately, of how much do you trust the person who's doing the interpretation and how good are their instincts. And I think, in both cases, she's at the top of the field.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Three years ago, Gordon and her partner, Sharon Lee, left the small advertising agency where they worked to start their own business, Look-Look.
DEE DEE GORDON: All the photos are really busy, so somebody has to shoot a skateboarder in the air or a cyclist in the air-
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Gordon and Lee have put together a team of what they call "correspondents": all young, all former cool kids themselves.
DEE DEE GORDON: The Slipknot story came in, and our writer did a really good job.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: They're culture spies, who penetrate the regions of the teen landscape where corporations aren't welcome.
"CORRESPONDENT": Can I take your picture for a street-culture Web site I work for?
TEENAGE BOY: Go ahead.
"CORRESPONDENT": I got to get your piercings. Can I get your tattoo?
DEE DEE GORDON: A correspondent is a person who's been trained by us to be able to find a certain kind of kid, a kid that we call a trendsetter or an early adopter. This is a kid who's very forward in their thinking, who looks outside their own backyard for inspiration, who is a leader within their own group.
These kids are really difficult to find. So what this correspondent does is they go out and they, like, find and identify these trend-setting kids. They interview them. They get them interested in what we do. They send all that stuff in. We look at it. We compile it. We look for trends or themes that are happening through all the information, and that's the stuff that we put on our Web site.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: For a subscription fee of $20,000 each, companies are granted access to the Look-Look Web site, a Rosetta stone of teen culture. If companies can get in on a trend or subculture while it is still underground, they can be the first ones to bring it to market.
DEE DEE GORDON: And that's when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then eventually kills it.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And that's the paradox of cool hunting: It kills what it finds. As soon as marketers discover cool, it stops being cool.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: The faster you pick up on these trends and blow them out and show them to everybody and reveal them to corporate America, the more you force the kind of person who starts them and spreads them to move on and find the next. So you simply- there's no kind of solution to this. You can't ever solve the puzzle permanently. By having- by discovering cool, you force cool to move on to the next thing.
[www.pbs.org: Learn more about "cool hunting"]
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: For those of you who crossed out Madonna, why did you cross out Madonna?
PARTICIPANT: Because she's old.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: She's old?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: This creates a problem for marketers. Kids begin to see them as the enemy. So what do marketers do? Market to kids without seeming to do so, become cool themselves, as Sprite did a few years ago.
SPRITE COMMERCIAL: [singing] I like the way you make me laugh. I like the funny things you do-
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: In the early '90s, Sprite was an also-ran brand in the competitive soft drink category. Their focus groups with teenagers were designed to find out what was wrong.
PINA SCIARRA, Director of Youth Brands, Sprite: What we found by talking to teens is that they had seen so much advertising that they were on overload and became very cynical about that traditional approach to advertising.
GRANT HILL: [Sprite commercial] Hi, I'm Grant Hill, professional basketball player for the Detroit Pistons.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Then they launched this ad campaign aimed at teens, which pokes fun at marketing itself.
GRANT HILL: [Sprite commercial] -because it's the only drink with that cool, crisp, refreshing taste that satisfies even my manliest thirst.
PINA SCIARRA: There was really no one in the market at the time that was saying, "Discount it all. Don't believe it. It's all BS, and we know that you know that. And you're smarter than everyone else." So it put them in a position to feel like we understood them, so that they were feeding back to us, "You know, Sprite understands me. Sprite is one"- you know, "It's really one of us."
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It worked for a while. But soon Sprite's own focus groups revealed that kids were getting wise to this anti-marketing marketing campaign.
PARTICIPANT: They had Grant Hill telling you not to listen to some celebrity telling you to drink a beverage.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right.
PARTICIPANT: Well, that's what you're doing. You're listening to Grant Hill telling you to drink Sprite.
FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right.
PARTICIPANT: I don't know how much they probably paid all those stars to come on and say, "Don't listen to what a star says."
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So Sprite crossed an entirely new threshold into the innermost sanctum of teen culture, where they cloaked themselves in genuine cool.
PINA SCIARRA: Hip-hop for us became the sort vehicle, or the lens, for us to get to teens and talk to them in a credible way. And the way we did that was to develop relationships with artists.
ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: They all of a sudden put their arm around that kid that was drinking Sprite and said, "We understand you. We recognize you. We want to be part of your life," and not just, "Please drink our product." They didn't- they almost weren't even selling the product. They were selling the fact that they understood the culture.
JOHN COHEN, Co-President, Cornerstone Promotions: They were selling a lifestyle, and I think that's why Sprite's been so successful and one of the leaders in terms of reaching youth.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Former record executives John Cohen and Rob Stone run a New York marketing firm called Cornerstone. They're specialty is under-the- radar marketing. For instance, Cornerstone hires kids to log into chat rooms and pose as just another fan of one of their clients.
1st CORNERSTONE RECRUITER And that's what the focus group is about.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: They also recruit incoming freshmen to throw parties, where they pass out promotional material to their classmates.
2nd CORNERSTONE RECRUITER: If we're- you know, maybe we've got a bunch of promo Busta Rhymes CDs, and that would be great to give out at the hip-hop concert.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Cornerstone helped Sprite tap a network of radio DJs and hip-hop artists to smuggle their message into the world of kids.
ROB STONE: The days of developing cute campaigns or whatever don't- they don't work anymore. You have to really get involved in what their culture is. You have to understand where they're coming from. You have to think how they think.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It worked. Thanks to the teens who buy it, Sprite is now the fastest-growing soft drink in the world. Sprite invited us to a kick-off party for their new Web site, Sprite.com. Scores of kids were paid to show up and revel in the sounds and styles of urban authenticity. While we were there, some of the biggest acts in rap music appeared on stage under the company logo. Here it was, the ultimate marriage of a corporation and a culture. Sprite and hip-hop had become one and the same, each carrying the other to its audience.
PINA SCIARRA: Sprite has really become an icon. It's not just associated with hip-hop, it's really a part of it. As much as baggy jeans and sneakers, Sprite has become an icon in hip-hop culture.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Is it nostalgic to think that when we were young it was any different, that the thing we called "youth culture" wasn't something that was just being sold to us, it was something that came from us, an act of expression, not just of consumption? Has that boundary been completely erased?
Today five enormous companies are responsible for selling nearly all of youth culture. These are the true merchants of cool: Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner.
ROBERT McCHESNEY, Communications Professor, U. of Illinois: The entertainment companies, which 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, all the TV stations pretty much in the 10 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 empire or the French empire in the 19th century. Teens are like Africa. You know, that's this range that they're going to take over, and their weaponry are 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.
[www.pbs.org: Read more on the media giants]
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Of the five media giants, the coolest conglomerate on the block is Viacom. And Viacom's crown jewel, there on the second floor, is MTV, which last year earned the company a billion dollars in profits. MTV launched 20 years ago with a simple but brilliantly commercial concept: Use record companies' promotional music videos as creative programming. Since then, the cable channel has grown into a youth marketing empire, but its basic business model has remained the same.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Everything on MTV is a commercial. That's all that MTV is. Sometimes it's an explicit advertisement paid for by a company to sell a product. Sometimes it's going to be a video for a music company there to sell music. Sometimes it's going to be the set that's filled with trendy clothes and stuff there to sell a look that will include products on that set. Sometimes it will be a show about an upcoming movie paid for by the studio, though you don't know it, to hype a movie that's coming out from Hollywood.
But everything's an infomercial. There is no non-commercial part of MTV.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: This strategy keeps MTV's airwaves filled with cheap and easy content.
MTV HOST: Now he's over there doing his thing! Let's check in with him. All right, let's do it over there!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Take MTV's daily program Direct Effects. See anything familiar? That's the Sprite.com party we showed you earlier. We didn't know it at the time, but the cameras swirling over our heads belonged to MTV.
MTV HOST: Let's make it happen! The Sprite.com launch party, it's crazy! And right now I've got two of the hottest in hip-hop for you right now!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So let's connect the dots. Sprite rents out the Roseland Ballroom and pays kids 50 bucks a pop to fill it up and look cool. The rap artists who perform for this paid audience get a plug on MTV's show, Direct Effects, for which Sprite is a sponsor. MTV gobbles up the cheap programming, promoting the music of the record companies who advertise on their channel. Everybody's happy.
But while this cross-promotional free-for-all may maximize returns for MTV and Viacom, it also violates the first rule of cool: Don't let your marketing show. MTV learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when their ratings began to slip.
BRIAN GRADEN, MTV President of Programming: There was a perception that MTV had lost its way a bit with the young consumer. Ratings were down somewhat. Some of the trend studies said that we were less cool, less creative than before.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So MTV had the humility to realize that cool was not their birthright, that it belongs to kids, and kids keep changing.
If they wanted to stay cool, they'd have to change right along with them.
DAVE SIRULNICK, MTV Exec VP of Programming and News: MTV felt like we needed to get a closer connection to the audience. We said, "If we know more about them - know more about their lives, know more about who they are, what they want, what they don't want - we can make a better MTV that has a better connection with the audience if we talk to them and listen to them a lot more."
BRIAN GRADEN: We immersed ourselves in research about the fall of '97 and have been able to turn that around to where now our rankings, when it comes to creative or original or funky or anything you would care about musically relevant, have went way, way up, and our ratings are their highest in their history.
MTV AUDIENCE WARM-UP HOST: Five, four, three, come on!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The new MTV is all about learning what kids really want, then delivering it to them. Their signature show, Total Request Live, plays music videos by popular demand. And every afternoon, mobs of kids crowd into Times Square to gaze up at the windows of the TRL studio to see whichever mega-band might be making a guest appearance. Today it's a TRL favorite, rap metal artists Limp Bizkit, whose videos are frequently voted into the top 10. More on them later.
DAVE SIRULNICK: It was really the first time MTV was able to give over the control of a show to the viewers and say, "You know what? You tell us what you want to hear, what you want to see, what the videos are." And they've been in control of it since it went on the air. So I think that's one of the reasons that it's really important to us. And it's really important to the audience because there's that real bond.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: To insure that bond stays strong, MTV must understand where teen culture is moving. Market research is the mantra, and its guru is Todd Cunningham.
TODD CUNNINGHAM, MTV Sr. VP of Brand Strategy and Planning: Some of this music is dead on for exactly what kind of stuff that our audience is going to want. The research efforts at MTV are certainly legendary. There's been a kind of feverish addiction to research and understanding young people. And that's been embraced from the very top down.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: MTV let us in on their techniques. Todd Cunningham told us to meet him at an address in the small town of Iselin, New Jersey. A short time after we arrived, a black Town Car pulled up. Cunningham, a former advertising industry executive, emerged with a member of his staff. This little field trip, Cunningham had explained, is called an ethnography study, in which MTV market researchers visit a typical fan in his home.
TODD CUNNINGHAM: Hi. Todd.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Today MTV is meeting John, an ordinary kid in every respect, who was carefully screened to make sure he is just that. It is hoped that by studying John in his natural habitat, MTV might gain insight into one of the most valuable segments of their viewing demographic, the teenage male.
TODD CUNNINGHAM: I'd love to see, like, clothes. Like, what's your favorite thing you have? What's your favorite shirt?
JOHN: I don't know. It's probably one of my sweaters. They're in my drawers, if you want to see them.
TODD CUNNINGHAM: OK. Well, we can look at that in a minute. What else- what else- what other kind of things do you wear usually? Like, what's-
JOHN: I wear a lot of, like, khaki pants.
TODD CUNNINGHAM: Yeah?
JOHN: Uh-huh. And I don't know. I have some suits for church or whatever.
TODD CUNNINGHAM: We shut the door in their bedrooms and talk to them about issues that they feel like are really important to them. We talk with them about what it's like to date today, what it's like dealing with their parents, what things stress them out the most, what things are, like, really on the hearts and minds of them and their peers.
I'm just curious about, like, things with, like - you can have a seat if you want - just, like, with your girlfriend and stuff like that. I mean, this is- we always ask these kind of questions about are you- like, how long have you guys been dating? Since when?
JOHN: Since June 1.
TODD CUNNINGHAM: It's captured on video, so we have a camera crew, sound and light crew there. We cut that videotape together, put it to music, edit it in an MTV-style way. We then take that around and show it to various department meetings, share with them the insights that we've learned.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So what happens to all this careful research, all the hours and dollars that MTV spends learning about who our kids really are? When all the tape is reviewed, what portrait of the American teenage male emerges?
MAN AT EATING CONTEST: Oh, God! Bob puked on my leg!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: His critics call him "the mook." That's right, M-O-O-K, mook. And you can find him almost any hour of the day or night somewhere on MTV. He's not real. He's a character- crude, loud, obnoxious, and in-your-face.
TOM GREEN: Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah. Nyah-nyah-nyah. Whoo, whoo, whoo!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: He's Tom Green of The Tom Green Show.
TOM GREEN: There's a sewage plant in Mianus, and it stinks.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And he's the daredevils on Jackass who indulge in dignity-defying feats like poo diving.
"JACKASS" CONTESTANT: All right, John. This is poo diving.
"JACKASS" HOST: Oh, gross!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: He's those frat boys and their whip-cream bikini girlfriends on MTV's constantly recurring Spring Break specials.
1st CARTOON CHARACTER: Hey, Terrence, what brand of pants am I wearing?
2nd CARTOON CHARACTER: Let me see.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: He has migrated to MTV's sister network, Comedy Central, where he's the cartoon cutouts of South Park or the lads on The Man Show.
"MAN SHOW" LAD' The juggies look nice, don't they?
MAN AT EATING CONTEST: Eat those beans. Eat those beans.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The mook is perhaps Viacom's most bankable creation. Once programmers discovered his knack with teenage boys, they replicated him across the length and breadth of their empire.
HOWARD STERN: Oh, my goodness. She's grabbing my ass. She's grabbing my ass!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Take Howard Stern, perhaps the original and still king of all mooks. Look how Viacom leverages him across their properties. He is syndicated on 50 of Viacom's Infinity radio stations. His weekly TV show is broadcast on Viacom's CBS. His number one best-selling autobiography was published by Viacom's Simon and Shuster, then released as a major motion picture by Viacom's Paramount Pictures, grossing $40 million domestically and millions more on videos sold at Viacom's Blockbuster video.
HOWARD STERN: Go ahead, tell me more about me.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So does the whole teenage experience come down to this? Are our boys mooks? Is John a mook? I don't think so. Maybe all that research isn't really about understanding John as a person, it's about understanding John as a customer. I mean, they don't call it human research or people research, they call it market research.
MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU: The MTV machine does listen very carefully to children. When corporate revenues depend on being ahead of the curve, you have to listen, you have to know exactly what they want and exactly what they're thinking so that you can give them what you want them to have.
Now, that's an important distinction. The MTV machine doesn't listen to the young so it can make the young happier. It doesn't listen to the young so it can come up with, you know, startling new kinds of music, for example. The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell.
TOM GREEN: Crotch, crotch, crotch!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: There is no mook in nature. He is a creation designed to capitalize on the testosterone-driven madness of adolescence. He grabs them below the belt and then reaches for their wallets.
TOM GREEN: Would you watch my crotch?
ROBERT McCHESNEY, Media Critic: What MTV is struggling with is what's going on with all our cultural industries. We have fewer and fewer owners but more and more choices, so they have to desperately find ways to keep people looking for gimmicks, and they don't have a huge timeframe to establish an identity. With the remote control, you know, your shelf life of chances to keep someone, to get them to stay there, is very short.
You can't develop a character for six weeks. They're going to be gone after two minutes. So it puts pressure on commercial culture providers, like MTV, to try to find sort of things that their research shows will click right away, recognizable things, and play on those.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It's funny to think that the most advanced form of marketing today comes in the form of a 300-pound body slam.
WRESTLING FAN: Yeah!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Professional wrestling is the most popular form of entertainment among teenage boys in America. When I was a kid, wrestling was an amusing little outpost of the culture. Today wrestling is sheer spectacle, a magnificently honed lure for the teenage male channel-surfer.
The wrestlers themselves have a word for it: "pop."
1st PRO WRESTLER: "Pop" means when that- when the crowd pops, when then they react, "Wow!"
2nd PRO WRESTLER: It's like a shock reaction, you know? Something that, you know, they didn't really expect it. So you may get that big surprise out of them, you know, just like when you- you catch somebody coming around the corner and you jump out, and they go, "Whoa!" It's the same thing, you know?
1st PRO WRESTLER: When Goldberg spears somebody, it's a big pop. You know, "Wow!"
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And where there's pop, there's money. That's why wrestling has been propagated across the entire spectrum of teen media. It's broadcast 15 hours a week on five different networks and is seen by 15 million people. Wrestling's violence doesn't scare me. Its ubiquity does.
BRIAN GRADEN, MTV President of Programming: It is huge with our audience at sort of program levels that I could have never imagined. It is the hottest thing going among males 18 to 24 and, in fact, among teen boys. And so we felt like, while we don't want it to be the defining element of our business, it was OK to be in the game.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: [on-camera] It was simply too big to ignore.
BRIAN GRADEN: That's what it was.
MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU: When you've got a few gigantic trans-national corporations, each one loaded down with debt, competing madly for as much shelf space and brain space as they can take, they're going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: [voice-over] And girls get dragged down there right along with boys. The media machine has spit out a second caricature. Perhaps we can call this stereotype "the midriff." The midriff is no more true to life than the mook. If he is arrested in adolescence, she is prematurely adult. If he doesn't care what people think of him, she is consumed by appearances. If his thing is crudeness, hers is sex. The midriff is really just a collection of the same old sexual cliches, but repackaged as a new kind of female empowerment. "I am midriff, hear me roar. I am a sexual object, but I'm proud of it."
The midriff archetype is undoubtedly teenage mega-star Britney Spears, whose latest album, Oops I Did It Again, has sold over eight million copies.
BRITNEY SPEARS: [singing] Show me how you want to do me-
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: 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.
BRITNEY SPEARS: [singing] I'm not that innocent-
GIRLS: [singing] I think I did it again-
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: We met Barbara and her friends at the New York Hilton, where they were preparing for the opportunity to step into the roles of midriffs themselves.
BARBARA: I want to be a model. I want to be an actor. I want people to notice me and just be, like, "Oh, wow, she is pretty." I have to look good for people. I need to look good. Like, if I don't look good for people, I'll be really upset, and it'll, like, ruin my day. So whenever I go out with friends, like, even just over to their house, I need to look good.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Barbara and hundreds of other girls have come here to the International Model and Talent Association's annual convention. These girls have paid up to 4,000 bucks a pop for the chance to be paraded before hundreds of agents and talent scouts on the lookout for new blood. There have always been starry-eyed girls like this, but what's new is their sophistication. They've learned how a midriff should talk, move, and sell herself.
ASPIRING MODEL: Hello, my number is 7996. Fruit of the Loom. I bet you thought they were just for men. Well, now there's new Fruit of the Loom feminine style because girls know a good thing when they see one. Thank you.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Now it's time for 13-year-old Barbara to prove she has what it takes.
1st TALENT SCOUT: Very good head shot.
BARBARA: Thank you.
1st TALENT SCOUT: Barbara, what do you feel that your age range is?
BARBARA: A lot of people say I look 17.
1st TALENT SCOUT: What do you think it is?
BARBARA: I am originally 13. I think I can range to 16 or 17.
2nd TALENT SCOUT: You are 13?
1st TALENT SCOUT: You're 13 years old?
1st TALENT SCOUT: Whoa!
2nd TALENT SCOUT: What do you want to really do? What are you interested in
BARBARA: I would like to become successful.
2nd TALENT SCOUT: Good girl! Good girl!
BARBARA: I want to land a contract with someone or get an agent.
JEFF MORRONE, Strong/Morrone Entertainment: Let's say that you go through this convention and, like, nothing happens and no interest. Then what?
BARBARA: For some reason I know that if I keep trying, I might get somewhere.
JEFF MORRONE: Yeah. It was so nice to meet you. Thanks, Barbara. Good luck.
BARBARA: Thank you very much.
JEFF MORRONE: Thank you.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Barbara's just one of hundreds in this season's crop. It's a bounty for Hollywood talent agents, who have more vacancies for new midriffs every day. Jeff Morrone has discovered some of the hottest teen stars in the business. Perhaps his biggest discovery was an unknown teenager named Jessica Biel.
JEFF MORRONE: She was my client for five years, and I found her here. She was on stage. She was 12 years old. Most people here weren't interested in her. She didn't, I don't think, really win any awards. And she was 12 years old, and she was- she was, like, way too tall for her age. And she was singing "Lullaby of Broadway" and, I think, doing fan kicks or something like that, and I just went, "Oh, my gosh! There's a star."
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Jessica Biel's first big part was on a fledgling television network devoted to the teenager, the WB. She played a minister's daughter on the wholesome teen drama 7th Heaven. 7th Heaven was part of the WB's newly devised formula, radical by the standards of teen television: Keep it clean.
BOB BIBB, Co-President of Marketing, WB Network: Everyone else was going the edgy route, so maybe we ought to go completely different. And there was about a year period where we went family-friendly. And I think our slogan was "Where America's families can watch television together."
ACTRESS: ["7th Heaven"] You have done so well at regaining your balance, getting back on track with your diet and exercise. I'm very proud of you.
BOB BIBB: That was a novel approach at the time because, except for maybe The Wonderful World of Disney, families could not watch television together. So you know, programming and marketing met, and we thought that's going to be our angle.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: But the WB's family-friendly shows had to compete against programming like this, the eye-grabbing sex scenes of Beverly Hills 90210 and other risque teen dramas.
ACTRESS: ["Beverly Hills 90210"] Let's take off all our clothes!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: By its third season, the WB made a course change. Their new trajectory: Dawson's Creek, a show about a group of sex-obsessed high school friends in an idyllic Cape Cod town. On Dawson's first episode, one of its lead characters, 14-year-old Pacey, begins a sexual affair with his teacher.
BOB BIBB: It had attractive teens, and it spoke to especially the female audience. But at the same time the Newsweeks and the Time magazines were writing about this rather risque show, where a 14-year-old boy was having a romance with his teacher.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: [on-camera] You needed that plot line to really give it a bang.
BOB BIBB: To give it a bang.
ACTRESS: ["Dawson's Creek"] So, Jen, you a virgin?
ACTOR: That's mature!
ACTRESS: Well, because Dawson is a virgin, and two virgins really makes for a clumsy first encounter, don't you think?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: In bringing teen sexual content to what had always been network TV's 8:00 o'clock family hour, Dawson's Creek and the WB made the headlines. However reluctantly, they had raised the sexual stakes even further. What would teens come to expect from TV now? Who would top Dawson's? MTV, that's who, by launching a new nighttime soap unambiguously entitled Undressed. Dispensing with plot almost completely, its quick-cut, channel-surf-resistant vignettes draw their characters so thinly they nearly disappear.
ACTRESS: ["Undressed"] Come here.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It's sex TV's answer to wrestling, stringing together explosions of "pop" to keep its teen audience hooked.
ACTRESS: ["Cruel Intentions"] I'll give you something you've been obsessing about ever since our parents got married.
[www.pbs.org: MTV Execs defend their programs]
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Meanwhile, at the cineplex, amped-up efforts, like Cruel Intentions, were bringing unprecedented sexual sophistication to teen movies. One of the biggest teen hits of 1999, Cruel Intentions is the story of two spoiled step-siblings. She promises to sleep with him if he will sexually humiliate her rival.
ACTRESS: ["Cruel Intentions"] You can put it anywhere.
NEAL MORITZ, Movie Producer: Right here the audience will be freaking out.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Neal Moritz, the producer of Cruel Intentions, is one of the most successful teen impresarios in Hollywood.
NEAL MORITZ: I mean, I definitely want to push the envelope with my movies because, to me, if you're making the same thing that everybody else is making, then you don't have much chance of getting people to come to your movies. And for me, I love making movies, and the only way I'm going to get to be able to keep making movies is by making movies that do business.
ACTRESS: ["Cruel Intentions"] Down, boy.
NEAL MORITZ: A movie like I have, Cruel Intentions, where we go off and we make it for $12 million, we do $40 million here, we do $60 million overseas, there's $100 million in the box office, plus all the ancillary markets, whether it be videocassette or cable or all these other markets. You know, there's tremendous streams of revenue coming in.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Moritz's films have come under intense scrutiny for their sex and violence. One was even included in a government investigation because it was test-marketed to 11- and 12-year-olds. Still, he makes no apologies about going for the jugular.
NEAL MORITZ: I think what you can't do is play down to teenagers, play down to the young people. No teenager is going to be satisfied with a PG-13-rated horror film, OK? They want to see the blood and guts. That's what they want to do. They want to see the slasher element of those films. And you can't do that the way they want to see it and get a PG-13 rating.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: But even those with the best of intentions get caught in the downward spiral of sex and violence. We noticed a kind of schizophrenia on the set of Dawson's Creek. At times, the show feels like The Waltons injected with a dose of Beverly Hills 90210. Two of its main characters are staunch virgins into their senior year of high school, but as if to keep the show cool, everyone around them is either having sex or talking about it incessantly.
ACTOR: ["Dawson's Creek] Do you guys keep a running tally of all the losers you've dated?
ACTRESS: Only the ones we've slept with.
SUSANNE DANIELS, Pres. of Entertainment, WB Network: What do you think kids talk about? What do you think teenagers talk about? Teenagers talk about sex. Teenagers are consumed with sex. It is my personal opinion that teenagers should not be having sex, but- but they are- they're confronted with it in terms of advertising, and they see it on television in prime-time shows and, in fact, in daytime shows. We have really taken sex responsibly - I feel that the WB has - and tried to portray ramifications of it, why and how and when and where to say no.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Dawson's writers and producers are aware that this is treacherous terrain. Here they are in a production meeting, getting a lesson in accountability from a team of teen sex experts called the Media Project.
SEX EXPERT: Give me a good comeback line if a guy says, "Wearing a condom doesn't feel good."
PRODUCER: Oh, come on! You're writers here!
WRITER: Oh, I've got one! I've got one. I've got one. "Neither does herpes."
MEETING PARTICIPANTS: Ooh!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Twenty-eight-year-old Greg Berlanti is executive producer of Dawson's Creek.
GREG BERLANTI, Executive Producer, "Dawson's Creek": Why not lean into the fact that these kind of topics are being discussed? Why not be aware of that, and through that awareness help kids to redefine and help people to redefine how they deal with that information, as opposed to trying to put another finger in the dam when it's going to bust?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The makers of teen TV argue that they're only reflecting the real world. Sex is a part of teens' lives, so it better be in their media, too. Media is just a mirror, after all. Or is it?
RICKY MARTIN: [singing] Shake your bon-bon, shake your bon-bon, shake your bon-bon-
MTV "SPRING BREAK" HOST: It seemed everyone wanted to show off their bum last year.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Take the annual migration of college and high school kids to spring break. For the past 15 years, MTV has packaged spring break into a staged television performance, and then repackaged it through the year on show after show.
JERRY SPRINGER, Television Talk Show Host: Hop on and ride him around!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Kids are invited to participate in sexual contests on stage or are followed by MTV cameras through their week of debauchery. Sure, some kids have always acted wild, but never have these antics been so celebrated on TV. So of course kids take it as a cue, like here on the strip in Panama Beach, Florida, where high schoolers carry on in public as if they were on some MTV sound stage. Who is mirroring whom? Real life and TV life have begun to blur. Is the media really reflecting the world of kids, or is it the other way around? The answer is increasingly hard to make out.
I'll never forget the moment that 13-year-old Barbara and her friends spotted our crew during a party between their auditions. They appeared to be dancing for us, for our camera, as if to sell back to us, the media, what we had sold to them.
And that's when it hit me: It's a giant feedback loop. The media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves. Then kids watch those images and aspire to be that mook or midriff in the TV set. And the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them, and so on.
Is there any way to escape the feedback loop? These kids believe they have. Downtown Detroit on Halloween Night.
1st BOY IN CROWD: Rock for Juggaloes!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: A few thousand mostly white young men have gathered to hear a concert by their favorite hometown band, Insane Clown Posse. ICP helped found a musical genre called rap metal or rage rock, which has created a stir across the country for its shock lyrics and ridicule of women and gays.
2nd BOY IN CROWD: Yeah! That's right motherf--ker! Psychopathic bitch! Yeah!
3rd BOY IN CROWD: Who's going titty f--king?
CROWD: We're going titty f--king!
3rd BOY IN CROWD: Who's going titty f--king?
CROWD: We're going titty f--king!
3rd BOY IN CROWD: Who's going titty f--king?
CROWD: We're going titty f--king!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Subcultures like this are increasingly rare in America, a true underground, where kids feel spurned by mainstream culture and like it.
[on-camera] A lot of people seem to- seem to sense, like, anger coming off Juggaloes, because there's a lot of, like, middle-finger stuff, you know? I mean, who's the middle finger to?
4th BOY IN CROWD: The middle finger is to everybody who doesn't understand what we're doing. It's to the world.
5th BOY IN CROWD: To the mainstream.
4th BOY IN CROWD: It's to people who don't understand, the people like these people who drive by honking their horns, drive by laughing at us. We don't care, and that's who the middle fingers and the "f-k yous" are for.
6th BOY IN CROWD: F-k. I mean to hell with society, you know? I mean, we worry about society and what they think. They control what goes on in our bedroom, you know, what we dress like, what our hair color is. Why let it control it here? This is where we have fun.
CROWD: [rapping with band] Dead bodies, dead bodies all over the street, 55, 65 bodies at least-
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Rock music has always channeled rebellion, but where it used to be directed against parents, teachers or the government, today it is directed against slick commercialism itself, against MTV. These fans feel loyalty to this band and this music because they experience it as their own. It hasn't been processed by corporations, digested into popular culture and sold back to them at the mall.
INSANE CLOWN POSSE MEMBER: Everybody that likes our music feels a super connection. That's why all those juggaloes here, they feel so connected to it because it's- it's exclusively theirs. See, when something's on the radio, it's for everybody, you know what I mean? It's everybody's song. "Oh, this is my song." That ain't your song. It's on the radio. It's everybody's song. But to listen to ICP, you feel like you're the only one that knows about it.
INSANE CLOWN POSSE: [rapping] Man, f--k that bitch-
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: These are the extremes to which teens are willing to go to insure the authenticity of their own scene. It's the front line of teen cultural resistance: Become so crude, so intolerable, and break so many rules that you become indigestible.
INSANE CLOWN POSSE: [rapping] Bitch, you's a ho. And ho, you's a bitch. Come on!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Rage rock is a double-dog dare to the mainstream marketing machine: Just try to market this. And the thing is, that's exactly what they've done. Consider the engineered rise of Limp Bizkit. Remember them? It turns out that the nastiest expressions of youth culture are manna to an industry ravenous for anything authentic to sell. Bizkit is a rage-rock band that leaves critics cold, but ignites fans with incendiary lyrics. America first got to know them at Woodstock '99, rage rock's coming-out party, as covered by MTV.
LIMP BIZKIT: [singing] It's just one of those days. It's all about the "He said, she said"-
NEWSCASTER: The heat burned on, and conditions grew more intolerable. And for some angry concertgoers, songs like Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff" became a mantra.
LIMP BIZKIT: [rapping] Time to reach deep down inside, take all that negative energy, and let that sh-t out of your f--king system. I pack a chainsaw! I skin your ass raw! And if my day keeps going this way, I just might break your f-king face tonight! Give me something to break!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: How does a band like them become superstars? Follow this well-tested recipe. Always on the lookout for the rawest of raw material, Jimmy Iovine, the enormously successful head of Interscope Records, finds a controversial band and packages them for the mainstream, all the while claiming he's just responding to demand.
JIMMY IOVINE, Co-Chairman, Interscope Records: There's no way to stop a movement in popular culture. There's just no way to stop it. It's going to happen with or without you. There's absolutely no way to stop that train.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: But when an Oregon radio station shied away from the band's crass lyrics, Interscope paid them to play one of Bizkit's songs 50 times. Then Interscope funded Bizkit's first video, which was premiered on MTV's nod to democracy, Total Request Live.
ANN POWERS, "New York Times" Music Critic: I mean, I guess you could say Total Request Live is democratic in the way that, you know, this year's election was democratic. The candidates- the field of candidates is very small, and there are organizations behind them - not unlike the Democratic and Republican parties - who are deciding which candidates get promoted. So in other words, you can't just be, you know, Joe Fabulous who's releasing your little indy record and get on Total Request Live.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Having declared them worthy of a slot on TRL, MTV now also had a stake in making Limp Bizkit stars. The network put the band on their Spring Break special.
MARKETING EXECUTIVE: When Spring Break aired, you could see a sales change the following week. And that's the kind of reaction that a killer performance at spring break gives.
LIMP BIZKIT: [rapping] Get your ass up!
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: One part authentic rage, two parts marketing, sprinkle with cash, and place in a preheated oven called Woodstock '99. The night after Bizkit's performance, the festival erupted in flames. The band's goading of the crowd was blamed, perhaps unfairly, for the mayhem which ensued. By the time the smoke had cleared, four young women reported being raped.
But the band had made the big time. Bizkit's lead singer became a senior vice president at Interscope Records. And the band's relationship with MTV had become so cozy that they put a picture of executive Dave Sirulnick in their album liner notes, and made casual drop-ins at their old stomping grounds, TRL.
FRED DURST, Limp Bizkit: I just happened to be in Times Square. TRL was going on. I was, like, "Whoa, what time is it?"
CARSON DALEY, "Total Request Live": I was using my little two-way that day, and I got it right before the show started.
FRED DURST: I two-wayed Carson. He said, "Come on up."
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So when it came time to release a new album, Bizkit naturally turned to their friends at TRL to help sell it. And sell it did, faster than any rock album in history.
CARSON DALEY: This is kind of an important moment, you guys being on TRL. At some point today, you know, it's weird to say, millions of kids will go out and buy this record.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And thus a band is made. Of course, it's impossible to know what would have happened to Limp Bizkit and rage rock were MTV and Interscope Records not behind them.
FRED DURST: Hey, what's up? We're Limp Bizkit, and you're watching TRL, if you didn't notice already.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Perhaps they would have made it to the top on their own merits. But that's just the point. No one can ever know once MTV and Interscope Records have placed their bets. The success of Limp Bizkit and rage rock was all but preordained. The cool hunt ends here, with teen rebellion itself becoming just another product.
MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU: Often there's a kind of official and systematic rebelliousness that's reflected in- in media products pitched at kids. It's part of the official rock video world view. It's part of the official advertising world view that your parents are creeps, teachers are nerds and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor. That huge authority has, interestingly enough, emerged as the sort of tacit superhero of consumer culture. That's the coolest entity of all.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So is there anywhere the commercial machine won't go? Is it leaving any room for kids to create a culture of their own? Do they even have anything that's theirs alone? All eyes are on our kids. They know they're being watched. But what or whom can they look to themselves? And what if they turn and fight? The battle itself is sponsored, packaged and sold right back to them.
Oh, and by the way, those rebels in clown makeup from Detroit? They signed with a major label, produced some slick music videos, even got themselves on World Championship Wrestling. And lo and behold, their latest album hit number 20 on the charts. Welcome to the machine.
The Merchants of Cool
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