THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
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Interview: Douglas Rushkoff

Douglas Rushkoff is a professor of media culture at New York University and the author of several books on new media and popular culture. He is the correspondent for FRONTLINE's "The Merchants of Cool."

...How pervasive has the stream of messages become that kids are exposed to as they grow up?

Well, there have always been traditional windows of opportunity to reach young people with messages -- you know, television, radio, records, and all that. And the more limited that real estate is, the more expensive that real estate becomes. So more clever advertisers sought new venues to interrupt kids in places where they might not normally expect to see an advertisement. It's as simple as seeing, you know, "Got Milk?" on the banana or a sticker that shows up on your skate board or a banner ad on the Internet or interstitial advertising for products on Playstation games. So there's sort of this interruptive advertising or what we can call "intercept advertising", [that] starts appearing everywhere. So that now a kid goes to school and is watching educational Channel One television in the classroom and he's getting advertised for sneakers and junk food and fast food and stuff that's particularly noxious for him.

It's gotten to the point, I think, where almost anywhere a kid sets his eyes he's gonna be marketed to. Someone's trying to program a decision of one kind or another. Now whether he's looking at a bus or looking at a phone booth or going to a club or looking at his own feet there's marketing going on everywhere. So that the only choice for a kid is to close his eyes or to come up with strategies for defending against those messages. ...

...How is demographic market research reductionist by nature?

Treating an age group as a demographic requires coming up with something that's common to every single one of them. Right? ... So it's reductionist in that it reduces an entire segment of civilization down to one person with one habit. And it's ultimately ineffective because if you're talking to a mass of people as if they are this one person, there's always going to be something about that they can't identify with.

So [how does it affect] the kid?

if we're then in a culture where the loudest thing gets attention, then everyone starts competing to be the loudest or  wildest or  weirdest.  And you end up [where] your media space and your world is all of these loud, horrendous things on soap boxes scr The effect of reduction on the consumer is a need to conform. If you are not fitting into the customer profile of the company that you like, then you need to change yourself so you're more like that profile. And the interesting thing about where it's gotten today is in order to push consumerism to the max, everyone has to have their own thing, right? ... So in America we're individuals. We each make our own consumer choices. I can buy my own jeans in my own size, in my own style. And we stress individuality above all. The odd little ironic twist in it now is we all conform through our nonconformity. We all conform to the template of, "I am me. I buy my Sprite." It doesn't matter which of these sodas you buy because they're all made by Coca-Cola. You just buy the one that is you, that says you. ...

Talk about this notion of kids following what's "cool".

Cool hunting, or what marketers now call "diffusion marketing", is when you find the coolest kid in a social group, basically pay him off to wear your sneakers or your t-shirt or your perfume or buy your cell phone, whatever it is. And then hopefully this sort of the pyramid social group under him will then aspire to have those products as well. ... The sick thing about it is that it works. It works if you actually find the right people. ...

What are your views on media-marketing executives following around after kids, watching the way they behave, in the search for this ephemeral "cool kid."

The truly absurd thing about the hunt for the cool kid is really what's going on is executives want to feel cool themselves. So they pursue the sort of alternative kid, the skate boarder, computer hacker, cyber punk, psychographic kid because they think, "Well, that's the leading trend." In fact, almost no trends from the indie crowd end up getting; picked up by Mainstream America. ... All this stuff ends up being fringe, all the cool stuff. Rave culture, you know, however much I love it and however much I think it could help, you know, unite the globe, it's a fringe cultural phenomenon. Kids are still listening to rock music and five-boy vocal bands and rap and hip-hop. So the true absurdity of the cool hunting is that it's a real dead end for these people. It's a bunch of Baby Boomers trying to feel cool again and end up targeting their stuff to a demographic that actually is not big enough to be worth their time. ...

What about the point that kids are hip to what marketers are doing and they have a response to this.

...It is an arms race. It's a coercive arms race where we develop a defense mechanism, so they develop a counter measure. So we develop a new defense mechanism, they develop a new counter measure, and then everybody's just watching the other suspiciously to see who's trying to program who...

If you put all these things together, the whole goal seems to be to make marketing almost invisible, a 360 degree wall around a kid, such that where reality starts and marketing begins becomes ever more obscure and difficult to find, so that the goal is for kids to grow up not seeing the marketing around them.

... Kids are moving through a reality in which they're being marketed to 24-7. It's almost to the point where it's in their sleep or certainly on their bed sheets. The danger of that is that kids don't know that anything is not marketing. It's as if the only kinds of choices we understand are consumer choices. So you look online, say, in a place which is supposed to [have] created the possibility for a revolution of some kind, [a] revolution of ideas. And what sort of revolutions do we see there? Napster. You know what? Napster is a consumer revolt. Napster is about my right to have this music and to share if I've paid for it. You know, so we start to see our decisions, our opportunities, our every choice is a consumer choice. And even the greatest people's advocate, a guy like Ralph Nader, what is he? He's a consumer advocate. So the radical lefty now is someone who's going to improve our consumer choice. So it's a little disconcerting... What people want is a rest. They want a moment of free time and of genuine free time. And there's no more public space left to do that in. There is no more free space left. We've had a real contraction of public space both mentally and in the media and in the real world, where there's nowhere to go where you're not being marketed to....

If you live in a world where everywhere you look you're being marketed to, and where an increasing amount of your time is spent in mediated spaces, whether on [the] Internet or on TV, there's a kind of a counter drive that emerges, which is a quest for authenticity, a quest for the real. In kids that'll take the form of extreme sports and rave and mosh pits and stuff that feels tactile and real. Even if you get hurt, it's real blood. It's something. That's why all these, you know, little white kids in the suburbs are trying to look like they're gangsta hip-hop kids, because at least in the city it seems like it's real. There's real violence, real drugs, real threat. For adults it becomes, you know, "Let's go to the South Street Seaport or the Quincy Market in Boston, because it's a historical site. So we can take our child to, you know, Ye Olde Kite Shoppe instead of Toys R Us and they'll have an authentic experience." Of course, all these authentic experiences are generated as well. The marketer's greatest tool now is simulated authenticity. You think you're getting this real thing, so ...

Children are being adultified because our economy is depending on them to make purchasing decisionsÉ.There is no such thing as enough in our current economic model.  And kids are bearing the brunt of that. É  So they're isolated, alone, they're desperate. Here's the story as I see it. Since the 1960s, mainstream media has searched out and co-opted the most authentic things it could find in youth culture, whether that was psychedelic culture, anti-war culture, blue jeans culture. Eventually heavy metal culture, rap culture, electronica -- they'll look for it and then market it back to kids at the mall. And the original kids who are doing it feel really upset about that, because they thought they had found something cool and now it's available at the mall, and now the kids who are participating in it are actually just putting more money into Sony and Time Warner and big corporations. It's a limited view of what's happening, but an honest one and it's something to kind of be upset about, because the idea was to create something that stayed genuine, that stayed the output of teenagers, the output of youth rather than something that's about the consumption by youth. And that's really the big difference: is this our expression or is this our purchase?

So the last great one seemed to be grunge music. It was independent record labels. It was done by local bands in local places. And then this Nirvana phenomenon happened where Nirvana -- who was sort of the best of the grunge bands -- ends up getting picked up by mainstream record labels, sold on MTV and going unplugged there and becoming a mainstream group, ending in the suicide of Kurt Cobain, which, whether or not he was depressed and whether or not he was a drug addict, represented to those of us who felt like we are part of the grunge movement, represented the suicide of the grunge movement. [It] represented Kurt Cobain communicating to all of us, "I've been sucked into the system. I'm part of the borg. The only thing I can do now to prevent my stuff from being used that way is suicide." And it's real. I mean that's the only thing we know about life, right? Death and taxes. You know, so death, this is real. It's the last real thing that he could do, because everything else was becoming part of the fake media world.

Since then, I think the relationship between authentic youth cultural happenings and youth culture consumption is indistinguishable. I think that kids who are on "The Real World" are kids who've aspired to be on MTV their whole lives. They've learned how to behave by watching MTV. So that now when MTV takes a bunch of them and puts them in a house and puts a camera on them, they're not putting a camera in the real world. They are photographing people who've been programmed how to behave by MTV. So where is the reality in the equation? The reality is the introduction of media into this equation. The reality is the media. So that we end up reaching an abstracted form of authenticity that is authentic for the very fact that it's mediated consumptive marketing pulp. The reality itself, the tapestry of reality is composed of media iconography. That is the new plane of reality for these people.

...The way Madison Avenue and the media empire work is they get a kickback for media consumption. They don't care what is passing through their pipes as long as something's passing through their pipes and they can get a little grease off it, you know, accumulate a couple dollars off this momentum. Smart people who understand realize they can feed almost anything into the machine and as long as it creates interest, they're going to get their messages out there, too. So you've got guys like Mike Judge making "Beavis and Butthead" or, you know, Trey Parker making "South Park," or even Eminem -- though probably mentally ill -- he's proving that you can put messages and imagery into the machine that you would think the machine would resist. But the record companies get so much secondary media on it, they get so much hype out of it, that they cannot resist but use this stuff.

So we're in an interesting moment now where because corporations are not really alive, because corporations are really programmed to increase the bottom line by any means necessary, we're in an interesting moment where people who understand how that works can nest their media with very potent ideas, very potent imagery. Whether it's Marilyn Manson or Eminem, you know, this culture of demonology or this imagery of hate or whatever it might be, can spread in ways that normally adults would [have] resisted.

Isn't it an especially potent form?

When you look for cause-and-effect in youth media, you end up kind of being like a snake chasing its tail. So did Eminem come up with his ideas or was he sought out and found by a record company? Well, even if he came up with his ideas, where did he come up with them from? From watching rap music for the last ten years and where did that rap music come from? Well, it came from Interscope Records. But why did Interscope starting promoting rap? Because rap had become a huge moneymaking phenomenon in spite of the record industry's attempts to keep it from doing so.

So, you know, the cause-and-effect is gone and that is both frightening and liberating at the same time. It means that we've become untethered from that which seemed to connect our work and our ideas and our very passage of time in our lives was something real, but it also absurdly stands to level the playing field between media producers and media consumers. So that even though marketers are able to create a reality in which kids are desperately hunting for that which is gonna make them cool, those marketers are chasing cool kids to find out "What should we use in order to make those kids desperately hunt that which is cool?" The people who are empowered in that environment are people who produce imagery rather than just consume it. So Eminem, for my money, is in an empowered situation. Whether he can use his pulpit to actually transform people, to change the discussion, is left to be seen. Now I don't see that currently, but I do see a real mastery of language on his part, and an ability to create dense structures of socially provocative ideas. Let's see where he takes that as he grows up.

Isn't there a dangerous down side to this?

Well in the early '90s I came up with this idea called "media virus". And the idea was that ideas themselves pass through the media space like viruses and that things that ended up getting passed around the most are things that are unrecognizable. Just like your body, when it doesn't recognize a virus, it can't fight it, it doesn't have the antigens, doesn't have the immune response to it. When something pops up that's unrecognizable -- like the Rodney King tape was or a weird Calvin Klein advertisement that your brain goes, "Huh," -- that thing will pass around. So in that sense things spread just for being new, just for being loud, just for being absurd.

But what happens is if we're then in a culture where the loudest thing gets attention, then everyone starts competing to be the loudest or the wildest or the weirdest. And you end up [where] your media space and your world is all of these loud, horrendous things on soap boxes screaming and contorting. Who's going to get attention then? The person who's sitting quietly. And what's wrong with him? He's actually thinking about something. Well, what's he gonna say? I don't know.

So it'll go in cycles, you know, and I think now what people will start to look for is a rest. They will gravitate towards media that gives them pause, that gives them time to reflect, that gives them something else. [It] can't accelerate forever. ...

...If you had to guess, what does it do to someone begin to live in this world? What does it do to real relationships between kids and parents, between kids and each other?

To be in this kind of world changes one's relationship to everything. We relate to government differently. So now we see our relationship to government as we are consumers and they are producers. And our votes are like customer service, referendums. So gone is the whole "Ask not what, you know, your country can do for you." That's over. It's more about "I'm either gonna pay Gore or I'm gonna pay Bush. Who's going to give me better customer service?" That's a weird one. The way kids relate to their parents, sort of the same thing. You know, now it's about kids extracting really as much money as they can from their parents and teaching their parents, in return, how to be cool because kids are now the arbiters of cool. It changes people's relationship to the church. You know, now the church and the temple have become about, sadly, simulating authenticity for their members. ...

The net effect of all of this marketing, all of this disorienting marketing, all of the shock media, all of this programming designed to untether us from a sense of self, is a loss of autonomy. You know, we no longer are the active source of our own experience or our own choices. Instead, we succumb to the notion that life is a series of product purchases that have been laid out and whose qualities and parameters have been pre-established.

It's a lonely existence to have one's self be a construct of what one buys.

Children are being adultified because our economy is depending on them to make purchasing decisions. So they're essentially the victims of a marketing and capitalist machine gone awry. You know, we need to expand, expand, expand. There is no such thing as enough in our current economic model and kids are bearing the brunt of that. ... So they're isolated, they're alone, they're desperate. It's a sad and lonely feeling. ...

Explore more on media analyst Douglas Rushkoff and his writings.

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