THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
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What are your opinions on the tactics and techniques of the marketing media who are targeting our teenagers? Have they gone too far?

Dear FRONTLINE,

Though I found it mostly true, and interesting, I felt you withheld, or overlooked an important fact. Insane Clown Posse were also at Woodstock '99, along with Limp Bizkit. They have been on the verge of being mainstream for a lot longer than you made it sound. I also would like to say that Limp Bizkit was actually the next logical step for music to take, and rode in on the heels of bands such as Korn.

Adam Blough
Annapolis, MD

Dear FRONTLINE,

It is not only because I have 6 teenage nieces and nephews, who I care about deeply, that The Merchants Of Cool profoundly moved me. It is also because I am 47 years old, recall being a young hippy in the late 1960's and having my own generation's images and ideals turned by the then Merchants Of Cool into just so much cheap, commercial dreck.

I remember with a creeping discomfort that 'Madison Avenue', as the advertising industry was called then, would describe the 'Movement' in a mischievously condescending way. Somehow a meaningful anti-war concept, such as a handful of young students placing flowers in the guns of the National Guard, became degraded into Flower Power, and tacky plastic stick-on daisies on Volkswagens.

Somehow the commercial images of the day vampired the authentic concepts of their original meaning and spun them into meaninglessness. Then those empty images became the false reflection of that generation.

In the last several years I've been studying the disorder of Pathological Narcissism. As I watched The Merchants of Cool program, it gave me chill to comprehend that the marketing media is turning another generation of children away from any personally meaningful cultural authenticity and refocusing these kids, with the lure of being 'cool', into a cult of the false personality.

If human beings are not reflected honestly by those around them, they start to become as false as these warped reflections.

Now there are millions of new, budding narcissists, all imagining themselves as being so cool and really becoming so empty.

Nicky Skye
New York, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

I thought it was an excellent documentary. The "connect the dots", taking us through Sprite's subversion of hip hop maybe not so subversive as youth cultures are created by the media, was brilliant.

Criticism: I guess I get a little tired of the adult talking heads mostly white scholars. Like the manipulation of youth by adults for marketing purposes, the documentary treated youth in the traditional role of objects of communication, not as the subjects with a valid perspectives.

So, by the second half of the piece I became a little impatient that the producer's alternative youth culture was a irreverent, face-painted band in Detroit who ends up selling out anyway -- it makes for a good story, but there are other alternative cultures going on out there. There are punk cultures who continue to refuse the mainstream.

Also, our work at www.listenup.org is supporting an small, but growing alternative culture of youth media producers who are challenging mainstream media. Their intelligent, thoughtful voices were not heard...thus the doc left a kind of "bleakness" lingering in the air.

Nonetheless, I still think the piece rocks. It's so hard to find good programming like this and I sooo appreciate it when it comes along.

Austin Haeberle
Brooklyn, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

I am the Editor-in-Chief of online music review site, Music-Critic.com.

I am emailing you to let you know about an article we ran in 1999 that dealt with similar problems at MTV, back when TRL was still in its infancy. The problem lies deeper than just TRL, and if you would like to check out the article here it is:

http://www.music-critic.com/articles/revenuestar.htm

If you read it, feel free to let us know your thoughts.

Bill Aicher
Madison, WI

Dear FRONTLINE,

What a great program. I had just got back from a bar, and was planning on going to sleep. Turned on the TV for a little 5 minute sleep transition time, and ended up watching the whole report. It takes quality programming for that to happen.

I just wanted to make two comments. Most interesting aspect of the show to was the kids at the party between auditions. Where the prospective models were dancing with those crazy boys with their shirts off.

I wonder how many of those young girls are sexually active, and how often those kinds of events occur parties. It didn't seem like there were any parents around at all. I would have liked to have seen that whole scene examined closer. There was just something intriguing about it.

Secondly, the Insane Clown Posse segment was interesting, but limited. I feel that there should have been more than one sample. There is band named Phish, and a lot of other bands in that jam rock genre which have very large, unique, and defined subcultures. This is illustrated in a Todd Phillips movie to be released on DVD in early March called Bittersweet Motel. I would love to have seen a report of that nature integrated into the program. It really breaks all the rules. The great thing about that subculture is that it exists for years at a time, not for just one show. Further, it seems as if there is a positive attitude among its participators, instead of an angry one. Anyway, keep up the good work!

Chad Weinman
St. Louis, MO

Dear FRONTLINE,

Well that was public television hand-wringing at its elite finest. A few critiques, if I may:

1. How is the "symbiosis" you describe any different than what took place in the past with, say, American Bandstand in the late 50's or Tiger Beat magazine in the 70s? Besides being quicker which is a function of delivery not message hasn't the same relationship between American youth and its culture been in effect all along? Did Woodstock kids in '68 wear headbands and bell-bottoms by happenstance or because the Grateful Dead did?

2. For a program centered on the effects of mass communication, you fall into one of the most basic fallacies of communication theory: the idea that a general public cannot filter or interpret sophisticated media without being manipulated. That was best refuted by the kids themselves who gave self-aware and nuanced interpretations of the culture they absorb. To quote The Who, "the kids are allright."

3. What's most amusing, perhaps, is watching PBS' own orthodox view of culture at work: the monotone narration, subtle disdain for consumption and sexuality, and naturally the pedantic assumption that all is hopelessly wrong with America. Replace ICP with Harvard Lit Crit and TRL with NPR and you would be doing a Frontline segment on...Frontline culture!

Jim McCarthy
wash, dc

Dear FRONTLINE,

I watched your telecast with morbid fascination. I came to realize my naivete regarding the subversiveness of advertising. I watched with disbelief the grotesque amounts of money and time used to reach into the minds of young America simply to sell products.

As years go by I am increasingly afraid to have children. How to protect them from the pervasiveness of this assault? How do we keep children from becoming premature adults?

I wish the show had been a little longer to show the other side, so that maybe I could have been given a glimmer of hope. I kept myself buoyed slightly by the band Fugazi, who serve as a perfect contrast to this program. But isn't that a lot of responsibility for one band?

Congratulations on another eye-opening program.

Leslie Quade
Milwaukee, WI

Dear FRONTLINE,

I work with teens in psychotherapy. I have an MSWSince half of my clientel have eating disorders, we spend time on challenging the media messages of thinniess and perfection. Thanks for your program. It helps to widen the scope.

I'd call this kind of marketting research "recycled spit". The researchers chum up pretensiously to select teens, who spit out info and it gets marketed! The lack of geniunness saddens me, as does the loss of meaning and real value of life.

Betsy Zmuda-Swanson
Moline, IL

Dear FRONTLINE,

I'm a 27 yr. old male ... Most enlightening for me was how you presented such a thorough examination of todays MTV culture. I remember when MTV first aired and how we all felt when we would get together and watch the "MTV awards show", and other programs "YO MTV Raps" etc.. For the most part it was all in good fun, which is exactly how it was originally intended to be experienced I think.

What saddens me about todays MTV culture is that it has definitely lost its innocent charm. It doesn't seem like kids are watching it for fun anymore, but are watching it to seriously take note of how they think they should be, how they think they should act, what they think they should say etc.

I know this from talking to my younger cousins and watching them and thier friends growup. Having seen how much has changed over the past ten/twelve years, it truly boggles my mind to think of what the corporate structure behind MTV has in store for the future. I never would have thought MTV would have grown into such the sophisticated marketing machine it is.

Once again, thank you for a truly enlightening program, another home run.

erik olsson
rochester, ny

Dear FRONTLINE,

Once again, Frontline produces a great show. At 24, I am not quite in the demographic "Cool" dealt with, but I still struggle with choosing between being myself and choosing whatever is mainstream for the acceptance of my peers. Your show has helped me in this battle. Thanks.

St Louis, Missouri

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dear Frontline,

Although I found the substance of Merchants of Cool a refreshing and generally accurate dissection of teen-marketing, the show failed to highlight existing alternatives.

For instance, instead of ICP, you could have focused on a Wash D.C. band named FUGAZI. Founded by Ian MacKaye, Fugazi and his independent record label, Dischord, have been able to survive and thrive outside of the economic machine. More importantly, Fugazi and others such as Jawbox and Burning Airlines appeal to listeners and fans with great music, intelligence and a sense of moral/ethical purpose - without relying on sex, violence or grotesque self-mutilation as a marketing tool.

Fugazi are well aware of their position and the temptation to transform their huge underground popularity they've sold well over 1,000,000 copies of their albums into a quick cash but they refuse to do it because that's not what they're about.

As their song Target exclaims,

"...we could be making it oiling like crime we could be making it staking last dimes but if you want to seize the sound you don't need a reservation...so open and young-so target I can smell your heart you're a target."

Hartford, CT

Dear FRONTLINE,

This is the best TV I've seen in a long time, and only PBS could have done it.

It reminds me that perhaps the most radical thing we can do as Americans is to stop consuming.

Sharon McAllister
Davis, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

... I especially enjoyed your segment on the Insane Clown Posse. I myself am a juggalo, and I feel that the points that you made about the underground, and why kids join it are very true.

I never fit in really with other kids, and at first I wanted to, but after a while, I didn't even want to fit in. Today, I am attending an all girls catholic school, and I definately cannot realate to most of the people there, however, I do enjoy being unique, because it's good to be able to be myself.

America is so consumed by the media that most teenagers just end up looking like a heard of sheep, all the same, wanting to be just like everyone else. People can get lost in a world like that.

Juggalos are different. We don't care if we are different, or if people laugh at us and don't understand. We just want to actually matter to one another, forget the outside world. We are like family, and that closeness feels good. It's hard to feel good from the entertainment buisiness these days, most of it has become so corperate. There's not much feeling left, so much of it is about the money. Everyone just wants to get rich off of kids.

I think The Merchants of Cool was a great program, and you did a wonderful job not only portraying the mainstream, but also the underground.

Elaine Mak
Natick, MA

Dear FRONTLINE,

Though that was one of the most honest and realistic report I've heard in a long time, there are many bases that are left uncovered.

I am a 15 yr. old female and I have watched in terror as my generation becomes more and more the whores of consumerism. Many argue that it has to deal with religion and community. Wrong! Most of the teens today have "faith" in God and are on pretty good terms with their parents. There is no community in our day and age for the most part. Our society has deemed anonymity king. It is something more than that.

Teenagers today are "adultafied". The problem is, the maturity plays with situations sex, drugs, etc. not in mental capacity. The generation I live in is riddled with air-heads and ignorance.

However, that is only the majority. New sub-cultures have been growing. Ones that haven't been raped by cool-hunters. Many teenagers are interested in political activism. No, not anarchy, but genuine concern for the world we live in.

Punkism and glam rock was once unique. Now pop icons like Brittany Spears and N'SYNC have taken that edge and pop-culturized it, leaving the people who authentically feel that way in a world they detest.

The problem with cool-hunting is the fact that teenagers have to rebel. Its a rite of passage. If some commercial big-wigs take that then we have to find new ways to show our individuality. Not always from each other, but from the world around us.

Amanda Wagner
Portland, Oregon

Dear FRONTLINE,

Outstanding work, Frontline!

This program should be required viewing for interested parents of teenager's to learn what marketing powers they are up against.

Overworked parents might be able to work a few hours less a week rather than continue to bankroll the influence of these mega corporations on their children.

Keep up the great work.

scott jennings
Cincinnati, OH


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