Excerpts from interviews with marketers, media executives and cultural
a media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor
Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times
How does corporate America's obvious focus--their deep research into how
young people live and think--does that affect these young people?
It's hard to answer that because there's so many factors in people's lives to
really evaluate, you know? Does it make kids happier and healthier or does it
I think if you look at the American Pediatric Association, which is really
young kids, or American Psychological Association, when they do their studies,
I think that the evidence is increasingly clear that being awash in sort of a
commercial marination as American children and teenagers are today, does not
make happier people.
I mean the evidence is clear that we have a generation that's not especially
happy and it should be a troubling sign for all of us. And it's a tough area,
because there's so many other factors you hesitate about sounding like a vulgar
social critic. But, in 1970 some sociologists did surveys of teenagers all
over the world to see who are the happiest teenagers? Who feel best about
their world their lives? And the three groups of teenagers that were regarded
as the happiest teenagers in the world in 1970 were in Israel, Cuba, and Chile.
And those were highly non-commercial cultures, all three of them.
But it's interesting to look at Chile. Chile at that time was a very
democratic society, very high rate of voter turn-out, the most political
society, arguably, in the world, certainly the Third World. They had a coup
d'etat, they established a so-called "free market economy", and they
consciously tried to de-politicize the people when they reinstated democracy.
And now it's a highly commercial culture.
If you go to Chile today, the middle class of Chile is brand name conscious.
They don't know anything about politics. And now they've got one of the most
depressed teenagers in the group. But it's considered a great victory in
The New York Times and in our media because it's a free society now.
It's a democracy, but it's also a society where people aren't very happy and
it's obsessed with brand names.
I mean that's anecdotal evidence. I would never use that in the court of law
to convict. But I think there is considerable evidence that this type of world
does not produce happy people. This isn't really what people are meant to be,
basically recipients of marketing messages to define themselves by purely
commercial terms. And it really should surprise us.
I mean look at every major religion, every theology. I mean none of them
would define a good life or a happy person on the basis of something as
meaningless as their possessions, what they own, or how many they own more than
someone else, or they have a different brand name.
So what is the emotional-spiritual-ethical effect of having all of your
authentic cultural artifacts sucked up in to this machine?
Well, it really promotes the sort of world in which you don't think anything
matters, unless it serves your material gain. Why be honest? Why have
integrity? Why care about other people? That's for chumps. It's all about
taking care of number one. The dominant institutions in society, the values
they send out is, "We're just here to make money off of you. We're just here
to take advantage of you." The message that goes out to everyone in that
system is, "Yeah, everyone should be everyone for themself. Just take care of
number one. Why should I care about that other person, you know? What's in it
And that's not a healthy environment for society. People are not islands.
We're social creatures. When we stop caring about each other, we just think
what happens to us is all that matters, ah, it creates very unhappy people.
For the parents and teens then, what are the first steps towards eradicating
The first steps would be hard to say. I mean ultimately I think we have to
change the nature of the system. When you talk about cable television, when
you talk about over-the-air television, this is public property. These
companies that rule it are there because they've got monopoly licenses from the
government either to have cable systems or access to channels on a air waves.
So the public has a right to intervene there and say, "These are the terms we
For example, in Sweden they allow no advertising to children under 12 as the
condition of broadcasting. You can't advertise there to children under 12.
The public has a right to do that here. We have a right to set real limits on
the amount of advertising and commercialism that reach people under 18....
So I think we have to think big and really get to the root of the problem.
Just eliminate this hyper-commercialism aimed at children, at teenagers, and I
think that's the direction we need to go in. But that seems probably far off,
maybe even impossible, given the strength and power of these media companies.
But there are things you can do at the local level. You can go to your school
board, and the same companies that are hyper-commercializing MTV are interested
in commercializing your schools. Try to keep advertising out of your schools.
Those things that are non-commercial, like public television, try to limit the
advertising and commercialism in public media that are supposed to be ad-free.
Keep those as a sector, as an island of non-commercial entertainment, news, and
journalism in our culture.
Likewise, you can do things like insist that your schools do media literacy,
and real media literacy. There's two types of media literacy. There's the
type that actually teaches you how the system works, what advertisers are
trying to do, understand it to be a critical participant. Then there's the
type that the media companies want to do, which is basically to train you to
like certain types of shows, but not question the system.
Get real media literacy done by honest intellectuals and academics, not by PR
people for the media companies and the ad industry. That can help, too. Make
people aware of what to do.... That's why something like media literacy in
schools can be so important, to make kids aware at a very early age it isn't
natural, it wasn't always like this. Think of it critically. Someone's doing
it 'cause they benefit by it. This is what they're trying to do to you. So you
can arm yourself and understand the nature of the relationship early on.
a writer for The New Yorker and author of Nobrow:
The Culture of Marketing--The Marketing of Culture
I think that we all sort of still crave the kind of quiet, non-commercial space
in our lives. We treasure them and whether we're aware of it as adults or
whether we just sort of do it spontaneously as kids, I think that there the
still those distinctions made in everyone's life that this is all part of MTV
and that this is not.
I think if you sort of think about the progress of MTV through the years, it's
been to gradually push that boundary so that the quiet, sort of non-commercial
space is shrunk more and more and now I think kids social life is made up of
commercial culture to a very large degree, whether it's, "Oh, I see you're
wearing Tommy Hilfiger," and "Why are you doing that and not wearing, you know,
Polo?" Or, you know, "Did you see the Limp Bizkit ad video on MTV?"
I mean these are the reference points. It's no longer, you know, "Do you
want to go down and see if we can see some turtles at the lake?" I think that
those kinds of experiences are discouraged partly because they're not as
exciting and fun and not as many people engage in them, and also because you
don't seen them on MTV.
And so when we talk about the sort of feedback loops, I mean there it's very
clear people are seeing what they think of as life on MTV and then they're
going out and trying to live that sort of life, which would be a kind of a
cultural non-commercial version of that. But because what MTV shows you is
very limited in terms of the choices that you can make, the life that you try
to lead based on MTV becomes very sterile and homogenous and boring. And then
all you have to do is watch more MTV and it's sort of like the loop gets
tighter and tighter....
It becomes an enclosure.
It does seem very suffocating and although MTV does represent... you do see
people of different races together and that's good. But its versions of
African American and white life are so sort of narrowly constrained in terms of
what MTV chooses to show you about those lives that in a way it'snot as diverse
as it seems. It seems like it's a picture of diversity, but the reality of it
is fairly kind of homogenous.
...What's the "marketer within"?
The "marketer within" was a core concept for me when I was writing No Brow
. I think it's a really, really important distinction and it's a
generational distinction and I feel like I'm slightly on the far side of it.
On that side, you have people who see marketing as an essentially external
manipulative force that's trying to get you to do something that you wouldn't
ordinarily do. It's the voice of the pitch men. It's the blaring radio
hawker. It's the billboards that you're surrounded by and you don't really
feel that is part of your folk culture. You feel that what's authentic and
what's true to you is not that. You're not quite sure maybe what it is, but
it's not that.
Then on the other side of that, you have a group of people who grew up mainly
through television absorbing a marketing voice, absorbing that pitch man's
voice almost before they knew language. I mean I think that there's been
studies done that show that two year-olds can recognize the difference in
volume and tone of the commercial voice on television and know it intimately in
a way that they don't respond to the editorial voice.
And you sort of internalize that voice so that marketing no longer seems like
an alien sort of external manipulative force, but, rather, it's just part of
your world. It's part of something that goes on inside you and outside you and
the marketer within is the artist who sort of realizes that he doesn't need to
use some sort of external sort of advertising to sell his product or his art,
that his art can be made out of that voice, that voice that's somewhere sort of
still rattling around, the voice of the pitch man, and it doesn't necessarily
need to sort of diminish the art -- it doesn't necessarily sort of need to be
something that's sort of grafted onto the art. That it becomes sort of part of
the art and that the artist of the future will make their art with that voice,
you know, in mind.
Is something lost?
Well, I think something's lost because I sort of stand on the other side of
that commercial divide and I find it very hard to accept that someone can make
art with the notion of selling it--intimately sort of involved with the
creation of it and not make some sort of diminished form of art. But, see, I
am willing to accept that that is perhaps an old-fashioned notion and that
there is another way of looking at art that comes from a another kind of
relationship to marketing that sees marketing as a valid form and as an
integral part of the making of art.
And it is true that almost every artist that makes something wants people to
experience it and -- and many of them actually want to make money on it, too.
So we can't sort of say that there are all these sort of pure artists that
never thought about it and then there are all these sort of, you know,
compromised artists that think about it all the time.
I think that it's a world in which that distinction is kind of broken down
and, you know, we'll see more marketers within.
head of programming for MTV
What you find is a surprising resourcefulness to be able to process. Because
this is not a phenomena that hit them when they were 15, it's been the reality
since they were 5. On the other hand you see--I don't want to say resentment
of it--but there is sometimes an undercurrent that says, "I'm 13. Do I really
need to be running around with my Palm Pilot worrying about all of these things
I hear about on Dawson's Creek?" ...
I can't help but be worried that we are throwing so much at young adults so
fast. And that there is no amount of preparation or education or even love
that you could give a child to be ready. That said, I think I'm just a person
who's getting older talking, because my parents would have undoubtedly said the
same thing about the world I grew up in. And young adults don't really see it
that way. They don't express particular confusion over it. They don't express
that they're being overwhelmed by it.
a founding partner in Look-Look, a research company specializing
in youth culture
How does this generation feel about being sold to?
It's a mixed bag on that actually....You can't say, "Oh, they hate being sold
to and they hate all marketing." That's not true. That's one perspective on
it. They're very sophisticated consumers, meaning they know what's being
marketed. They know all about marketing. They were raised with deconstructing
advertising since they were little kids.
And so you have to assume that they're very sophisticated and so you can't
trick them ever. What you want to do is create some sort of emotional
connection with them where they are interested and they respect and you have a
dialogue going on. And what they get incensed about is if there's not that
level of respect. If they're treated like, "You're just a stupid consumer and
we're gonna not bother to learn about your culture but we're gonna market to
you in a way that is insulting," then they get upset about that. ...It's a
very superficial understanding of the culture. It is disrespectful.
... The other thing, too, that's been interesting that we have seen happen
with trend-setters [is] that we see them actually researching what companies
are about. Finding out what type of like managing policies they have or how
they manufacture their products and really finding out like the history and all
the specifics. Do they use [child labor?]... Are they doing stuff to mess up
the environment? These are all that concerns for young people now. They're
all very aware of what's happening around the world, because they look up these
things on the Internet.
a media critic and the author of Boxed In: The
Culture of TV
If you watch Saturday morning kids' TV, you can see it in programming that is
unrelievedly frantic, hyped up, hysterical, in its own way quite violent and
pervasively commercial. It's all about selling, and this, I think, is the
primary reason why there is something of a cultural crisis involving children.
It is not because there are fugitives from the '60s generation who are in
control of the media. It's not a communist plot. It's not because bad people
are involved in those industries. It's because of the inordinate influence of
commercial logic and the commercial imperative overall.
Now I think we have to appreciate the enormous difference between life for
young people and life for young people a few decades back. Because now kids
grow up in a universe that is utterly suffused with this kind of commercial
propaganda. And by that, I mean not only the ads per se, but the shows that
sell the ads.
What this system does is it closely studies the young, keeps them under very
tight surveillance to figure out what will push their buttons. Then it takes
that and blares it back at them relentlessly and everywhere, because these are
interests with a tremendous amount of power and technological sophistication.
And these are kids who are, to an unprecedented extent, hooked in through their
gimmicks, their toys, their computers and so on. So there's really very little
space that these giant interests can't completely fill up with this kind of
The bombardment is amazing. It's hard, therefore, to keep that kind of crucial
distance. It's hard to be critical. It's hard to think about what might be
going on at the top, especially if the media doesn't tell you. It's hard to
figure out who you are and what you really want. It's hard to make your own
music because that thing is always there listening, watching, taking notes, and
packaging something so that it can sell you more stuff.
Kids feel frightened and lonely today. It's because they are encouraged to
feel that way. Advertising has always sold anxiety and it certainly sells
anxiety to the young. It's always telling them that they are not thin enough,
they're not pretty enough, they don't have the right friends, or they have no
friends, they're creeps, they're losers unless they're cool. But I don't think
anybody deep down really feels cool enough ever. That's the nature of
advertising, to keep you hungering for more of the stuff that's supposed to
finally put you there, but never does.
It's so thoroughly about being on display. It's about how you look. We all
imagine a million cameras facing us and recording everything. There's this
acute self-consciousness that constitutes a tremendous psychological burden
because you can never really feel like you're alone with yourself. You can
never really feel like someone's not overhearing what you're thinking. ...
Even in the deepest privacy of your own mind you'll often find a team them from
some advertising agency, you know. That's the most criminal aspect of this
whole system -- it seems to have colonized or tries to colonize the very
consciousness of its young subjects.
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