THE MERCHANTS OF COOL
yes!home
watch the program
what teens think
themes
Interviews
media giants
discussion
The symbiotic relationship between the media and teens

Excerpts from interviews with cultural/media analysts discussing the intense relationship between the media marketers and youth culture.

John Seabrook
a writer for The New Yorker and author of Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing--The Marketing of Culture

You have written: "MTV dramatically closed the feedback loop between culture and marketing and made it much harder to tell one from the other, or which came first."

I think the important thing about MTV is the way in which it's broken down the notion that there is culture of programming, on the one side, and marketing and advertising, on the other side. And if you reflect on what the gist of MTV is composed of--which are the videos--and ask yourself, "Well, what are videos? Are they culture?" Well, in one sense they are, because they're sort of very avant garde surrealist filmmaking that had you seen them 40 years ago...would have stood out and would have been hailed as sort of artistic break-throughs, and still do delight and astound on a regular basis. So on that level, it is what I would call culture.

But on the other side, these videos are advertisements for music. The record companies pay for them or they're paid for out of the band's budget. They're given to MTV for free and they're put on in order to move product. And so you can't say whether they're culture on the one side, or marketing on the other side.

And I think if you take that as the kind of ground zero for the MTV experience and widen it out, it gets more consistent the further you go. And then if you look at the world we live in today and talk about how people seem to use advertisements--for example, the Budweiser advertisement, the "What'sup" thing. Now you hear a lot of people saying "What'sup" to each other, which they're not saying because they're trying to market anything. They're saying "What's up," but they're referencing that Budweiser commercial because that's something that they have in common and that's their little shared piece of culture in that community moment. So you can't really draw the line clearly the way you used to be able to draw the line clearly.

So what?

So what? It's not that important in terms of how we interact with each other, I don't think. But, it is important in that it represents further inroads of sort of commercialism and consumerism into our community, into our culture, into the space that was not commercialized. It's all of this. MTV culture is commercial culture and to the extent to which kids internalize it and make sort of a fundamental value in their own lives, they're bringing commercialism into their lives. It's reaching them on a fairly profound, and also at a very formative age that those of us who are a little bit older, I think, were a bit more sheltered from. And it follows that I think it's somewhat of a harsher reality because it is all about commerce ultimately. It is all about selling and buying and there's a kind of a harshness to that, as a way of relating to other people.
read more


Robert McChesney
a media critic and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times

photo of Robert McChesney
read more
We've talked to people who have done research for MTV about kids--it's research done with kids in their own bedrooms.... And there's this sense of this intense feedback loop, where the teen audience seems to sort of suck in everything that's put before them.

I think we're in a really interesting phase culturally where the notion that there's something distinct from commercial culture comes into question when everything's commercialized.... I think it's a troubling notion, the idea that our references are so commercialized now that all our dissidents, all our autonomous voices are getting their cues from MTV on how to revolt. And I think that's a real tension that's going on among young people today.

I think we've seen really for the first time in a decade or two, from my experience among young people--not just college students--a real concern that their entire culture is this commercial laboratory and that being cool is like buying the commercially sanctioned cool clothes.

And it's a real tension that's going on right now and it'll be very interesting to see how it plays itself out, because I think there's a sense that the sort of MTV-VH1 infomercial view of life where everything is sort of part of the sales process and being cool is something you buy and an act you sort of pose in--ultimately that's not a very satisfying or nourishing way to live or to look at the world. And trying to create an alternative I think is imperative for a lot of young people. But it's very hard to do when all the markers around you are commercial.


Mark Crispin Miller
a media critic and the author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV

photo of Mark Crispin Miller
read more
The MTV machine does listen very carefully to children. In rather the same way--if I can put it controversially--as Dr. Goebbels, [Hitler's] ministry of propaganda, listened to the German people. Propagandists have to listen to their audience very, very closely. 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 that it can make the young happier. It doesn't listen to the young so it can come up with 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 to those kids.

Now the young tend to be presented always and everywhere with what is in a way the most seductive thing there is, and that's a mirror. There's a mirror held up to them all the time. It's the mirror as constructed by advertising and TV, but it's the mirror that tells you that you are all there is to be, or you could be, if you bought what we have to sell.

home · watch the program · what teens think · themes · interviews · media giants · discussion
landscape · inside trl · getting close · cool hunting · eminem
synopsis · douglas rushkoff · producers · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs online

some photos ©joel page
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS