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Interview: dee dee gordon and sharon lee

Dee Dee Gordon and Sharon Lee are the founding partners of Look-Look, a research company specializing in youth culture.

What is Look-Look?

Gordon: What is it? What is Look-Look? We actually have two different sides of our company. We do consulting with companies on youth culture . . . and about youth, more significantly, from all over the world.

So what does that mean, Sharon, in terms of what the elements of your company are?

Lee: The company is really about providing the most accurate, ongoing real-time resource about what we think is a very important subculture of this world--and we identify it as youth culture. We live in an adult-centered view of the world. And there's this teeming, very exciting, vibrant subculture going on that's got its own identity, its own thoughts, and issues that we don't have a resource to try to understand. So if you wanted to know more about it . . . we're providing that bridge. First of all, we think it's valid enough to have its own resource. There's so much great information happening. . . .

We look for kids who are ahead of the pack because they're gonna influence what all the other kids do.  We look for the 20 percent,the trend-setters What are some of your projects? How do you create this bridge?

Gordon: We have correspondents out in the field who report on what's going on. They do various different things. They have kids complete surveys. They go out and they find kids who report on certain things that are happening in their area, who will take pictures, who will take a videotape. They send all that stuff in. We look at it. We compile it. We look for trends and themes that are happening through all the information, and that's the stuff that we put on our website.

We also do consulting projects for people. So we look at a product, say, a movie or something. We'll see how can we make this relevant to youth, and we go about finding new and interesting ways of doing that, by using all of our kids to tell us how to do it.

What is a correspondent?

Gordon: A correspondent is a person who has been trained by us to be able to find a certain type of kid, a kid that we call a "trendsetter" or an "early adopter." This is a kid who looks outside their own backyard for inspiration, who is a leader within their own group. These kids are really difficult to find. So this correspondent goes out and finds and identifies these chart-setting kids. They interview them. They get them interested in what we do. They hire them to do work for us. Let's say they're a music expert. They can report on music. Or if they're expert in sports, they can report on that, or just take pictures about that new sport. They get a bunch of kids who can do that in their area and they monitor and manage those kids. . . .

So you have a group of kids, not just correspondents, but also the respondents, right? How many kids are under your umbrella?

Gordon: You have about 10,000 kids, maybe a little bit more than that. And that's not just the United States. We also work in Europe and in Japan. We have about 500 kids who we call correspondents . . . who make sure that we always have new and interesting people joining our group.

Sharon, when you have these kids out there looking for stuff, what stuff are you looking for? What kinds of things are you hoping that kids are going to bring back to you?

Lee: We actually don't direct them. The great thing about why we call them correspondents is that, in the traditional sense of correspondent, they have a digital camera around their neck, they have a laptop with them, and they're living in the culture, as opposed to being outside the culture. So they're open to the things that are really happening in their lives. Rather than assigning them, "Well, we want to know about this," really we're just great listeners and great editors of information.

They will say, "Oh, I just saw this group of girls wearing this type of jeans and, oh my God, it's fabulous. And here's a photo and here's what I think of it. And here's what me and my friends think of it." The judgment of whether it's important or not really comes from them. What we hope for from them is that insight, that they have their eyes and their ears open to what's going on in their culture to see it in, take a photo of it, give us a story. So it could be something that they're doing. "My friends and I are doing this type of activity. We're hanging out playing old video games," as opposed to the new hi-tech ones. "We're collecting them. We're going to flea markets and we're buying them for five dollars and we're taking them home and doing that." Or, "We're having this type of party."

It's giving insight into what's real and not packaged, so it feeds itself. What we do here is we're really the mechanism to filter that information and use that, so we can say, "Well, this is what's really going on," versus what you think is going on. . . .

What is the internet aspect of what you guys do?

Lee: The internet is this great resource for both the kids and us. It's a vital link to the whole concept of what we believe in, that the youth culture is constantly moving. Most researchers take the perspective, "Oh, we'll go out there in the field," which happens maybe once or twice of three times in a year. "We'll get the information from that, and that'll be enough." And the reason why we think it's not is that teenagers, young people, use the internet as such an everyday part of life, and it's such a resource for them. Communication, spreading ideas, learning about things that the speed with which information travels has just accelerated to such a degree that you really need that online real time resource to say, "This is what's going on." It's moving faster and faster and faster.

And the other part of it is that we can reach out to so many more people, instantly, globally. It's this global network of our community of correspondents, respondents, and us, and we're able to communicate so much more efficiently. . . . The internet part of it makes all of that so much more efficient and so much easier, because they can just come into our network, decide they want to be a correspondent . . . and then the information gets loaded up so much quicker of the people who are interested.

How does your website work?

Gordon: The website is a big database. It's a database that keeps collecting information as it gets streamed in from all of our various correspondents. It's always clicking and learning and sorting information. So you have 500 correspondents out there, at random moments, saying, "Here's a great jeans story that I saw in my town." "Here's a great music story that I think is really important." And the website is a database, which is a mechanism that collects this and sorts this and then it also publishes it out. So you get all this really complicated voluminous information, and it's easy to fit understanding segments.

Who is it published for?

Lee: It's published for anybody who's interested in this culture. It's marketers who want to market to them. It's media people. It's copywriters at advertising agencies. It's a newsperson from Associated Press. There's such a broad range of people that are interested in the culture for various reasons that, if you think about it, that what we're providing is a resource for all that information.

What kinds of companies hire you?

Gordon: Manufacturers of apparel, health and beauty, cosmetics and fragrances; people who are manufacturing footwear; movie studios; sports associations; electronics companies; advertising agencies.

Are these big or small companies?

Gordon: Well, we have some small companies, but we have a lot of Fortune 500 companies. Most of our clients are early adopter clients, people who have vision, who understand the importance of the youth audience. . . .

Do they love great, clever marketing?  Of course they do.  It's actually a nod of approval from young people if a company gets it right. Why do your clients hire you? What are they looking for? What do they do with the information you give them?

Gordon: I think they're looking to us to be the eyes and ears of youth culture. It's a difficult job. You can't understand a whole culture by checking in every now and then, or a phone here or an article there. So they rely on us as a resource to say, "This is what's going on," all the time, to give them a pulse.

. . . For instance, we have some clients who are interested in taking a product that already exists and finding a way that it can appeal to young people. So they will use our information to find out if that product is even interesting to them, or if there's a way that they could make it more interesting. It's the same thing with advertising. They like to test whether or not their advertising is relevant to these kids or what advertising is relevant, so that they can do something similar.

Or, let's say, they want to create a whole new brand or a whole new product with a company that targets a specific audience. They take out information to assist in inspiring project designers, in helping them market the new product, even in naming the product, and then eventually testing. They use our database to recruit kids to test the products out--stuff like that.

How would an entertainment media outlet use you?

Gordon: It depends on what it is. There are various ways. Most people will use us to help in marketing, finding new ways to reach kids, finding new products and new promotions, new events to get involved in--even down to who's a popular actor or actress that maybe they should cast for the film, what magazines they should be advertising in. Sometimes there are new scenes that pop up out of nowhere that kids like to pass around. Studios want to know if they should be involved in that, too. All kinds of different stuff.

What, generally, is the level of sophistication of these major corporations in terms of this culture? Do they get it? Do they not get it?

Gordon: It depends on, first of all, what they do. It depends also on location. When they're in the middle of the country and they're not in the major metropolitan areas, they're not exposed to as many things as our clients in New York or our clients in Los Angeles are. It's also different depending on where they work in the company. Sometimes we'll work with a big company and there are so many aspects of it and it just really, for us, depends on smart people in those companies. They usually seek us out and they will tend to get to the point where they're approaching information differently anyway. And so that they bring us in to add different insights, as opposed to somebody who will purely rely on numbers or stats. . . . We try and back things up with numbers. But we really look at our information as being qualitative information. . . .

What are some of the major misconceptions that companies have about teenagers?

Lee: Actually, one of the motivations for starting our company and focusing just on that is that there are so many times that we'd sit across from clients, and they would ask us the same type of questions over and over and over again, no matter where you went.

What questions?

Lee: Just, "What's the hottest new brand with kids?" This one is my favorite: "My son just bought rollerblades. So all the kids must be getting into rollerblades, right?" Or, "My son's saying the word 'dope.' That must be the hottest word to use now, right?" Well, because they don't have a resource, if they have teenagers or if they have neighbors, they use that as a one-man focus group and try to get information. But they want to know in general, what are they like, how do they feel, what's important to them? How come they like this over that?

They just don't have a clear sense of where to begin with that information, because it's such a foreign set of people that they don't interact with day to day. And so they just want to know like who are they and what are they like. And it's so basic that, a lot of times, we were repeating the same things like, "Well, you really shouldn't talk down to teenagers. You should first educate yourself on what they do like. Why don't you pick up a magazine they read and look at that? Why don't you watch a TV show that they like? Why don't you go out and hang out at some of their hangouts and observe without judgment of what they're doing, how they're doing it and what they're enjoying?" These days it's just because they don't have time. They're time-poor. And it's intimidating. . . .

. . . Do your clients have any preconceptions that you can generalize about?

Lee: I think all of our clients understand the importance of youth culture and why they need to pay attention and be on top of it. Five or six years ago, it was a totally different thing. We had a lot of doors slammed in our faces and like, "Why do we need to know this information?" We got a lot of, "I know youth culture because I have my own children." Those kinds of broad assumptions.

What changed?

Lee: A few things changed. One of them, just at the basic level, is that there is a population boom with younger kids. It is, behind the baby boomers, the biggest segment of the demographic out there. They're steadily growing, and will continue to grow at an average of five percent to the year 2010. They're a pretty significant body of people, and they have opinions and they buy things--they're very present in our culture. So, first of all, there's just a body count issue, as we call it.

Secondly, the boom of the internet has really empowered the young people in the family to be the chief technology officer in their home. Usually the parents have the power source. And because of computers and how efficient teenagers are with computers, they're more knowledgeable about how to deal with it, how to plug it in, how to even get online. And now the parents are saying, "Oh, well, Johnny, why don't you come in here and show me how to do this?"

And it's a respect change. All of a sudden the adult world is looking at this teen audience who's developed a lot of major software, as well as innovations having to do with computers and the internet in a whole different way. And they say, "Wow, maybe they do have something to say. Maybe I haven't been listening and they have something to contribute."

Would you say that teens actually have more money to spend now than they did before?

Lee: We're living in a booming economy, so they have a lot of disposable income of their own money that they make from jobs and allowances and things like that. But because of the family's reliance on their teenagers' opinions, they have a lot of influence on what the family buys, from major capital purchases like cars or electronics or television, computers--things that normally they weren't consulted on. It's hard thing to put a number on it, because they actually don't make that purchase. But anybody who has a teenager in their family will tell you, "Oh, yes. They know what to buy. I ask them before I will buy this type of product." So their own personal money's increasing, as well as their influence on the family's money.

I know it's hard to put a number on it. But how much are they spending?

Lee: Their own spending is at $140 billion, and that's in the United States, which is pretty significant. And their spending pattern is going to grow even more significantly than just the population growth.

. . . Is there a newfound respect for what you guys do?

Gordon: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

Let's talk about what makes a Look-Look kid. How do you pick a kid to be part of your organization? What are you looking for? What makes a Look-Look kid?

Gordon: A Look-Look kid is someone who is a forward-thinking individual, who looks outside their own backyard for information, who is someone who is a leader, who isn't afraid to speak their mind, isn't afraid to like investigate new things. . . . It's someone who has a lot to say, someone who sees things that most other kids wouldn't.

What is the theory beyond that? Why don't you want an average kid to know what average kids are doing?

Lee: We look for kids who are ahead of the pack, because they'll influence what all the other kids do. We look for the 20 percent, the trendsetters, who are going to influence the other 80 percent.

How does that work? How does a trend spread?

. . . Actually, it's a triangle. At the top of the triangle, there's the innovator, which is like two to three percent of the population. Underneath them is the trendsetter, which we would say is about 17 percent. They pick up on ideas that the innovators are doing, and they claim them as their own. Underneath them is an early adopter--it's questionable exactly what their percentage is--but they are the layer above mainstream, which is about 80 percent. And they take what the trendsetter is doing, and they make it palatable for mass consumption. They take it, they tweak it, they make it more acceptable, and that's when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it.

You said it eventually killed it. How quickly are these things given birth to and then killed? How condensed is this period of time from when a trend starts to when a trend is killed?

Lee: It used to take a year-and-a-half to two years for something to move. And now it can take a couple of months. . . .

How has this affected companies' product cycles?

Lee: It has to move faster. Companies have to get on it quicker. They have to be more informed of what's happening, be able to change the ways they produce things. They can't be necessarily stuck in that same production cycle. They have to speed things up a bit, allow for new production runs that they wouldn't normally have, create limited editions, so that they can add more sporadic entries into the marketplace.

How does this affect your job?

Gordon: We have to monitor what's happening all the time. And that's why is in real time. It's what's happening at the moment. The data changes constantly every second of every day as it's inputted. . . . It's not done biannually. This is done daily and that's what makes what we're doing so different than anything else out there. We are like the only news source for what kids are doing in real time.

Sharon, I want to pick up on something you were talking about earlier about kids' economic power. Where do kids get all their money? What makes kids such good consumers today?

Lee: Well, they make their money in a couple of different ways. A lot of them have part-time jobs, so they're making their money from working at fast food places, retail stores, babysitting, doing laundry. Whatever it is, they have a real varied set of side jobs that they do. A lot of them get allowances from their homes and their families, from their parents, to do whatever chores they need to do. So they are pretty creative about their different resources that they have.

And what makes them great consumers, is that they're such free thinkers, for the most part, because they don't have to worry about rent, and they don't have to worry about car payments yet. They're not burdened by all these realities of the adult life. And so they can think things like, "Gee, what do I want?" And that's a great mindset to have. When you have that type of mindset, as opposed to, "What do I need to get?" then you're really free to think about, "Well, this would make me really happy," or, "I would just love to get this." And because they can spend every bit of their money acquiring the things that please them for that moment, they're really honest, open, and truthful purchasers.

They're also really free about their money. So they won't say, "Well, I'm spend half my money on this." They'll say, "I want to go see a movie and I want to see a movie like every weekend with my friends." And that's what they'll do. Or "I'll buy ten different CDs from this artist because that's what I'm into this week." What makes it interesting and difficult is that their moods change quite a bit. Nobody really in the adult world ever buys things that way, unless you have tons of disposable income, which most people don't.

We keep hearing that kids are much more independent now. They don't have parents overseeing them the way they used to, and that that makes them into more powerful consumers. Is that something you also notice?

Lee: Yes. We've found the concept of individuality is being nurtured in this culture for a while. Because they're getting reinforcement from the outside world that what they think and the success of their peers or positive things that they see, they're really empowered by that. So I think they were already original thinkers, and I think they've always had original thought. I think they were really great, but that part of their personality wasn't so accepted by the mainstream world. . . . I think because they're getting positive reinforcement, they're being more vocal about what they think.

Most parents are really time-poor. They're both working. They're not there. They're physically not there to monitor what's going on, so the kids have a lot of free time. Economically, they're given a lot of what's called "guilt money." "Here's a credit card. Why don't you go online and buy something, because I can't spend time with you." There's a lot of that going on. And now they can work both parents. It's not just the dad who has a credit card. Mom and Dad both have several credit cards.

Also, when you're working all the time and you're tired, you don't really want to haul to the mall and spend four hours shopping with your kid. Sometimes it's easier to sit down with catalogs . . . and go, "Oh, isn't that great?" And. "We like this and let's order it from the catalog," or, "Let's order it online." And so there's a lot of credit card spending.

Companies used to have to go through parents to get to kids. And now it's direct, isn't it? Do you ever worry about having to take parents into account when you're advising companies, or is it just direct, unmediated access to kids that companies are looking for?

Lee: It depends on who the client is. Some of our more conservative clients always have the parents in mind, always want to make sure that they aren't alienating anybody when they're marketing. They can reach both at the same time. It tends to be that the younger they are, the more parental influence you need to be concerned about. So if you're talking to an under-ten kid, you always have to be concerned that what the parents are thinking and feeling are still a great influence. By the time they reach 14, 15, 16, parents will tell you themselves that "They don't really care what I think." So it's pretty much they're on their own path, and they have a really big mind shift. And most companies will just go directly to them.

Let's talk about "them" for a second, this big blob of kids we're talking about--this generation. What are they like? What makes them unique?

Gordon: Well, there are always universal details about youth culture, and what we look for is, in those universal moments, what are the current executions of those moments? You always have teen angst. You always have hope and love and all these really heightened emotional feelings. And we just see how is this group of kids going through that time in their lives, and what makes them distinct, and what do they really care about?

I would say that this current set of young people is really optimistic--they're very empowered. You get the sense, maybe from the adult world, that kids are full of teen angst, they hate everything, and maybe they're obsessed about like a Columbine issue. But that is really an adult agenda. These kids have never seen so many of their own peers so close to their age succeed in their own vision, and have monetary gain from the jobs that they've gotten. And so they feel pretty good. They feel optimistic. They've been living in complete peacetime. The only war or international conflict that they have ever been exposed to was a 100-day rock 'n roll war that was basically turned into a music video.

So I would say that they're not disaffected youth, that they're really optimistic and also they're very educated. They use the internet to educate themselves on everything from political issues to how to cook. All these resources that you used to rely on maybe your local community powers or something, they have access to this great informational internet. There are a lot of empowering details, and I think there's great hope and also creativity. There's a big burst of creativity. They could travel the world without ever having to leave their homes. They can see other cultures, be inspired by other cultures. They can communicate with people from other cultures, which is really inspiring to them. And they want to learn about things like the root of things. We've been seeing more and more kids getting involved with wanting to know about history, like local history, art history, things like biology, the sciences. That's been another like topic that's been on the upswing with kids. They want to learn about how things are made and the root of things, the specifics. It's pretty cool, pretty positive.

Lee: Well, we saw this happening with trendsetters about three or four years ago, and we would say, "Our trendsetter kids aren't just watching dumb sitcoms. They're really into the Discovery Channel, A&E, and Bravo and PBS. . . .

Gordon: And some things that aren't really directed at them--they have a really older demographic set--but early adopters were watching informational programming and when everybody was thinking, "Oh, they're just watch MTV," and we'd say, "No, that's not true. They're really interested. There's this great interest in educating themselves and finding out about things going on." And it will trickle down. All those cable channels are seeing great young viewership go up. And this is a larger motif that's happening in the culture and, if you think about it, it's another detail of an optimistic culture. It's like, "I want to know. I want to learn. I want to know what's out there."

It's curious, though, because if you look at what's directed and targeted to kids in terms of media, anyway, it's not that stuff--that stuff is targeted to the adults. It's the wrestling and . . . that kind of thing. Is there a misconception on the part of the adult world of what kids want to see?

Lee: Well, they're not mutually exclusive. We tend to think that if something is of interest, then the other thing has to go away. But they live in the same space and what you have to watch is, what's the new area of interest? What is going away? There's a huge wrestling following because that is just really primal entertainment, and there's an entertainment value to that. Is that the only thing? No. Is that a broad brush stroke and we can say, "Oh, kids are only into that type of entertainment?" Absolutely not. That miscasts young people. They're very complex. They have different varied interests. The same person can like wrestling and be really into the law and want to go find out about the praying mantis on the Discovery Channel. They're not separate people. You tend to one-dimensionalize young people.

. . . When you look out at what is being sold to kids, do you think that those who are selling it . . . get the varied interests they have, get their curiosities, their longings? . . .

Lee: Actually, most of them don't. Some of them do, though, yes. You can take a point of view that, "Gosh, I can learn something from this culture and that would help me do my job better." And whether you're a TV programmer or you're making movies or whatever, if you take that point of view, you will get it. You will understand it. But if you take the other point of view where you say, "I'm just going to do this in a vacuum," then you don't get it.

How does this generation feel about being sold to?

Lee: It's a mixed bag, actually. It's the same thing. 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 you and you have a dialogue going on. And that's of great importance. 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 not going to bother to learn about your culture but we're going to 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.

. . . Do they love great, clever marketing? Of course they do. It's actually a nod of approval from young people if a company gets it right. It's like, "Yes. Good for you. Good for you for figuring it out and doing it right. And, yes, I'll even participate." They'll even participate in it if they're given the opportunity. But if they're treated like, "Those lemmings out there, we've got to give them this message and we've got give it to them a billion times," that is assuming that they're stupid and uninformed. That's one of those things that is an old-school philosophy. It's one of the tenets that we try to move away from. They are so sophisticated. That's not a bad thing. Have a dialogue with them. This is beneficial to you. And it scares some of the companies.

. . . And trendsetters are . . . actually researching what companies are about. Like finding out what type of 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 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.

So how does a company circumvent this incredible sophistication? . . . How can a company . . . get around the fact that kids have seen everything?

Lee: Being honest, I think, is the number one thing we can advise all of our clients to do when it comes to marketing and selling things to teens. Approaching things with honesty and being open and laughing at yourself as a company. You have to just be authentic. This audience really respects authenticity. It doesn't mean that they're going to swallow a mission statement. But they want you to be authentic and they want you to be honest and they want to know about you. It's that philosophy. . . . You don't have to "get around" their sophistication. . . . Have a dialogue and know that it's an ongoing dialogue, and it's not going to be this quick sell of, "Here, buy our stuff," and then go away. It's that you need to commit to a long-term dialogue, and that's how you're going to have long-term success.

. . . We've talked about products like clothing and cosmetics. But I know you go after deeper things when you're talking to kids.What kinds of questions, issues are you trying to find out about the teens that you talk to?

Lee: We ask them questions about their hopes and their dreams, what they feel about the future, about their families. Most kids really do care about what their parents think, or want their inspiration and guidance. There are a lot of misconceptions about that. They do want to do well in school and they do want to make money and be successful and have something that they can be proud of. . . .

Gordon: . . . We always try to put a context to any specific type of information. For example, about politics. "What do you think about this presidential race?" Issues. "How do you feel about your parents, your life?" . . . Really everything around them, so that it's not just them in a vacuum. They're really thinking about spirituality. That's a new thing. . . . And so we ask all those questions. It's important to know that that's almost even more important. And it gives us a sense of the culture, what we call the mood of the culture, as a whole.

So if someone says, "Oh, well, this terrible thing happened and therefore, all teens are angry and they're interested in violence," then we can say, "No, it's not true, because look at how they're interested in spirituality. Look at how they're interested in the environment. Look at what they're actually doing about it." This is all part of how we understand the culture, and also just give respect to that type of information, that there's more going on there than buying or selling.

We've heard the theory from everybody that this generation of kids has been exposed to everything. Nothing shocks them. Therefore, you have to go that much further to capture their imagination. They know about sex. They know about drugs. They know about violence, whether they've lived it themselves or not. Is that true?

Lee: I think they've been exposed to a great deal, and so I look at that as a positive, because they are really educated. Now you can take one stance and say, "Well, because of that, we have to be more extreme and more out there and more aggressive." But I don't think that's the case. I think actually the smarter people are living in the subtleties of, "How do I take this and create a one-to-one relationship and dialogue with them? Let's figure out how to get sophisticated about talking to them in a real way, not an artificial way, without screaming at them about something? And how do we invite their opinions back to our company, and how do we use that?" Because market people are living in the subtleties and the later laggards are saying, "Well, we've just got to be even more violent or even more extreme," and they're again looking at it in a superficial way.

If you had to generalize . . . about what you see out there, both in terms of advertising and media, what percentage of corporation America is subtle, and what percentage are laggards? Are we talking 50/50? Are we talking 80/20?

Lee: I would say about 20 percent of companies and advertising marketers are . . . getting it, and 80 percent are following. It follows the rough estimate of what we call "trendsetters" and "mainstream." It works the same way there, too. It's like the innovator clients and innovator companies are always that much further ahead, and the followers always follow. The people who started working with us five years ago were all early adopter clients, and it took five years for some of the really slow-moving mainstream clients that come to us and work with us. But it's just how that works.

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