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
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?
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
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
... 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
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 ...
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. ...
more on media analyst Douglas Rushkoff
and his writings.
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