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Connecting the Dots

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Discussion Starters and Topics


Reflections for Educators


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"The paradox of "cool hunting" is that it kills what it finds."
-Douglas Rushkoff

What are the implications of cool hunting for the development of new ideas, new music, new art forms, etc.?

"In much the same way that the British Empire tried to take over Africa and profit from its wealth, corporations look at [teens] like this massive empire they are colonizingäAnd their weapons are films, music, books, CDs, Internet access, clothing, amusement parks, sports teams."
-Robert McChesney

Are "cool hunters" and those who use the information they supply similar to colonial powers? Do they exploit teens or are they providing desired benefits and services?

"They don't call it "human" research or "people" research, they call it "market" research."
- Douglas Rushkoff

Did the marketers in "The Merchants of Cool" get it right? Do they really know you? If MTV was really based on understanding you as a person, what would it look like?

"The MTV machine doesn't listen to the young so it can make the young happieräThe MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell."
- Mark Crispin Miller

Are marketers concerned with the well-being of the consumer? Do they answer to consumers? If not, who do they answer to? Is marketing to teens different from marketing to adults?

"Quite simply, every company with a powerful brand is attempting to develop a relationship with consumers that resonates so completely with their sense of self that they will aspire, or at least consent, to be serfs under these feudal brandlords."
- Naomi Klein*

Has seeing "The Merchants of Cool" led you to think about how you express your identity? What questions do you have?
*This quote does not appear in the film, but is related to its content.


Context: People / Society

  • Like author Naomi Klein (see "Resources"), "The Merchants of Cool" argues that advertising has changed from sponsoring culture to becoming culture (e.g., Sprite sponsoring a concert as opposed to Sprite becoming a component of hip hop culture). What's the difference? What happens to culture when its purpose is sales rather than expression?
  • Distinguished scholar George Gerbner has asserted that those who control a society's stories have the power to shape that society's values. Who has control over your stories? Who do you want to have that control? Does who tells a story matter? Does MTV give an accurate voice to your stories? How does commercial control (i.e., control by those who are primarily interested in selling things) of media influence the kind of stories our society hears?
  • Various social scientists devote their careers to helping us understand people who are different from us. For example, anthropologists study the structures and customs of a society or community. Ethnographers are anthropologists who focus on looking at the impact of culture on people's lives. Are there parallels between "cool hunters" and anthropologists? Between market researchers and ethnographers? Why might adults see teen society or culture as so different or closed that they need researchers to tell them what your life is really like?
  • Correspondent Douglas Rushkoff argues that "rage rock" is an attempt to break the hold of marketers on teen culture ("I dare you to put this in the mall.") Do you agree, or are there other reasons behind the popularity of music celebrating anger or hate? Does "cool hunting" make increasingly destructive expressions inevitable, or are there other ways to break the marketing "feedback loop" (e.g., the recent protests of the World Trade Organization in Seattle and elsewhere)?
  • In the program, several market researchers claim that parents contribute to the prominence of the teen market by giving them "guilt" money. Do you agree? What techniques might you use to gather evidence to prove or disprove their assertion? Besides parents, where else might teens be getting the money they spend? Do you think the marketers' picture of parents is true for all families? If not, which families are being left out of their picture and why?

Concepts: Marketing Techniques
  • If you were training a "cool hunter" to come into your school, what would you train them to look for? Do "cool hunters" engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy by giving the teens they select money, information, and attention (which extend their influence)?
  • Recently, political leaders have objected to filmmakers showing "R" rated films to teens under age 17 in order to find out what would appeal to them. Is it okay to interview teens without parents present or without parental consent? Would your answer to that question change if the teen was alone with interviewers in their bedroom or in a focus group with other teens? Would your answer change depending on the purpose of the focus group (i.e., which product will be sold using the information gathered)?
  • "The Merchants of Cool" describes the practice of "under-the-radar" marketing, including hiring teens to log-on to chat rooms to talk up bands and recruiting college freshman to throw campus parties where they distribute marketing materials. Ironically, marketers have justified "stealth" marketing as necessary because teens have become more media savvy. Do you think that "stealth" techniques are ethical? If a marketer offered you money to log-on to chat rooms or throw a party, would you? When you are tuned in to a concert (like the hip hop concert feature in the program), or reading a message in a chat room, how important is it to know whether or not it is a commercial? Can you identify the "storytellers" behind the media you consume most often?
  • As "The Merchants of Cool" shows, Sprite's success with the youth culture was created, in part, by intertwining the marketing of Sprite with Viacom's interests in broadcasting and other media. Look at how a new film or the latest release from a popular band are promoted. Are there links between appearances or performances by stars and the producers, sponsors, and broadcasters of those shows? If so, does discovering those links influence your opinion of the film or the artist? Why or why not?

Content: Analyzing Media
  • Does the restrictive structure of MTV, which limits exposure to a small percentage of artists who have significant corporate backing, mean that someone else is really making music choices for us? Is this kind of narrow control of music inevitable? Contrast the experience of a group like Limp Bizkit, which had corporate backing, to the careers of artists who have remained independent, like Ani DiFranco.
  • Is the "mook" (the stereotypically crude, adolescent male) real, or just a media construction? How about the "midriff" (the girl as sex symbol)? Do you know any "mooks" or "midriffs"? Do you think you or your friends are influenced by the MTV standard of "cool"? If so, how? Are there ways to be "cool" without copying media? How do the "mook" and "midriff" stereotypes relate to the corporate interests of the media outlets that perpetuate them (in other words, why these particular stereotypes and not some other stereotype)?
  • Many media observers have claimed that programs like Beverly Hills 90210 or Dawson's Creek are popular because they are reflective of teen life. In what ways are shows like 90210 and Dawson's Creek reflective of how teenagers really live and in what ways are they distortions? Do these shows mirror the way you live?
  • Because they do so much research, media makers think they know a lot about you. Consider whether you agree with the following assertions from "The Merchants of Cool": "Sex is a part of teens lives, so it better be in their media, too." "No teenager is going to be satisfied with a PG-13 rated horror film. They want to see blood and guts. That's what they want to do."

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