What are the Merchants of Cool Selling and to Whom? After watching The Merchants of Cool and reading Rushkoff’s articles, I had to think long and hard about this media marketing loop. I have long been aware that pretty much everything we see or read is designed to sell us something: a product, an idea or even a life style. However, I was not aware of the other side of the loop: the push from the audience in reaction to their recognition of the ploys used to get them to buy into the mass market.
Mass marketing is currently where the big bucks are, but there are some very real dangers inherent in this cycle. There is the possibility of damaging the market, damaging the target and damaging our society. I looked at each of these carefully before trying to find some ideas on how to change this. The possibility of damaging the market is shown in the reaction of marketer and marketing firms to rush to identify the changes as fast as they happen, which accelerates that change. In this seemingly endless cycle of identifying what is cool and modifying your products or your marketing strategies based upon what you learn about the target audience keeps lots of marketing people employed, but does it really help the businesses which provide the goods and services sold?
Well, taking Sprite for an example, yes, for a while, but how long does that last? Marketers would have us believe that it goes on forever, because once we form a habit among teens it carries on into adulthood. Well, in the days when we marketed to teens in such a way as they could easily recognize the pitch it used to.
I am not certain that this will be true for this generation of teens. They seem to be reacting with very real anger at being used to sell their friends and themselves goods and services and a lifestyle that have not really thought about and are not sure they invented. This is not new. Thinking people of any age do not generally like to be told what to think. The example which begins Rushkoff’s essay on sneakers shows this is true.
The boy in the example has trouble picking sneakers, not because he is choosing among too many that he likes, but because each one represents and image which may cause him problems or not be what he wants to project. Personal taste is never mentioned. It begs the question does this generation really have anything which is theirs? We have had X and Y, so maybe this is the Zero generation. It has been shown in research that a rich environment increases intelligence, or at least, it increases the scores on tests.
Perhaps it is in sorting through the stimuli and making choices that helps develop the mind. Our environment is currently extremely rich in stimulus and media of all sorts. We have music, are and writing everywhere. Even ads have a creative force behind them. So it is not surprising to discover that this generation of kids became aware that they were being sold what was determined by the marketing firms to be what they liked. While I have and still worry about media literacy, ever since reading things like Rushkoff or even books like Dr.
S. I Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action(1991) I know that this generation of teens is not the easy stationary target of the past. However, are they dodging, because marketers are shooting? Will marketers run them to death? Hidden marketing is not new. I remember hearing that sales at upscale cafes like Starbucks and such increased after Friends began to air. However, phenomena like MTV have taken this hidden marketing so far that it became obvious and offensive so teens began to rebel again.
So the target teens have been constantly shifting their loyalties and running ahead of the hounds. In this process, this artificial state of attention deficit disorder imposed upon them has arrested their development as a part of our culture. These teens have not been given any space in which to develop taste, because they have been part of this vicious marketing cycle. While teens are in the process of making up their minds, the marketers are selling them what they are considering. When the teens realize this they move on to something else, but are angered because they believe that maybe these ideas were sold to them and were not theirs at all.
And every times they claim something as theirs, the marketers spring into action and use it to sell their products and services. The example in the last part of The Merchants of Cool pointed out that even the rage rock has been captured by marketers, lured by the big bucks and gobbled up by the machine. One of my friends told me once that his mother was the reason he took up smoking, because that and drugs were pretty much all she banned from the house.
He said it was not his mother’s fault, because she was just being honest and letting her children make their own choices. She shared some questionable magazines with them and discussed them and some videos. She brought in alcohol, allowed him and his sister to try it, and even get drunk at home. They were never forbidden beer so it held no allure. When he wanted to dye his hair blue, she helped him do it.
The result was that the only ways that he and his sister could rebel were not safe. They both tried smoking and it was very difficult to quit later when they realized their foolishness. My friend believes his mother did a great job by being honest, but he thinks that maybe he will make some silly rules for his kids so they have some safer ways to rebel. This story illustrates the opposite of the current trend. Teens are not being given time or space to form their own opinions or create their own culture, and with being constantly fed invented “teen culture” they are seeing less and less of the culture of their parents in the media.
So this generation is facing a huge identity crisis either now or later. This may present a real problem for our culture in the future, because these teens will become adults and will be the leaders of the future. How do we expect them to lead if we have trained them to follow?
Worse, if we alienate this generation totally and rob them of their identity, then what problems will this cause in the future? People are resilient, and kids are more-so, so I expect that they will recover from this assault, but what can we do to help and what can we do to change this cycle? We are seeing a homogenization of our society that may not be healthy, and I think that has to be studies. We think of ourselves as staunch individualists, and more and more we align in groups.
Politicians sell party lines. Companies sell brands. Movies and TV sell life styles. Even the Internet, while containing immense pockets of niche products, groups and businesses, still seems to be aligning under a finite number of brands. Will rampant commercial marketing eventually eliminate individuality altogether? I think these ideas are worthy of much more attention, because I really believe diversity is healthy. We already are facing problems of overpopulation and planetary environmental damage as a result of commercialization of our society. The growth marketing society has to face these problems and realize that change must come.
This cycle of mass marketing seeks to make too many homogenous groups for the sake of profit. However, the bulk of this profit is going to the marketers, and the target teens keep moving out of range. In a sense, the snake is eating its own tail. These teens which the marketers seek to control are the same people on which businesses will depend in the future for innovation in order to stay competitive. Brainwashing destroys creativity, which may be why teens rebel at this attempt to control them.
I have always believed in moderation, and I think this has to be applied to marketing. I believe that this will happen as soon as the businesses who pay these marketers get wise to the strategy that is making marketers so popular. They will eventually have to get back to the business of making good products and I think investing in these teens, and Rushkoff suggests in The Pursuit of Cool is one strategy they need to try. References Hayakawa, Dr. S. I., 1991, Language in Thought and Action, Harcourt; 5 edition Rushkoff, Douglas, 2008,The Merchants of Cool, Frontline, http: //www. pbs. org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/view/ Which of These Sneakers is Me?
How Marketers Outsmart Our Media-Saavy Children http: //www. rushkoff. com/essay/sneakers. html The Pursuit of Cool: Introduction to Anti-Hyper-Consumerism, http: //www. rushkoff. com/essay/sportswearinternational. html