“You Said to Be Cool, But I’m Already Coolest”: Who Are the Real ‘Merchants of Cool?’

“Teens are the most studied generation in history” (00.39) by advertisers. Merchants of Cool is a PBS documentary film that explores the various ways in which brands study these teens in order to successfully market their product. This documentary argues that teens are living in world made of marketing specifically for them. With that being said, the film makes the claim that “the average teen will view at least 3,000 discreet ads in a day and ten million by the time they reach eighteen” (04:18). These numbers directly depict the influence the media has, especially with younger viewers, and the marketing power that comes with it.

How are companies in a dynamic capitalist society competing to win the favor of the younger generation; or more specifically, how are companies able to pinpoint what youths consider to be “cool” — and therefore maximize their profit — in a culture that is becoming increasingly fragmented, or divided in terms of specific interests and media preferences (Baran 2014, p. 336)?  An attempt at a solution that Merchants of Cool shows are companies’ utilization of coolhunters: experts whose job it is to conduct field research and ultimately anticipate what it is youths will think is cool or the Next Big Thing (6:30).  One of these coolhunters shown in the documentary, DeeDee Gordon, explains that trendsetters among teens will “influence what all the other kids do,” and that for the best results, she must find “the twenty-percent that will influence the eighty-percent” (6:45).  If coolhunters are able to successfully pinpoint upcoming trends, their clients can utilize these trends in their products or advertising campaigns, which will ultimately lead to maximum profit — clients’ main goal.

For example, the people behind Sprite’s advertising, before anyone else, realized that teenagers were catching on to their advertising tactics: “What we found by talking to teens is that they had seen so much advertising that they were on overload, and became very cynical about that traditional approach to advertising” (10:30). Because teens make up such a huge portion of the consumers targeted by Sprite and other ad companies, Sprite fought back with “anti-advertising,” or advertisements that directly made fun of traditional styles of advertising. Baran et. al. discusses what is called the “unique selling proposition,” which is defined in our book as “highlighting the aspect of a product that sets it apart from other brands in the same product category” (Baran 296). While this definition primarily applies to products with unique aspects, it can also be applied to a process, like advertising. Sprite took their product, which has many competitors in the same industry, and made it unique by advertising in an entirely different way. Teens appreciated the honesty with which they criticized advertising, and made Sprite a product that they ultimately may have considered “cool.”

Many may consider the targeting of teens by advertisers upsetting, as does one of the main documentarians in the movie: “The thing we called ‘youth culture’ wasn’t something that was just being sold to us, it was something that came from us, an act of expression, not just of consumption” (14:30). Rather than creating their own culture, teens have let the media and advertisers determine how they spend their time and their money. Some, however, have rebelled against this trend, completely inventing their own form of anti-society expression. An example given in this documentary are the “Juggalos,” who are all fans of a new genre of music called rap-metal. These fans of the rap-metal band “Insane Clown Posse” are mostly young men who feel disenfranchised by society telling them what to do. “To hell with society,” one young fans says, “they control what goes on in our bedrooms, what we dress like, what our hair color is, why let them control it here?” (44:00). Expression and consumption can often become confused with each other in this day and age; expression, however, is original, while consumption is pre-created and encouraged.

Social cognitive theory, according to Baran, argues that people model behaviors they see. Thus, this modeling happens in two ways. The first one is through imitation. That is, individuals are directly replicating the behavior that is being observed. On the other hand, identification – the second form of modeling – is a special form of imitation in which individuals do not directly copy what is being watched, instead they react in a more generalized way. (Baran 332) Throughout the PBS film, we learn how teenagers partake in this behavior. With that being said, we learn how the media and the teenage population are in a two-way relationship. The teens feed off of what is shown on television and other media platforms, while the media is constantly trying to find what “cool” is in order to keep their viewers ‘hooked’. As the narrator says: “Welcome to the machine” (52.20).

This two-way relationship is called a feedback loop, which the narrator describes as a phenomenon where “the media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves, then kids watch those images and aspire to be like [what they see] in their TV set — and the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them and so on” (42:15).  If media are constantly creating new images of cool that serve as models for youths, can it truly be determined that youths themselves determine what is cool?  This area gets grayer and grayer with every passing second.

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