The Merchants of Cool

The Merchants of Cool (2001): Barak Goodman; Douglas Rushkoff, Christina Aguilera, Greg Berlanti

By Liz Miller and Jenna Levandowski

November 19, 2015

Teens are the most studied generation by advertisers in American history, their purchasing power make them a targeted audience that is too powerful to be ignored by advertising companies. Merchants of Cool explores how powerful brands such as Sprite and MTV market for the teenage demographic. In 2000, this group of consumers spent one hundred billion themselves and pushed their parents to spend an additional fifty billion on products. Teens “have more money and more say over how they will spend it than ever before” making them a highly popular targeted group for advertisers.

The documentary highlights that in this consumer culture, teens live within “a world made of marketing”, the average teen will view at least 3,000 discreet ads in a day and ten million by the time they reach eighteen. Because they are so immersed into a world dominated by advertisements they have become overwhelmed by the amount of commercial messages that encompass their everyday lives. The industry targeting teens must do so creatively since this group of consumers makes an effort to reject mass media and advertising messages because they contradict with what teens believe is “cool”. By the time an industry picks up on what teenagers think is cool and airs an advertisement the trend either has already passed onto something else or by publicizing the fad the industry creates the trend’s demise. This only enforces how much research and subtle planning must go into creating a market that is aiming to attract teens.

Two of the most notable companies that have succeeded in attracting teenagers are Sprint and MTV. Through the act of cool hunting, finding out what is cool before it’s attempted to be utilized by the mainstream media; Sprite found that by appealing to the lives of teens rather than focusing on the product would increase their sales over other soft drinks. Sprite adapted a unique selling proposition which centered on the concept that the brand understood teen culture. In order to prosper in the teen market, a company will “have to think what they think”. MTV also succeeded in attracting this audience by creating a channel that was entirely an advertisement. In order to sell teen culture through products MTV advisors would conduct case studies and even go into a typical teen’s home to learn about the way they think and what they believe is cool.

Both MTV and Sprite could attribute their success from the adaptation of permission marking. “Permission marketing has led to the rethinking of the relationships between advertiser and consumer, one in which they act like partners, sharing information for mutual benefit.” (Baran 309). Through the psychographic segmentation of the teen market these companies were able to succeed by combining products and people together.

The relationship between the advertiser and consumer is reciprocal although it is often unclear if it is the media advertising to teenagers what is cool or teenagers’ presenting what is cool and selling to the advertisers. “Real life and TV have become blurred”, the fact that we are currently living in a media bubble is only reinforced by the relationship that has come out of advertising targeting teen culture. The non-traditional ambient advertising that is emerging to seem less intrusive makes it difficult for our current society to ever differentiate between ads and real life.

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