CASHING IN ON COOL:How Corporations Exploit Kids And How We Can Stop It
To be cool is often crucial to the teenage image of self. To avoid being branded “a looser”, you must know
which trends and fads are in. Trends like baggy pants and Sprite soft-drinks. But what most teenagers don’t
know is where these trends come from. Yes, how did these trends become so linked to self-esteem that
teenagers simply can’t live without them? How did the taste of cool become so hot? According to the PBS
Frontline program “The Merchants of Cool” by Douglas Rushkoff, advertisers have become the anthropologists
of capitalist culture. These "cool hunters" research what the coolest kids eat, wear and talk about, and
then use that information to design products which they sell right back to the same kids. Millions of kids
with billions of bucks.
In 2000, America's 32 million teens spent 150 billion dollars on goods that, for the most part, are
generationally engineered. Brian Graden, a television programming executive explains: "I think one of the
great things about this information age is, with so many channels, you can say my business is 12 to 15, or
my business is 21 to 24. As a result, you have the most marketed-to group of teens and young adults ever in
the history of the world."
A typical American teenager will process over hundreds of discrete advertisements in a single day, and
millions by the time he or she is 18. Mamie Rheingold writes in "Whole Earth magazine" that MTV produces
hip-hop concerts where popular rap artist perform for free because MTV will showcase videos that promote the
artist's CDs. Meanwhile, large advertisements for Sprite, an MTV sponsor, are displayed in the background of
the telecast concert... It is a perpetuating cycle, and we as teenagers are the instigators. We are involved
in a symbiotic relationship with consumerism and media that shapes our opinions and influences our buying
decisions--whether or not we are aware of that influence.
The culture of cool is actually not a real culture. It's a pseudo-culture. It's a culture created in corporate
advertising offices for the sole purpose of increased consumerism. The corporations cool hunters seek
teenagers out, hip teenage culture trends that may have arisen spontaneously on the streets, for the sole
purpose of turning these folk expressions into profit. Thanks to this trend, Sprite and hip-hop are today
Hip-hop, which began as a folk culture amongst blacks, is now in cahoots with the most popular and profitable
youth drink in the world. Thanks to the merchants of cool. Today five mega-companies are responsible for
selling most all of youth culture. These companies are the real merchants of cool taste: Rupert Murdoch's
Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner.
Think of it this way: This is, if you will, the new "colonialism." The minds and the hearts of today's
teenagers are the Asia and the Africa of the past colonial wars. These few media conglomerates--who own
most of the film studios, TV networks and TV stations, and most of the cable channels--have colonized both
the subjective and objective realty of today's teens.
The merchants of cool combat this criticism by arguing that they are only reflecting the real world.
The media is just a mirror. A mirror of cool. But is that really so? Douglas Rushkoff cites the example
of spring break. "For the past fifteen years, MTV has packaged spring break into a staged television
performance, and then repackaged it through the year on show after show...Kids are invited to participate
in sexual contest on stage or are followed by MTV cameras through their week of debauchery. Sure, some
kids have always acted wild, but never have these antics been so celebrated on TV. Who is mirroring whom?"
Currently there are two popular, media-created characters that are sold to teens: the "mook" and the
"midriff". Neither the mook nor the midriff really exist. They are both creations designed to capitalize
on teens. Who are they? The mook is the perpetually adolescent male. He is loud, obnoxious, and indulges
in less- than-honorable male feats. He is on MTV, the Tom Green Show, South Park, and on The Man Show. He
is Howard Stern himself.
Britney Spears is the archetypal midriff. She is incarnated in millions of 13 year old girls flaunting
their sexuality without really understanding it. The midriff message: your body is your best asset;
your body is cool, it sells.
The merchants of cool have created a very profitable feedback loop: the media watches kids and then
sells an extreme image of themselves back to them. Millions of teenagers then aspire to emulate that
distorted image of themselves.
In his documentary, Douglas Ruskoff asks: is there a way to escape this feedback loop?
The Merchants of Cool is a film about the colonization of the interior landscape, of our psyche, of our
culture, and our art. It's a film about the pollution of our internal environment. In the name of freedom
of expression and profit, this colonization and pollution is destroying the finer fabric of the ecology
of the human mind and soul. Is there a way to stop it? Yes, I think there is. But not without radical
changes in our business and political culture. A new breed of activists --culture jammers -- have started
doing just that. They are taking legal action to open up the airwaves. According to Adbusters magazine
(www.adbusters.org), they want the right to practice social marketing; to use the public airwaves -- not
only to sell products and corporate images -- but to sell ideas, stir public debate and empower people to
set their own agendas.
"Arguing for fundamental social change on commercial TV may be our last great hope of social engineering
ourselves out of the economic, ecological and psychological mess we're in," claim the Adbusters
Personal lifestyle and value changes are also necessary. But without economic and political change, we
cannot expect to check the negative influences of the mass media. Here are two suggestions for long term
1. The control of the mass media must be turned away from corporate shareholders and over to the people;
to the hands of those who produce art, music and journalism, and to those who want to receive
information and cultural experiences. Commerce must not be allowed to colonize the cultural landscape.
Culture is not just a sales-product. Culture is a process, a way of being, a state of mind, and a set of
collective expressions. In order to have freedom of expression, our culture must be free from the
colonization of commerce.
2. To ban advertising altogether is not necessary. Instead we can limit advertising to its fundamental
function: to educate and inform us about new products and ideas--nothing else. In addition, advertisers
must be required to live up to high ethical standards. What we will loose in creative advertising through
these measures, we will gain in creative art and culture. After all, the function of commerce is no to
exploit and enslave people? The function of our economy is to enable people to live enriching and free
lives. The above suggestions are sweeping in scope and, of course, not very favorable to the corporate
media. Nor to capitalism as we know it.
Indeed, if implemented, the traffickers of teenage trends would no longer be able to cash in on cool.
Let's start this transformation by changing public opinion. Let's encourage and join kids and teenagers
in becoming adbusters and culture jammers. Let's turn off commercial TV and radio and tune in to PBS,
NPR and Pacifica Radio. Or, even better, we can start our own media. Many independent media activists
are doing just that--launching their own media outlets and thus rewriting the rules of journalism. And,
instead of watching TV, we can read, write, paint, meditate, sing, run and play. Over time, we will make
the merchants of cool-- you guessed it!--totally uncool.
Roar Bjonnes is a freelance writer, the editor of Prout Journal, a contributing editor of New Renaissance
(www.ru.org), and has published numerous articles in magazines and newspapers in Europe and the United States.
Volume 9, No. 2, Summer 2002 [8/23/2002]