Frontline: Merchants of Cool

We were introduced to this episode of Frontline the other night in class about corporate America’s interest in marketing to teenagers. It was a fascinating study in market research, because teen money is spent on what is deemed “cool” and what is deemed “cool” is made “uncool” by virtue of it being marketed. If marketing is able to find cool it kills it by marketing it. An elusive game of cat ensues.

It was jarring to see how ruthless the marketing mentality is towards teenagers. One of them said that they are like Africa in the colonial periods of Western history—a land to be divided, conquered and totally exploited. What is most fascinating is how teens are constantly resistant to marketing strategies in an effort to assert their identity as being independent from the status quo. Nevertheless, they usually are on the loosing side of a very intense battle, and the strategy is very simple: affirm the attitude that thinks “everyone sucks except for us” and you will really represent that if you buy such and such. In true ironic fashion, the veneer of individualistic independence produces a heard mentality of undue proportions.

The profile of MTV was especially interesting. Much of their success came in the 1990s which generated huge profits off of inexpensive programming. It was a teen marketer’s dream in that the entire format was a constant advertisement for “youth culture” that was all but irresistible. It was not until the forces of cool discovered that it was a farce to make money and MTV found itself floundering in the early 2000s.

Every school and parent should show this to their kids, if not then for their own benefit.


6 thoughts on “Frontline: Merchants of Cool

  1. Scott says:

    I’m a teacher and I show this episode to my classes every year. It’s very interesting to watch the kids watch it. Juniors and seniors tend to get it while sophomores and freshmen almost always say that they are the exceptions to the rule and don’t participate in any trends. As a parent also I am committed to making my kids intelligent about the fact that nearly all messages are marketing and that while you can’t avoid it, at least knowing it’s out there makes you a smarter consumer.

  2. This is the video that spawned the emergent movement.

    Generally speaking, those who claim not to be influenced by marketing are the most susceptible. Most people think of marketing as broadcast advertising (much of which is inane and unpersuasive). But that’s a small (and shrinking) portion of where companies spend their marketing dollars.

    Consider that the majority of what you read in the papers, watch on the news, or hear on NPR is based on a story idea planted by a public relations professional.

    Or consider the Aldi case study. Here is a store that pretends to spend nothing on marketing. But consider this.

    -Their color scheme heavy on blue (suggesting dependability and loyalty) and gray (suggesting practicality and steadfastness). Not unlike Walmart, but quite unlike Target.

    -Instead of an advertising blitz, Aldi (like Trader Joes) works through local media to introduce themselves to new markets. Almost every Aldi shopper knows the (pr crafted) back story about how Aldi is based on a super-efficient management system crafted by German engineering.

    -Aldi bends over backward to communicate value. What is the real ROI on a system that requires you to rent a cart for 25 cents? It’s probably a break even proposition, but it makes it seem like they’re doing everything to shave costs from the moment you walk into the store.

    -Ditto for only accepting cash, which has a host of benefits, not least of which allowing them to profit from an in-store ATM. The real value, however, is in the word of mouth they get from such a disruptive model. “Aldi is so concerned with value, they won’t even let you use a credit card!”

    -They leverage loss-leader items in such a dramatic way as to draw you in the store (29 cent avocados!!!!) and get you talking about the store (29 cent avocados!!!!).

    -Oh, and if you have to stop and get not only cash, but quarters as well, you are going to spend more at the store to make sure its worth the fuss.

    And who would be the target of such a sophisticated non-marketing marketing campaign? Well, who do we know that loves Aldi, and is eager to shout it from the rooftops?

  3. So you are saying Mark Darling is an Emergent?

    Postmodernity actually has a lot to say about consumerism. Some of its advocates like to think it is virtuous by making the claim that all truth-claims are power grabs, and in this case, money-grabs. To a large degree I think they are correct. There is an angle behind everything. The issue is whether or not it is honest about it, and that is what is valued in postmodern discussion.

    Frankly, I have no idea how Aldi has an appeal, but I shop at Kowalski’s.

  4. Aldi has an appeal when they have red peppers for a nickel, and they’re healthy line of food is pretty decent. But generallly, you get what you pay for.

  5. Elton says:

    Marketing to teenagers/college students is a bonanza because they will believe anything that reinforces their identity – young is hip, old is uncool/conservative, don’t believe your teachers/parents, think for yourself, etc. They have the capacity to begin thinking for themselves but without the wisdom to trust the right confidents or having the life experience for balance.

    I have not seen this piece but watched MTV during college with Puck terrorizing his house mates during college. I always felt MTV was about promotion of self-indulgence for Gen X/Y’ers who had more money then most families in the 3rd world.

    It’s also ironic to me that Kurt Loder became somewhat of a libertarian.

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