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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

The Good Old Days (Part 3)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

While it didn't generate a lot of discussion, this post will always be one of the highlights of Not Prince Hamlet, because its subject (author, documentarian, and media critic Douglas Rushkoff) actually posted a comment.

The post was simply a heads-up about a re-broadcasting of Rushkoff's second Frontline documentary, "The Persuaders." I've watched it three times.

Before there was "The Persuaders," though, Rushkoff was a Consulting Producer and Correspondent for "The Merchants of Cool" for Frontline. This one-hour documentary about corporate marketing to teenagers was actually my introduction to Rushkoff's work. One of the professors at the seminary I attended made it required viewing for her students.

"Merchants . . ." range is really dizzying. Since it's a documentary, it's tempting to say that the film "exposes" the sketchy practices of teen marketers and that it "reveals" the effects that the ubiquity of advertising messages has on teenagers. But the merchants of cool themselves, the marketing executives and the ethnographers who are mapping teen culture for advertisers' benefit, aren't doing anything they're ashamed of. There's no "exposing"anything when the subject boasts about their business.

The teenagers featured in "Merchants . . ." aren't blind to what's going on, though. There's no revelation here, either, because these young people are fully aware of the give-and-take involved in marketing and consumption. They know full well that the Nike's and MTV's of the world covet their attention, and they're more than willing to give it--as long as they get something in return: cool.

Cool is a currency that drives teen culture. Which is why the film takes the approach it does in following corporate advertisers in their quest to discover cool (called--with a straight face--"cool hunting") and then sell it to a mass market. But, as Rushkoff notes very early on, the problem with cool hunting is that it kills what it finds. Once advertisers find something cool and successfully hock it to the masses, it's no longer cool. So cool hunting is always on the prowl for the next trend to package and sell.

The effect of all of this on teenagers is the real thrust of "Merchants . . ." to my mind, and, as far as that effect goes, the film suggests rather than explains. There are loads of stats: today's teenager (today being 2001) is exposed to 3,000 discreet advertising messages in a single day; in 2000 teens spent more than a $100,000,000,000 themselves; 75% of teenagers have a tv in their room; they spend an average of two hours a day online.

But what kind of teenager is this producing? That's the important question. What does it do to teenagers, this constant stream of marketing messages? When marketers spend billions and billions of dollars each year studying teen culture and strategizing how to subvert the average teen's ability to make good consumer decisions, what is the effect on those teens?

I have some suggested answers myself, and I have some definite thoughts about counteracting forces in the lives of teenagers: families, churches, communities. But for now, let me simply recommend "The Merchants of Cool" to your attention. You can watch it free online here.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:59 AM

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