Livin the American Dream

This week was all about “cool”. On Monday, we watched the “Merchants of Cool” PBS video. I think I can sum up this experience by the comment Irene made to me as we were leaving class after the video. She gave me a blank stare and said “I want a lobotomy after watching that video”. So true, Irene.

It certainly is upsetting to know the inside story about how merchandisers try to convince teens to buy their “cool” products. The video explored how big corportations from MTV, Madison Avenue, to Hollywood try to enter the complex world of buying and selling cool. Teenagers hold the most disposable income among any group of Americans. Teens spend over $100 billion a year! Teens receive lots of “guilt money”: money that their parents give them instead of their time. With all this money floating around, merchandisers try their hardest to capitalize on this teeming teen market. Teens are constantly exposed to marketing messages and being told what’s “cool”.

Most of the video was about market research and how it is conducted. “Culture spies” such as those who work for the Look Look website try to find the 20% of teens who are the trendsetters that influence the other 80% of those trying to look “cool”. “Cool” is difficult to keep track of — once trends become popular, they are no longer cool. Those conducting market research try to understand teens are customers, not people. A feedback loop exists as a result of market research: the media observes kids and sells that image of themselves back to them.

It was also interesting to see how the media creates a teen culture of “mooks” and “midriffs”. This video was made in 2000, when I was 13 years old – exactly the age the media targets to buy their products. I am a product of the Britney Spears generation. I didn’t realize until watching this video what a warped sense of sexuality and what it means to be a woman teen idols like Britney Spears had on me and other girls my age. Like the girls in the video, I would watch Britney Spears’ music videos and her strip teases on the MTV Video Music Awards, confused about why my body didn’t look like hers. That’s what I thought being “sexy” meant – a dangerous notion for girls who have just started going through puberty. Also seeing how groups like Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse begin as a part of underground culture and end up on the mainstream stage of TRL is a testimony to the power of the market.

We continued “The Coolhunt” with Gladwell’s article on Wednesday. Gladwell discussed the art of looking for what’s “cool” and how to sell this image back to teens. This is called diffusion research: the study of how ideas and innovations spread. It is a sort of anthropological study of youth. Gladwell discovered that the margins of teen culture dictate what’s cool to those in the mainstream. This adds to the cyclical nature of trends. What once starts out as “retro” becomes mainstream, and once it becomes mainstream, it becomes obsolete. I have tons of left-over body glitter from the early 2000s to prove that point.

The article pointed out three “cool” rules:

1. The act of discovering what’s cool is what causes cool to move on.

2. Cool cannot be manufactured.

3. Cool can only be observed by those who are cool themselves.

Trends spread from the adventurous innovators to early adopters, then to the early majority, next to the late majority, and then finally to the most traditional laggards. The article explored how things get “cool”. This process is often inexplicable. For example, Tommy Hilfiger, a white preppy designer from the WASPy Connecticut has become central to the hip hop identity. One rapper wore a Tommy jacket on his album cover, creating a Tommy craze among the hip hop community.  Here’s a picture of rapper “Lil John” (complete with Pimp Cup) and Tommy Hilfiger himself at a Tommy Hilfiger 20 year anniversary party.

Overall, this week was eye-opening and kind of upsetting. The media really gets me aggravated. I think the root of so many problems in our culture (the crumbling of the family, the use of drugs and alcohol, the increase in premarital sex, and oh so many more issues) can be traced back to the media and what they try  to tell kids is “cool”. I wish that there were more positive role models for kids. If they are going to spend their money, at least they could be spending it on positive things, not tickets to sleazy teen movies and slutty Forever 21 clothes. But, teens are a big market, with a LOT of money. I guess corporations are just…doing their job. Yeesh.


One Response to “Looking for Cool”

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