How businesses market to American teenagers, and the effect they have together on popular culture.




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Episode credited cast:
Douglas Rushkoff ...
Himself - Correspondent
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Herself (archive footage)
Bob Bibb ...
Herself (archive footage)
Himself (archive footage)
Todd Cunningham ...
Himself (archive footage)
Susanne Daniels ...
Himself (archive footage)
Dee Dee Gordon ...
Himself (archive footage)


Teenagers in America number more than 30 million and command over 150 billion dollars in disposable income. They are exposed to over 3000 advertising messages in an average day. In contrast to adults, teenagers respond to whatever is "cool", as determined by the trend-setters of the moment. This documentary examines how businesses seek the ever-elusive "cool" and use it to sell products to teens. Alas, once corporations find cool, it soon ceases to be so; this means marketers are forever searching for new products and strategies to capture the attention of their target audience. This documentary also looks at how real life and TV life are blurring together, acting like a feedback loop to push popular teen culture towards more violent and sexual behaviors. Written by yortsnave

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27 February 2001 (USA)  »

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User Reviews

19 November 2001 | by (Montreal) – See all my reviews

This one-hour PBS documentary is one of the most effective and scathing examinations of popular culture ever made. The guy who made this movie is a goddamned genius who should win any and every award given out to a TV program of its kind. After viewing "The Merchants of Cool," you will wonder why no one has yet attempted to tie every single one of today's MTV-generation teenagers to chairs and force them to watch this movie. It would be a great service to all of humanity.

"The Merchants of Cool" is about exactly what the title suggests. It chronicles the late 90s surge in the marketing of "cutting-edge" culture to youths in North America. This movie shows you exactly how MTV and their ilk were able to turn teenage rebellion into a profitable industry in corporate America. By the perpetuation of ready made so-called "cutting-edge" musical groups like Limp Bizkit and Blink-182, along with "dick, balls, crap and fart" joke comedians like Tom Green and sexually flaunting pop-star-cum-role-models like Britney Spears, corporate America have managed to turn good ol' Teenage rebellion into big fat dollar signs.... and the kids just keep on buyin'.

The movie sheds insightful light on the process of setting trends. Dozens of youth oriented companies in the U.S. seek out confident, ordinary high school teenagers and sign them to fairly lucrative contracts to endorse, wear, listen to or even just talk about their products in a light that makes the product look like something that the kids just "gotta have" in front of friends and school peers. The thought that the 15-year-old kid sitting next to you at the bus stop next time could be a walking, talking endorsement is truly repulsive.

Even more repulsive is how MTV and Hollywood movie studios have managed to dumb down the level of vulgarity in mainstream culture to the point where it makes being offensive "cute." Essentially, as MTV would have you believe, boys acting like 13-year-olds up until they are in their thirties is not only perfectly acceptable, but damn cool! And 13-year-old girls dressing not unlike Vegas hookers would have dressed 10 years ago, all while flaunting a sexuality that they do not yet understand is not only "cool," but perfectly acceptable in most fashion circles. And of course, the kids will eat this crap up because they are so warmed over by the fact that music, movies and other facets of mainstream culture with this false "cute" offensive edge to it are so readily accessible to them now, that they'll still feel like they are rebelling against their parents, all while unknowingly feeding the wallets of entertainment industry big-wig's.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing of all was the shot in this film of the kids participating in MTV's annual spring break telecast. Here was a group of kids, whose age ranged probably from 14 to their early-20s, grinding and dry humping each other in an orgy of misunderstood sexuality that I have never seen the likes of before. Seeing 14-year-old girls shove their barely covered t**s into the faces and bodies of surrounding males in a giggle some fest of sexual overexertion surely lead me to believe that 80% of 'em don't understand or hold the slightest bit of esteem of their own bodies or sexuality. Girls who grew up with Britney Spears and such do not dress "sexy" because they want to flaunt their sexuality, but because essentially it is what most visible females of this faux-counter culture dress like. Sexuality in that sense, at least for young teenage girls, has become less of a self-discovery and more of a fashion.

This documentary did not stop there, though. It went onto scathe the ever-popular mainstreamization of the "anti-mainstream." In particular, we see acts like Insane Clown Posse and Slipknot schlock up a routine of saying "F**k You" to the establishment and acting as though they were somehow a voice to an underground legion of fans who were all brought together by their music as though they were outcasts of society, shown for what they really were -- rock stars. As a hilarious end-note to the film, we get to see the ICP gang participate in a Professional Wrestling match and are told very matter-of-factly by the narrator that they had very recently signed to an outright major label.

I could go on for hours describing many of the issues covered in this movie, but I'll refrain from doing so and let you seek it out for yourself. If you are someone who rolled your eyes at the inexplicable amount of kids who champion music like Limp Bizkit and films like "Scary Movie," this movie perfectly articulates what has been on the tip of your tongue for the last couple of years. What is most extraordinary about this documentary is how much ground it managed to cover in only one-hour. Quite an amazing feat, if you ask me. If I were the President of the United States, I would make this film mandatory High School viewing.

31 of 36 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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