Frontline: Season 19, Episode 5

The Merchants of Cool (27 Feb. 2001)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary
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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:
Shaggy 2 Dope ...
Herself (archive footage)
Bob Bibb ...
Herself (archive footage)
Himself (archive footage)
Todd Cunningham ...
Himself (archive footage)
Susanne Daniels ...
Himself (archive footage)
Dee Dee Gordon ...


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

Enough to give a responsible parent nightmares!
15 November 2011 | by (Bradenton, Florida) – See all my reviews

This is an exceptional documentary about the marketing efforts that are specifically focused at our teens. And, as a parent of a teenage daughter, it sure was frightening--though as a recently retired high school teacher, none of of the content of "The Merchants of Cool" came as a major surprise.

This film consists of various interviews with folks who market towards teens. You see focus groups, marketing execs, internet entrepreneurs and media executives touting the benefits (at least the financial ones) of their efforts. In addition, there are a wide variety of clips and interviews with teens. Together, they all do a very good job of explaining the story and creating a strong emotional impact on the viewer.

What surprised me about this film is that almost none of the participants seemed to feel the slightest responsibility for the possible negative impact on our kids. Extremely sexually-oriented television and films is now the norm--all in the name of marketing dollars. What was also troubling was the show's discussion of 'the mook'--making it seem funny or cool to be gross and excruciatingly stupid. So, according to the film, guys are being encouraged to be masochistic idiots and girls to become tramps. Again, not huge surprises, but shocking to watch nevertheless.

One of the few surprises of the film was its discussion of groups who pay folks to go online and pose as regular teens. There job, however, is pretty insidious--as they talk about how great a product or TV show or celebrity is in order to promote these things! I have noticed some of this over the years (particularly fake websites that pretend to give unbiased reviews of products) but I didn't realize the full extent of the problem.

All in all, a sad film. They state that the media's efforts to mass-market to kids all appeal to 'celebrating the worst in us'. And, as you watch the case of Barbara (a 13 year-old who appears about 17 and VERY sexually eager) you can't help but feel sorry for these kids and wonder what our future will be. I sure know it won't be a smarter future!

By the way, if you are curious, check out the Urban Dictionary's definition of a 'mook'. Apparently the term was first used in this documentary AND the definition makes for enjoyable reading.

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