Frontline (1983– )
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The Merchants of Cool 

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


Barak Goodman


Rachel Dretzin


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Episode credited cast:
Douglas Rushkoff Douglas Rushkoff ... Himself - Correspondent
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Christina Aguilera ... Herself (archive footage)
Greg Berlanti ... Himself
Bob Bibb Bob Bibb ... Himself
Jessica Biel ... Herself (archive footage)
Adam Carolla ... Himself (archive footage)
Todd Cunningham Todd Cunningham ... Himself
Carson Daly ... Himself (archive footage)
Susanne Daniels ... Herself
Fred Durst ... Himself (archive footage)
Malcolm Gladwell ... Himself
Lewis Goldstein ... Himself
Dee Dee Gordon Dee Dee Gordon ... Himself
Brian Graden ... Himself
Tom Green ... 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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Release Date:

27 February 2001 (USA) See more »

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Did You Know?


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User Reviews

Documentary on the Marketing of Pop Culture to Kids Whose Only Aim is Profit at the Price of Degrading Standards
4 November 2009 | by classicalsteveSee all my reviews

When questioned about the low quality of much of art and entertainment in the United States (the majority of which is targeted to the 14-to-25-year-old crowd), the media conglomerates such as MTV, Viacom, FOX, and the other networks will respond simply that they are just providing what the young people want to consume, no different than buying a bicycle or a car. If middle-aged men throwing themselves into pools of excrement is what these teens and early twenty-somethings regard as entertainment, than the likes of MTV will provide it. But if they are given nothing other than junk entertainment, how can kids possibly demand something of higher quality? The correspondent suggests that if all the media is being driven by profit-hungry corporations, teens become nothing more than consumers with nothing that they can call their own. If all that matters in art and entertainment is appealing to the lowest common denominator purely for profit, then true teen expression will cease to exist, which is possibly the main point of PBS Frontline's "The Merchants of Cool".

According to "The Merchants of Cool", music, television programs, and movies are rarely made by singular artists who have a vision. They are contrived packaged products assembled by committees in board rooms at the behest of the large media corporations. They do surveys on kids, endlessly looking for the "typical" American teenager, as if there could be such a thing in a country as diverse as the United States. They want to know what music he or she listens to, what they eat, what they wear, what interests them, where they go, what do they do for fun, and what do they like to watch. These items are put together like a laundry list and sent back to the studios where producers put together programming based on these results. But it begs the question: is this really art? Or simply marketing, not unlike a political campaign or a laundry detergent.

They are also looking for the "leader kids", young people who will point the way toward the new "thing", which could be music, fashion trends, film, etc, when it is still underground. The corporations want to find out what is the next hot trend and be the first ones to package and distribute it on the mass market. Of course, the irony is once the trend becomes corporate, the original die-hards lose interest, usually saying "it went commercial". This phenomenon happens to many music groups, fashion designers, and filmmakers that started out with cult followings. And that's one of the other points of the documentary, that the media conglomerates end up ultimately destroying what they find. The other irony is that media projects that these 20% that are the trend-setting kids will lead the other 80%. Where does that leave the small amount of people who are neither leaders nor followers who want find their own expression?

Another commentator argues that MTV, Viacom etc are not really listening to teens as a means to help create new and innovative material, but instead they simply use their marketing research as a way to market what they have to sell. Teens are only being listened to as customers and not really as people with their own thoughts and ideas. Unfortunately, teens are very impressionable and the desire to be with the "in" crowd is a very intense factor in consumer decision-making. But has this what it comes down to? A few "average" kids' tastes will determine what gets thrust down their throats?

The most unfortunate aspect revealed by the documentary is not just the resulting dumbing-down of material but the influence they have on behavior, for which the conglomerates would never admit any responsibility. If the kids are exposed to nothing other than silly mook shows like Howard Stern, overly sexually-explicit programming like "Spring Break", overly violent movies and television shows, like wrestling, and endless Hip-Pop groups with violent and derogatory messages, they will reflect back these ideas through behavior that may have damaging consequences in the long term. Rapes and violent outbreaks occurred at Woodstock 1999. But weren't the kids just behaving in a manner consistent with the media messages? The irony is kids will believe these things are cool if it's marketed to them as such. I don't entirely buy the idea that they are just giving them what they want. I would hope this next generation of kids will create their own trends and not just follow whatever MTV and Viacom tell them to follow. But it would mean looking in places other than shopping malls and cineplexes. It might mean looking into their own minds and hearts. But that would be almost taboo and very uncool.

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