The Merchants of Cool

The Merchants of Cool

More than any generation in history, people who are young today are not free to create an authentic culture of their own. Instead their hopes and desires are intensively studied by marketers, then amplified and sold back to them in a diabolical feedback loop.

That’s the premise of the PBS Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool”, which makes a chillingly compelling case for the distortion of youth culture by its massive commercialization.

Of course marketing is happening to all of us all the time, and no one is completely immune to its influence nor exempt from its reach. But the sheer size and purchasing power of the present generation of teens – and thus the money to be made by getting inside their heads – has created a gold rush of relentlessly agressive brand messaging that’s both ubiquitous and goes to great lengths to adhere to the most important rule in persuading this demographic – don’t let your marketing show.

“Teenagers are the hottest consumer demographic in America. At 33 million strong, they comprise the largest generation of teens America has ever seen–larger, even, than the much-ballyhooed Baby Boom generation. Last year, America’s teens spent $100 billion, while influencing their parents’ spending to the tune of another $50 billion.”

The film describes a feedback loop in which marketers conduct exhaustive ethnographic studies of teens to figure out what’s cool, then amplify it and feed it back to them via media that is controlled by fewer and fewer hands. Ultimately this process not only affects, but in fact creates the culture it’s studying.

“What this system does is it closely studies the young, keeps them under constant surveillance to figure out what will push their buttons,” says media critic Mark Crispin Miller. “And it blares it back at them relentlessly and everywhere.”

“It’s one enclosed feedback loop,” Rushkoff says. “Kids’ culture and media culture are now one and the same, and it becomes impossible to tell which came first–the anger or the marketing of the anger.”

I found “The Merchants of Cool” to be an incredibly powerful documentary, well worth watching. Three comparisons keep occurring to me as I turn it over in my mind:

1. Quantum physics.

There’s idea in quantum physics, called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that the act of observing something changes it. One take-away message from this film is that the intense scrutiny we’re all under to figure out how to sell things to us fundamentally changes our lives.

2. Colonization.

Colonization occurs when an external power comes in and exploits a nation for its natural resources, then packages those resources and sells them back to the native people at a dramatically increased price. The colony becomes a market for finished products that are made from raw materials that were stolen from them in the first place. That process is eerily similar to exploitation of youth culture that’s portrayed in “Merchants”. One person interviewed in the film actually uses the term colonization, describing the youth market as “Africa.”

3. The Borg.

This evil race Star Trek race consumes the mind and will of every being it encounters, adding that individual’s unique experiences to its collective hive mind and while leaving the former owner a mechanized zombie. As they say, “Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated!”

How to view The Merchants of Cool

You can watch The Merchants of Cool for free on the PBS website, or purchase the DVD at It’s highly recommended for anyone, and almost required viewing if you’re under 20 and want a shot at keeping dominion over your own mind.

There may be hope. From the March/April Adbusters:

“Suddenly, people are waking up in droves from the dreamland of corporate cool. We’re realizing that ever since we were little babies crawling around the TV sets in our living rooms, we’ve been lied to, propangandized, and told incessantly, day after day, that we can find happiness through consumption.

Now the fog is lifting. We’re finally beginning to understand where this bogus cool has been leading us …This is the magic moment in which capitalist cool can stumble and authentic cool can start bubbling back up again … The rest will follow.”

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