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Mooks and Midriffs: How Marketers See Teens

Mooks and Midriffs: How Marketers See Teens

Teenagers -
they want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the cash. But have marketers gone too far in their attempts to reach the hearts – and wallets – of America’s youth? FRONTLINE correspondent Douglas Rushkoff confronts these questions in MERCHANTS OF COOL, a documentary produced in 2001, in which he explores the symbiotic relationship between the media and today's teens by examining the tactics, techniques, and cultural ramifications of these marketing moguls.

Talking with top marketers, media executives and cultural/media critics, Douglas Rushkoff brings us this story:

At 32 million strong, this is the largest generation of teenagers ever, even larger than their Baby Boomer parents. [In the year 2000], teens spent more than $100 billion themselves and pushed their parents to spend another $50 billion on top of that. They have more money and more say over how they'll spend it than ever before.

For today's teens, a walk in the street may as well be a stroll through the mall. Anywhere they rest their eyes, they'll be exposed to a marketing message. A typical American teenager will process over 3,000 discrete advertisements in a single day, and 10 million by the time they're 18. Kids are also consuming massive quantities of entertainment media. It's a blizzard of brands, all competing for the same kids. To win teens' loyalty, marketers believe, they have to speak their language the best. So they study them carefully, as an anthropologist would an exotic native culture.

ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive, says “The days of developing cute campaigns or whatever don't- they don't work anymore. You have to really get involved in what their culture is. You have to understand where they're coming from. You have to think how they think.”

Today five enormous companies are responsible for selling nearly all of youth culture. These are the true merchants of cool: Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner. Of the five media giants, the coolest conglomerate on the block is Viacom. And Viacom's crown jewel, there on the second floor, is MTV, which last year earned the company a billion dollars in profits.

MTV's airwaves are filled with cheap and easy content. The new MTV is all about learning what kids really want, then delivering it to them. To insure that bond stays strong, MTV must understand where teen culture is moving. Market research is the mantra, and its guru is Todd Cunningham. MTV let us in on their techniques. Today MTV is meeting John, an ordinary kid in every respect, who was carefully screened to make sure he is just that. It is hoped that by studying John in his natural habitat, MTV might gain insight into one of the most valuable segments of their viewing demographic, the teenage male.

So what happens to all this careful research, all the hours and dollars that MTV spends learning about who our kids really are? When all the tape is reviewed, what portrait of the American teenage male emerges?

His critics call him "the mook." That's right, M-O-O-K, mook. And you can find him almost any hour of the day or night somewhere on MTV. He's not real. He's a character- crude, loud, obnoxious, and in-your-face.

He's Tom Green of The Tom Green Show. And he's the daredevils on Jackass who indulge in dignity-defying feats like poo diving. He's those frat boys and their whip-cream bikini girlfriends on MTV's constantly recurring Spring Break specials. He has migrated to MTV's sister network, Comedy Central, where he's the cartoon cutouts of South Park or the lads on The Man Show.

The mook is perhaps Viacom's most bankable creation. Once programmers discovered his knack with teenage boys, they replicated him across the length and breadth of their empire.

So does the whole teenage experience come down to this? Are our boys mooks? Is John a mook? I don't think so. Maybe all that research isn't really about understanding John as a person, it's about understanding John as a customer. I mean, they don't call it human research or people research, they call it market research.

MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU believesThe MTV machine does listen very carefully to children. When corporate revenues depend on being ahead of the curve, you have to listen, you have to know exactly what they want and exactly what they're thinking so that you can give them what you want them to have.

Now, that's an important distinction. The MTV machine doesn't listen to the young so it can make the young happier. It doesn't listen to the young so it can come up with, you know, startling new kinds of music, for example. The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell.

When you've got a few gigantic trans-national corporations, each one loaded down with debt, competing madly for as much shelf space and brain space as they can take, they're going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down.”

And girls get dragged down there right along with boys. The media machine has spit out a second caricature. Perhaps we can call this stereotype "the midriff." The midriff is no more true to life than the mook. If he is arrested in adolescence, she is prematurely adult. If he doesn't care what people think of him, she is consumed by appearances. If his thing is crudeness, hers is sex. The midriff is really just a collection of the same old sexual clichés, but repackaged as a new kind of female empowerment. "I am midriff, hear me roar. I am a sexual object, but I'm proud of it."

The midriff archetype is undoubtedly teenage mega-star Britney Spears. When Britney finally and famously came out of her clothes, she wasn't just pleasing eager young boys, she was delivering a powerful message to girls: Your body is your best asset. Flaunt your sexuality even if you don't understand it. And that's the message that matters most because Britney's most loyal fans are teenage girls.

It's sex TV's answer to wrestling, stringing together explosions of "pop" to keep its teen audience hooked.

The makers of teen TV argue that they're only reflecting the real world. Sex is a part of teens' lives, so it better be in their media, too. Media is just a mirror, after all. Or is it?

Sure, some kids have always acted wild, but never have these antics been so celebrated on TV. So of course kids take it as a cue, like here on the strip in Panama Beach, Florida, where high schoolers carry on in public as if they were on some MTV sound stage. Who is mirroring whom? Real life and TV life have begun to blur. Is the media really reflecting the world of kids, or is it the other way around? The answer is increasingly hard to make out.

It's a giant feedback loop. The media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves. Then kids watch those images and aspire to be that mook or midriff in the TV set. And the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them, and so on.

So is there anywhere the commercial machine won't go? Is it leaving any room for kids to create a culture of their own? Do they even have anything that's theirs alone? All eyes are on our kids. They know they're being watched. And what if they turn and fight? The battle itself is sponsored, packaged, and sold right back to them.

Welcome to the machine.

What a wake-up call! There has never before been a time of urgency like this in Christian history. Our youth are under assault, and many are just now realizing it. This self-serving marketing blitz inspired the main message for this year’s ATF tour, Branded by God: The Mark of a Warrior, in which these issues are faced head on through compelling messages and the portrayal of a typical ‘mook’ who discovers the trap of ‘the machine’ and decides to join his friend in taking steps to change it. If we are allowing ourselves to be branded by the world then we are simply feeding the machine. If we want to put an end to this vicious cycle we need to stand against the marketing machine and be Branded by God! We need to help this generation shed the Mook & Midriff shell, and instead become the truly unique masterpiece God created and dreamed for them to be.

For more information on "Merchants of Cool," please visit www.pbs.org.

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Read youth culture news, youth ministry articles, and join the fight for America’s young people at http://www.battlecry.com
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