[PBS] What Teens Want

From: Adam Rifkin (Adam@KnowNow.Com)
Date: Wed Feb 28 2001 - 22:04:16 PST

There's a totally compelling PBS report circulating this month
on the feedback cycle of how the media companies give teenagers
what they want (mooks -n- midrifs), which in turn makes the
teenagers more like the images of what they want, which makes
the media companies provide even more of it...


MTV dramatically closed the feedback loop between culture and
marketing and made it much harder to tell one from the other,
or which came first:


If you take that as the kind of ground zero for the MTV experience
and widen it out, it gets more consistent the further you go. And
then if you look at the world we live in today and talk about how
people seem to use advertisements--for example, the Budweiser
advertisement, the "What'sup" thing. Now you hear a lot of people
saying "What'sup" to each other, which they're not saying because
they're trying to market anything. They're saying "What's up," but
they're referencing that Budweiser commercial because that's
something that they have in common and that's their little shared
piece of culture in that community moment. So you can't really
draw the line clearly the way you used to be able to draw the line clearly.

We are down to just six media giants who control practically
everything we see, hear, and are marketed with: Viacom, Newscorp,
Bertlesmann, Disney, Vivendi Universal, and (ahem, the biggest)
AOL Time Warner:


The thing is, you can be a savvy teen and realize the Rage Against
The Machine is *part* of the machine, that Eminem is not shocking
because he's real but because he's an excellent simulation of what
would be horrifying if it were actually real, and so on...

You think Eminem gives a damn about a Grammy? Heck yes...


Imagine what will happen when these teens start entering the workforce
in droves...


Teenagers are not generally viewers of FRONTLINE reports. And that's why we
wanted to make an effort to get their views about this one, "The Merchants
of Cool." Because it's about them--how they're the target "demo" for the
media marketers of popular culture today. So here are the reactions of just
one small group of teens after watching this FRONTLINE documentary. There
were about a dozen who viewed it, all high school juniors and seniors at
Milton Academy, an independent school in the Boston area. We hope their
views might elicit more comments from their peers about this FRONTLINE
report, which we will post in our "Join the Discussion" area of this site.

 So what did you think?"
Tor: I got interested in it. I just got kind of annoyed at the fact that it
was showing so much of what it was talking about. It felt like I was
watching commercials.

Willis: . . . There weren't enough kids in it. We heard all these media
executives and whatever, but there was only a real response from the
teenagers at the beginning. . . .

Laura: I really do feel I was being studied. Like some kind of specimen. And
that I didn't have any voice as a teenager. That was kind of weird.

Was what the media executives were saying about teenagers true to your

Laura: I think it was accurate, but it wasn't me telling them. [The problems
was] it was them telling me.

Brian: They were talking about the rebelliousness--but it's not rebelling at
all. And they're talking about how teachers are nerds and authority figures
are laughable. I mean, they're basically saying, "Everybody sucks except for

Adia: Is pop culture trying to help people?

Laura: No. It's trying to make money. That's the problem, we're a
money-making culture.

Tor: It at least pretends that it's trying to help people. Like it offers a
solution if you just dumb yourself down enough to accept it. . . .

Willis: Another related topic is that now that things like Napster and
Gnutella and these computer programs...that's kind of the new wave of
rebellion. Just to completely rip off electronic media--download your own
songs for free. Let's see if these media giants are going to be able to
out-run it in the next decade or two.

Adia: I completely agree. The Internet is too big to control. . . .

Willis: I think what the Internet has done. . . . You see a lot of smaller
[artists and labels] supporting programs like Napster because they can
really get their stuff out. And I can do whatever I want to, as long as the
[artists] are willing to put it out there. And the small artists are doing

Tor: With things like Napster, you can't tell people, "This is what you
should be listening to." You can't push it. And because you can't push it
the bands stay true to what they were writing about originally. If you
listen to what people say about a lot of bands that have become big--a lot
say, "You should listen to their old stuff--It's a lot better, before they
got influenced."

Davis: Eminem was a different artist before he became mainstream.

What do you think of the Eminem-Grammy controversy?

Davis: I didn't even watch it. I think the whole Eminem thing is BS. It
really is like the [Insane Clown Posse]: "I'm rebelling, I'm taking it to
the next level," just like media has been doing. They started out with the
sex years ago and it just keeps escalating. Like the [FRONTLINE program]
said, the media's looking at the teenage generation, taking that image, and
I think they're notching it up a step. They're making it that much more
risqué, and then they're selling it back. And you have Eminem with these
absurd lyrics, and it's impossible to believe that any of that is really

You don't think Eminem's lyrics are actually coming from him?

Davis: I doubt it. I think that's an example of someone who's trying to
market the next level. No one else is doing that, so he's ahead of the game.

Dan: One of the [media] executives was talking about how they are trying to
take things to the next level. The person who made "Cruel Intentions" wants
to do something that nobody else has done. And in that sense, that is sort
of the way to go. People want to see new things. But to do that, it's just
going to escalate. Sexual activity on TV is just getting more explicit.
Vocabulary that's allowed on the radio is getting more and more explicit.

But do you feel you're getting fed more explicit stuff by the media? Or do
you feel that you, as a generation, are asking for the more explicit

 Adia: It's both. . . . And society as a whole, because of this downward
spiral in teenagers, is kind of going downward. Let's take sex and violence,
which is what you see everywhere. I am inevitably polluted with it all the
time. But once I turn 18, I'm not just going to forget about it. It's still
going to be there. And I'm going to take that pollution (that's what I'll
call it for now) and I'm just going to take that with me for the rest of my
life. And that's just going to affect everything from then on. I think it's
a downward spiral not just for the teenagers and the media, but for US
culture. . . .

Brian: I think one of the main problems is that with all of this constant
influx of information and also collapse of morals, it ends up creating an
apathy. I don't think people are as happy as they would be if they were able
to do things of their own--as opposed to being told what to do and having,
in a lot of ways, no minds of their own because they have no way of
expressing themselves. Everything is forced into them.

Willis: Tuning it out is a way of expressing yourself. I've pretty much
stopped watching MTV. I live in the dorm. Sometimes it's going to be
playing. Then I don't really have a choice. But mainly I watch what I'm
interested in which is basketball. . . . .

Dan: I don't really understand how advertising can make that much effect on
the population. When I'm listening to the radio, I'll listen to a song I
like and as soon as that song goes off and an ad comes on, I change the
channel, trying to find something else. . . . [Ads] don't make me buy
something. It seems like it's more just about name recognition. And we
talked about this in our film class. It doesn't sell me a product, but it
sells me the name. And whether I go out and buy that, at least I feel like
it's my own choice still.

Do you ever think that maybe it's not your choice? That you're just being
programmed in some way?

Dan: I honestly don't. One example is, I wear Nike shoes. Yes, it is a big
huge name brand and there's tons of advertising on it. And I've gone out and
I've worn Reeboks or whatever. And honestly, the one pair of Reeboks I ever
had fell apart in a month. So to me, I found something that I like, that's
comfortable, and that stays in one piece, and so that's why I buy Nike.

Why don't you buy some no-name?

Sara: You can't even get a no-name brand.

Adia: . . . That's kind of what was so depressing about the documentary. It
really is like a spiral. And it seems as though right now we're way too far
into it to get out of it. Nike has way more money than beginning shoe
companies could have. For example, Converse. I love Converse. . . . But then
it sold out. It sold out to the same company that has New Balance and
Skechers. The film mentioned the five conglomerates. They're so big, they're
so huge, that you really stand no chance going against them. . . .

Davis: I have a question--for anyone--which is: I do disagree with the AOL
Time-Warner--the big five. But is it wrong for Time Warner, or is it wrong
for Viacom to own MTV and to own all of this--is it wrong to buy smaller
companies out in a capitalistic society?

Adia: No, but it's disgusting. [laughter]

Brian: I think it is wrong. I think that it depends on what their motive is.
And their motive is not to help anyone. It's to make money for themselves.
And they talk about, "We give money to charity." They want you to know they
give money to charity. It's all about making money for themselves.

Jonathan: What's wrong with that?

Willis: Well, for better or for worse, that's capitalism. And that's the
system we have. If we want to switch to socialism, then let's become
politically active and do that. . . .

Laura: There was one comment in the documentary that it's a really limited
pool, like our political system--only a certain number of people could run
for president because they're rich white males. And I think that we can't
ever say that we're buying what we want, when the choices are so limited.

Dan: I agree with you that our selection is really limited. But at the same
time, I think that if I found that I hated Nikes, I would switch to another
brand. And I think that if you want to, you can search and you can find
variety. . . .

Laura: What worries me is that in the future there will be no companies out
there who have earned that position of prominence. Like they showed that
band that they just promoted and promoted and they wouldn't necessarily have
become famous if they hadn't been promoted. And if all the companies are
like that, then there could be a time when none of them are good and it will
be impossible to find something else. That's what worries me.

Adia: And when you look at the progression of that, that means that when we
grow up and want to start a company--let's say I want to start a band, or
let's say you want to make shoes when you get older--that means that you're
going to be eaten up by a conglomerate, basically. And you're going to have
to be a part of that culture. Because that's really what it's leading.

Brian: . . . . I don't know what the answer is. One of my teachers said--and
I hope that in some way she's right--she believes this is a regular cycle.
It's a moral collapse that happens. And it happens in societies every once
in a while. And eventually it will burn out. People will get tired of having
no morals. Tired of being told what to do, and things will change.

Tor: I think already it's becoming more and more popular for parents to
raise their kids without TV. I personally was raised in a house without TV.
I read all the time.

Laura: Me, too.

Tor: I still have approximately no connection with the media. I don't have
time for TV, don't have time for the radio, really. I don't have time for
the newspaper. I have time to notice things like as I'm walking around. I
think, people are realizing that things like TV (just as an example) are
becoming faulty, and that people are rebelling against that just by blocking
it out.

Adia: I don't think people are realizing that. One of the first statistics
that they said [in the documentary] is that 75% of American teens have a TV
in their room. And boy that's kind of scary. I mean, if 75% have that, then
clearly we're totally in the minority. . . .

Dan: I know that I come from a fairly wealthy, well-off family. And the idea
of having a TV in my room, to my parents and to me, is kind of ridiculous. .
. . I don't know many of my friends who have a TV in their room. And that
number seems really, really high to me.

Adia: . . . . We may not watch it, but I'm convinced we're the minority.
Because everyone else does.

Davis: I think all this talk of how we're the minority has brought the idea
in my head that it's interesting, as we're sitting here seeing this
FRONTLINE thing, we obviously share a lot of these ideas about how we hate
the big five and all this marketing. I think it would be interesting to hear
what your "Abercrombie kids" or your "American Eagle kids" would think about
all this after they saw it, and they saw that a lot of what they do is
marketed and planned. And also I wonder why none of those kids are here.

Sara: I'm wearing an American Eagle shirt and Skechers, and I am a media
addict. I watch probably way more TV than all of you guys put together. I
read Entertainment Weekly . [laughter] I am not the Abercrombie
representative here, but I don't feel like the problem is that there's a
breakdown of morals, or that the culture is evil, or that there's some kind
of encroachment. I feel the problem is that we're not represented in our
culture. We don't create it and it's not born of anything of us. It's born
of what they're trying to give to us, which is really what worries me. . . .

Jonathan: In reference to creating, I think the FRONTLINE documentary
pointed out that it is created at the level of the independent,
forward-minded kids. But where it goes astray is when media companies pick
it up and they try to market it. That's when it turns into something big and
something possibly even evil. And perhaps I think the Internet is one outlet
of independent-minded people. I mean, it's an opportunity for anybody to be
as big as one of those big five.

What about the gender images and the stereotypes being marketed? Any
thoughts on the boy "mook" idea or the girl sexpot idea as sketched in the
FRONTLINE film? Did that ring true to you?

Davis: I think that the mook stuff and all that does ring true. I could name
a few kids in my class that are mooks, or are whatever the other term was.
It does ring true. . . .There are kids who respond to [that sort of thing],
who are really "in your face" and who are assholes. Some kids respond to
that activity. And obviously MTV's caught onto it, and it's too bad.
Personally I think the people like Tom Green and shows like Jackass are
responsible for some of the moral decline we're seeing, because they're
putting it on MTV, one of the most popular TV stations, and it's kind of a
cliché but they're giving people these idols or role models.

Tor: One thing that gets to me about Tom Green is that he is talented; he's
just talented at being a tool. [laughter] It really gets to me. If he wasn't
on TV, would he be doing the exact same things? What would he be doing if he
wasn't on TV? Doesn't that scare you?

Willis: He would be arrested a lot more often because he wouldn't be in the
protection of MTV on an MTV spring break cruise.

Tor: The media has been telling us that money will make us happy. Everyone's
trying to get to be happy, and the media is telling us, "If you just have
enough money, you can buy it." And so people who buy into that are looking
for money, to the exclusion of just about anything else--which is where Tom
Green comes in. Tom Green is a great way for them to get little boys to
watch that show, to watch their advertising, for them to influence the minds
of little boys, then to make more money off the kids. . . .

Willis: I want to say on another note, we keep speaking about "us" and
"them" and "we" and "they." And you know, we're becoming the trend setters
here. You realize that our little debate here is being recorded and it's
going to go on a website. And that website will be advertised on TV to a
national audience. And we in turn will be posting the ideas that our peers
and those younger than us can feed off of. [laughter] Isn't it strange how
we've been rebelling against it, and we [are still part of it?]


We don't call it Detroit, we call it Amityville; You can get capped after just havin a cavity filled. Ahahahaha, that's why we're crowned the murder capital still; This ain't Detroit, this is motherFoRKin Hamburger Hill! We don't do drivebys, we park in front of houses and shoot, and when the police come we FoRKin shoot it out with them too! That's the mentality here, that's the reality here... -- Eminem, "Amityville"

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