How to find, expoit and destroy coolness

August 14, 2007|by DANIELLE HIGGINS/Pulse Correspondent

There is an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Bart, after taking a new prescription drug for attention-deficit disorder and subsequently having paranoid delusions, discovers that Major League Baseball is using satellites to spy on the residents of Springfield.

The truth is, they are spying on you.

Well, maybe not Major League Baseball, but MTV, Coca-Cola, Apple and every company in between. They keep close tabs on what teens are doing, wearing, watching, listening to, eating and drinking. They are searching for cool - that intangible, ever-changing quality that products need to be a success with a teenage market.

Market research is not a new concept. It would be insane to invest heavily in the design and manufacture of a new product if a company did not research its target demographic. Market research usually prevents embarrassing product flops.

What is different about market research today is how companies go about gathering information. Companies can infiltrate the teenage world on all levels: snapping pictures, scanning and spamming MySpace profiles - Rupert Murdoch didn't buy MySpace for $580 million so he could hang out with "Tom" - hiring kids to promote a new band or soda, or paying for information about youth culture gathered by private firms.


Today's market research teeters between genuine inquiry and corporate espionage.

Teens as informers

Dee Dee Gordon is the co-founder of Look-Look, a company that researches youth culture. Gordon hires young consumers to look for cool kids and report on trends through videos, photos and blogs. These "correspondents" upload their findings, which are compiled and streamed on the Look-Look Web site at Companies in the teen market can access for a subscription fee.

In a 2001 interview on "Frontline" on PBS, Gordon explained the impact of the type of work Look-Look does.

"Do they (teenagers) love great, clever marketing? Of course they do," she said. "It's actually a nod of approval from young people if a company gets it right."

However, a lot of companies don't get it right, according to local teenagers. They say some companies try to create a cool public persona, but they don't understand what teens like, and they can't keep up with the pace of teenage trends.

"They're trying too hard," said Ashley Vaughn, 18, of Clear Spring, who just graduated from Washington County Technical High School. "They're a little too late. They put all this money into research, but by that time the trend is gone."

Josh Mills, 17, of Hagerstown, hopes to attend the University of Maryland next year. "Almost any kid today can tell that (corporate marketers) are fake and they only want us to buy stuff. It's rather pathetic."

So why do they bother if reaching us is such a major hurdle? Basically, according to the "Frontline" report "Merchants of Cool," teenagers spend more money per person than any other demographic. OK, sometimes kids spend their parents' money, but teenagers certainly decide about spending it.

The power of MTV

Teens know that MTV is the king of teen marketing, the concierge of what is youth culture. But, ironically, MTV isn't really selling anything for itself. It's just making money for Viacom, its parent company. Record labels pay to have their new artists aired. The clothes are provided by trendy designers. Movie studios fund programming that is basically an advertisement for an upcoming flick. Nothing will ever show up on MTV if executives don't believe it to be commercially viable. That includes the kids on their programming. Crude, immature guys and oversexed girls earn a lot of ratings for MTV.

"I think the way they make young people look is wrong," said Krista Garner, 16, who will be a junior at South Hagerstown High School. "Not so much as putting these people on TV, but making it scripted to get more ratings while ... putting out a wrong message."

Karen Scuderi, 21, of Hagers-town, has noticed the effects that sending the wrong message can have. She pointed to how Chuck Klosterman portrayed the impact of MTV's reality TV show "The Real World," in his book "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs."

"'The Real World' is supposedly based on real life, but then (viewers') personal lives become based on 'The Real World'," Scuderi said, "until you can't separate the two."

Creating demand, meeting demand

Marketing might create false images and intrude on nearly all aspects of teenage life, but it does have one, nearly redeeming quality. It is becoming more efficient.

Although teens might complain that they are constantly targeted, they also want everything on demand. Advertisers and market researchers can reach teens anywhere, at anytime, in order to produce things that teens will really like. They can pick up on trends faster than before and sell them to a hungry market. Maybe, just maybe, they can get a trend to market before it dies.

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