Teenagers comprise the market’s greatest consumer demographic, and at 33 million plus, they represent the largest teen generation America has ever seen. According to a 2001 PBS Frontline documentary, “The Merchants of Cool,” teens spent $100 billion in 2000 and influenced their parents in spending another $50 billion. Companies such as Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, and Universal-Vivendi, are more aware of this demographic gold mine, which is why they target today’s teenagers. No previous generation has experienced media saturation to the extent that currently overwhelms modern day teens.
So the chicken-and-egg question must be asked, “Is the media simply imitating young people, or do young people imitate media?”
“The corporate sponsors and mass media now set the agenda . . . Now, the young tend to be presented always and everywhere with what is, in a way, the most seductive thing there is, and that’s a mirror,” Mark Crispin Miller, media critic, professor at New York University, and author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV, told Frontline. “It’s the mirror as constructed by advertising and TV, but it’s the mirror that tells you that you are all there is to be, or you could be, if you bought what we have to sell.”
The most popular mirror that teens use to measure their cool status is MTV, owned by the second largest media corporation in the world, Viacom. Brian Graden, president of MTV programming, told Frontline, “We put an immense amount of resources behind market research . . . I think it would be disastrous if MTV were not in step with young adults, because we have said that is our beachhead, that’s our brand benchmark.”
But Miller compared MTV’s propaganda strategy to Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, and his influence on the German people. “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 . . . how to pitch what Viacom has to sell to those kids,” Miller told Frontline.
Watch the programs Viacom “sells” on a few of its cable stations including MTV, VHI, BET, and Showtime and ask yourself, “What’s cool?” Overwhelmingly, the answer is sex – it’s all about a sexy image. According to a 2003 American Family Association report, Viacom and other major media corporations were listed as donors for People for the American Way (PFAW), a liberal organization that advocates an extreme leftist public policy campaign including same-sex marriage, limitless abortion, and explicit sex education for all school ages. The steady stream of “safe sex” messages targeted to young people reinforces and affirms the media’s “sex is cool” propaganda.
Media groups know what teenagers want and how they feel. But these groups take advantage of two major teen struggles – the anxiety of “fitting in” and the rebellious tendency for independence. Young people desperately crave approval and acceptance, but the standard of “cool” set by media propaganda leads teens into a cycle of unfullfillment.
“Advertising has always sold anxiety,” Miller told Frontline, “it’s always telling them that they are not thin enough, they’re not pretty enough, they don’t have the right friends, or they have no friends, they’re creeps, or they’re losers –unless they’re cool. That’s the nature of advertising, to keep you hungering for more of the stuff that’s supposed to finally put you there, but never does. MTV was the first 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commercial channel . . . the ad is the show.”
Media groups have also marketed the elimination of parents by writing them out. Shows like “Dawson’s Creek” glamorize high school teenagers making heavy life decisions without any serious parental input.
“The object of the game for marketers is to appeal to children and teens as decision-makers,” Douglas Rushkoff, analyst and author on new media and popular culture, told Frontline. “Because in the end you want these kids to make choices about what they buy . . . in making a TV show for children that’s going to make them into better consumers is [to] create a universe that doesn’t have adults or at least has adults that don’t matter.”
Parents are given no choice but to jealously guard what a young person feeds upon. Unfortunately, parents seem unaware of the determination of the powerful media corporations to yield a profit through targeting their teens. According to a 1999 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study, the average American child grows up in a home with three TVs and 65 percent have a TV in their bedroom. While kids spend on average nineteen hours a week watching TV, parents spend only five percent of their time watching TV with their children. Almost half – 49 percent – of kids have no parental rules about TV.
“I am inevitably polluted with [sex and violence] all the time,” one teenager told Frontline on “The Merchants of Cool”. “But once I turn 18, I’m not just going to forget about it . . . 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 . . .”
Graden acknowledged to Frontline, “There used to be a protected sphere of childhood, where someone was exposed to only what we thought would suit them at 13 or 15 or 20 . . . I can’t help but be worried that we are throwing so much at young adults so fast. And that there is no amount of preparation or education or even love that you could give a child to be ready.”
With society no longer valuing and protecting innocence, teens need their parents’ boundaries and guidance now more than ever. As media giants consume big bucks by playing on the vulnerability of teens, the cultural morals of youth depend on parents’ awareness and involvement.