The Pursuit of Cool

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Sportswear International on 2 July 2001

Writing this little piece could get me in a whole lot of trouble. See, most of my books and articles are about combating the very same marketing techniques you hope to learn by subscribing to a magazine like this one. My usual readers are the kids who buy Adbusters magazine, the activists who protest at the WTO, and parents looking for ways to bring meaning into their children’s lives that don’t involve a new brand of sneaker. If they even suspect me of selling you clues about how teens think and live in order for you to market fashions to them more effectively, I’m done for.

Yes, friends, there’s a war going on and, as far as America’s youth culture is concerned, you are the enemy.

How did we find ourselves in such a predicament? Easy. Today, there are 32 million teens in the United States, spending 100 billion dollars on themselves every year. You want this money, and they know it.

There are a lot of you out there. This makes your job tricky. With kids processing an average of 3000 discreet advertisements each day, competition for their attention is fierce. Logically, you’ve invested heavily in research and trend-watching in order to find out what they’ll respond to. You need to determine what they think is cool today and, more importantly, what they can be made to think is cool tomorrow.

It’s a process that began in the 1980’s, when kids’ disposable income finally surpassed their parents’ and the demographic took on paramount importance in consumer sales. You began to study teens like an anthropologist would study a foreign culture – all in the hope of eventual colonization.

You hired cool-hunters – young, bright, culture spies who could roam freely and undetected through the clubs and schoolyards where corporations weren’t welcome. They came back with snapshots of the latest, undiscovered trends. Then you incorporated these tidbits into your styles or advertisements. A cuffed leg here, an eyebrow piercing there, maybe a new breakbeat from the rave scene.

But you were fighting a losing battle. The minute a cool trend is discovered, repackaged, and sold to kids at the mall, it’s no longer cool. So the kids turn to something else, and the whole process starts all over again. The better you get at coolhunting, the faster the cycle goes, and the harder it is for anyone to keep up.

Making matters worse, kids were becoming increasingly aware of this process. They knew that their own claim to a trend is challenged by its adoption into the mainstream, so they looked for ways to hide from your researchers’ hunting scopes.

By the early 90’s, the so-called Generation X believed they had found their defense against you: adopt a posture and lifestyle that resists the notion of cool itself. These self-proclaimed slackers followed Bart Simpson’s lead, and treated every marketing message with good dose of protective irony. They refused to be intimidated into buying the latest styles of jeans or running shoes, opting instead for the ugliest clothes they could find at the local thrift shop. Grunge style, like grunge music, was a revolt against marketing itself.

It was accompanied by a new attitude towards media and advertising: detachment. Armed with a remote control and a media-savvy awareness, teens of the early 90’s celebrated their newfound freedom by surfing away from your TV ads, or laughing at them, out loud, with their friends. Phrases like “whatever” and “nevermind” announced this generation’s refusal to be drawn into their predecessors’ pursuit of cool. They would not be moved.

Major record labels were the first to find a way to capitalize on even this trend. Grunge bands were offered contracts that even they couldn’t refuse, and soon Nirvana or Pearl Jam were as likely to be on MTV as Madonna. Kurt Cobain’s suicide, though actually a result of depression and drug abuse, to kids symbolized his remorse at surrendering to the corporate machine. It effectively ended the creative expression of this resistance, leaving only its hollow irony behind.

This made Generation X ripe for harvest by mass consumer brands like Sprite and Levi’s, who developed commercials applauding kids for their hatred of marketing. “Image is Nothing, Thirst is Everything,” Sprite’s new advertisements proclaimed. They hired famous basketball players to pitch the product in TV commercials, while bags of money representing their endorsement fees accumulated at the bottom of the screen. “We know you hate marketing,” these campaigns meant to say. “We’re on your side.”

Of course teens eventually got wise to this anti-marketing marketing campaign, as well. Sprite’s own focus groups revealed that kids saw through the charade. But it was a turning point in teen’s defense against media: irony no longer guaranteed protection. It didn’t really matter, though. Most of you had given up on this age group, and had trained your sights on their younger brothers and sisters. And you wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.

The marketing industry vowed that Generation Y would not get away as easily. They hired psychologists and sociologists to project what kinds of teens these kids were going to be – before they were even teens! This way you could be there, waiting for them. Your ethnographers and culture gurus had determined, correctly, that what these kids wanted more than anything else was a feeling of authenticity. Everything had gotten so confusing, so marketed, so fleeting, that it was hard to feel real about anything at all.

If it’s authenticity they want, it’s authenticity you’ll provide them. So, today, you mine the farthest reaches of teen culture for signs of genuine trends. You send researchers into their bedrooms to scour their closets, or into fledgling new scenes that have yet to discover what they’re about. Better yet, look at what the poor kids are doing, or how the urban (read: African-American) kids are dressing. Their anguish is real; so, too, must be their uses of denim.

Generation Y knows that your culture scouts are far better equipped than they are to determine what’s authentic. So they watch MTV and peruse the ads in Spin to find out which culture they should emulate next. The object of the game is to get in on a scene while it’s still being exploited. To get onto Total Request Live or be captured by the cameras on MTV’s Spring Break. After all, if there’s MTV cameras around, it must be cool.

For as much as they resent the way you pander to their fleeting sense of what is genuinely, authentically cool, they enjoy all the attention. It’s turned into a giant feedback loop: you watch kids to find out what trend is “in,” but the kids are watching you watching them in order to figure out how to act. They are exhibitionists, aware of corporate America’s fascination with their every move, and delighting in your obsession with their tastes. At least to a point.

The problem with being the center of attention is that it gives them nowhere to turn, themselves. When even their parents long for the adolescent sexual utopia of the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue or the idyllic and equally adult-less Dawson’s Creek, kids have nothing left to aspire towards. None of them are experiencing anything close to the good times suggested by these brand-image universes. They are teenagers, for God’s sake. It’s a terrible, terrifying time. But they have been put at the very center of the universe. Marketers want to please them. Their parents want to be them. All eyes, and all cameras, are trained on the teen.

In most societies, teens tend to emulate adults. That’s right: they yearn for the increased responsibilities and privileges that come with growing up. Until they grow up, they are on their parents’ trip. It’s not that children should be seen and not heard. But by turning the media and marketing realms into tributes to the teen revolution, you have cast everyone else as their enemies.

And by removing yourselves – yes, you adults – from the equation, you have denied your young customers the one thing they could really use from you: your adult creativity. Instead, you relegate kids to a prison of mirrors, and rationalize that you’re simply meeting popular demand. You’re not. Kids don’t really know what they want. How could they? They’re just kids. If anything, they want direction – and connection with something greater than themselves.

Instead of dedicating your budgets to exacerbating this problem by drawing ever-tighter circles of teen research, have you considered spending it on designers, instead? Let your own studios and workshops become the locus of discovery, not some photographs on a trend-watching web site. Dare you lead, instead of follow?

Instead of identifying a trend and then mass-producing it before it has had a chance to mature into something of depth, why don’t you develop some trends of your own? Spend your scouting money identifying new designers and then fostering their talents. If you simply must capture the vitality of youth, why not bring in kids as interns or apprentice designers? Let them learn from your best senior people, so that instead of re-inventing teen fashions every season, you build a legacy.

How can teens develop their own culture when each new idea is co-opted and sold back to them before it’s had a chance to mature? I know your revenues depend on staying ahead of the curve, but that curve has come full circle. The very coolest thing in a world where nothing lasts is continuity itself. That’s why 60’s, 70’s and 80’s clothing revivals are happening with such disarming regularity. Kids are aching for something with more longevity than the current marketing cycle affords them. Don’t adults have anything to offer them besides a mirror?

If you, the leaders of the design industry, are not in a position to create the defining trends of the 21st Century, then who is? Don’t look to kids for all the answers. Look to yourselves.