In 2001, journalist and researcher Douglas Rushkoff decided to dive deep into the heart of how marketers target teens. The result was a Frontline PBS special titled “The Merchants of Cool.”
The documentary covered an impressive amount of early aughts ground: Mooks, midriffs and juggalos were examined in their natural habitats, telling Rushkoff what they do, and do not, think qualifies as cool.
But a lot has changed since 2001 in the world of teenage culture. High school kids don’t really like malls anymore and the once dominant MTV is nothing more than a Gen X relic to many millennials. But the search to understand what’s cool continues as steadily as ever.
According to researchers Stephen Quartz and Anette Asp, understanding “cool” has taken on important new methods. Instead of asking blank-faced teenagers questions about their favorite underwear brand, researchers now study “the unconscious processes that weren’t observable or measurable with the behavioral studies.”
Enter: neuroeconomics and neuromarketing. According to Quartz and Asp, neuroeconomics is “a way to answer questions about how the brain processes decisions involving risk-taking, risk aversion, trust in other people and so on.” Neuromarketing is seeking that same data, but in relationship to brands.
Quartz and Asp’s research seems to break down certain assumptions about consumerism, possibly reshaping how we understand the power of trends.
“By examining how the brain responds to ‘cool’ products, we discover that they help fulfill a basic human need: to be recognized and respected by others,” Quartz said in an interview with The Atlantic’s Bourree Lam.
Quartz described to Lam what he called a “social calculator,” a process in our brains that “keeps track of how we think other people are thinking about us.”
“We found that products are basically extensions of ourselves that reflect who we are — we use them to bond with others who share the same values,” he continued.
Understanding how modern social life functions, not simply understanding “trends” appears to be the new focus (in fact, the word “social’ comes up well over 20 times in the interview). And companies have picked up on the queues.
In a recent article, also published by The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance and Robison Meyer did their own exploration of cool. While the focus of their piece was mainly trends in media, their assessment of the rise and fall of media powerhouses like MTV touches on the fickle nature of “cool” and how that’s changed over time.
“At its apogee, MTV was a force,” they wrote. “It combined the intimacy of radio with the national reach of television” to create a media machine that defined teen culture for a generation.
But as LaFrance and Meyer point out, nothing lasts forever.
“MTV hasn't gone anywhere, but its influence has diminished,” they conclude.
While LaFrance and Meyer zero in on business decisions, acquisitions and internal disputes as the reason for MTV’s diminished cool factor, Rushkoff’s documentary argued (well before the current decline) that the teen-targeted station always hinged on its ability to shroud their programming, convincing their audience that what they have is the epitome of cool. But how teens express cool has changed drastically, and MTV hasn’t.
In other words, MTV isn’t cool because MTV isn’t Buzfeed.
Not only is Buzzfeed’s business model adaptive to the current Internet media market, as LaFrance and Meyer dissect in their article, it is also a company with a profound understanding of how teenagers — and anyone on the hunt for “cool” — view the world in 2015.
It’s important to remember that Buzzfeed got its start as a company that, like MTV before them, was obsessed with understanding social nature. But unlike MTV, the social jungle they were studying was the Internet.
As Quartz and Lam so naturally allude to in their research, there has been a social revolution of sorts during the past decade or so. The rise and continuing strength of social media has made it easier for companies to see what products people want their friends to know they’ve bought. It extends into almost every aspect of modern life: What books you’re reading, what TV shows you’re watching, even which ice cream shop you’re eating at.
No company has harnessed the power of social cool as effectively as Buzzfeed.
“From regional to national and international media, everyone’s trying to imitate it for one simple reason,” The Guardian’s Elena Cresci wrote in 2014. “What BuzzFeed does really does work.”
Well, it works for now at least. If Rushkoff’s documentary taught us anything, it’s that what’s coolest is what isn’t cool. There are already rumblings of teenagers rejecting Facebook, Twitter and other more popular or mainstream social media networks for what’s beyond the radar — because cool is wherever you aren’t.
JJ Feinauer is a writer and web producer for Deseret News National. Email: [email protected], Twitter: jjfeinauer.