Making Fetch Happen: a comparison of documentaries selling “cool” to teens

The Merchants of Cool

p_genericThe Merchants of Cool documentary, which first aired in 2001, looks at how businesses  were struggling to appeal to teens and how they were attempting to combat their declining numbers in teen views and purchases.  In order to find out what teens were interested in, businesses and media groups went directly to the teens, spoke with them, and learned about their interests.  This documentary opens with a focus group of five teen boys, who were paid $125 each to speak openly with a market researcher about their likes and dislikes.  But wait, if companies want to make money from teens, why would they have spent $625 on this focus group? The reason is that they are spending money on teens so that they can learn how teens will spend money on them.  Spending money in order to make money.  Sprite made a similar move by throwing a party for the launch of their website, and paying teens $50 each to show up looking cool and “teeny” for the cameras.  At the same time, big name rap groups were preforming under the Sprite logo.  

MTV was also trying to tap in to this demographic.  MTV would go into the homes of teens, get to know them, and learn their likes and dislikes.  This study of teens was known as MTV’s ethnography study.  MTV could then tailor their programming to the interests of the “average teen.”  MTV was also responsible for the icons for teens, the “mook” for boys and the “midriff” for girls, referencing 2001 Britney Spears (talk about a throwback).  The issue that arises from this is that these corporate heads and media outlets are studying teens like a scientist would study an animal in the wild, and to ultimately do what businesses do best, make money.

Generation Like

The 2014 video, Generation Like, again looks at what is “cool” for teens, but this time with a stronger focus on technology and how teens interact with each other and with the outside world of media and merchandise.  The most striking aspect of this documentary is that media groups, retailers, and corporations are still seeking teens out, just like thirteen years ago, but doing so in a more indirect way.

With the rise of social media sites, like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others, teens are putting their faces out on the internet for companies to find.  This documentary paints teens as attention seeking individuals seeking likes, views, and followers, and companies want teens to have high numbers, that is how they can make money from them.  Looking at Tyler Oakley, we can see the vast reach that he has while he fangirls in his videos.  He fangirls so hard that he has his own fans.  Companies are using his social media fame to sell more products to teens.  If the general population sees Oakley promoting a particular product, they might be influenced into purchasing that product as well.  He is like the Regina George, or the Plastic version of Cady Heron, of the internet. One of the good aspects that this documentary touches upon is the connection that these social media teen celebrities collaborate with each other and help each other to increase their fame.

Company influence on an internet sensation can seem to have an adverse effect.  The more popular an internet sensation becomes, the more risqué their behavior might become so that they can further increase their popularity.  This can be seen when looking at Steven Fernandez, aka, Baby Scumbag.  Originally his videos were just about an amateur skateboarder, but as his popularity increased, so did the raunchiness of his videos.

Looking at the Two

In both documentaries, companies and media outlets are playing the same game: make money off of teens.  In the time between these documentaries aired, the rules of the game have changed.  Businesses no longer need to seek teens out in person, they just need to find a social network teen celebrity with a large enough following to promote their product.  Both The Merchants of Cool and Generation Like make broad judgments about teens, and assume that they are all alike with similar interests, and are all trying to be cool.  This is evident in my own life.  I never cared much for Sprite, or rap music, or wrestling like the “average teen” in The Merchants of Cool.  Generation Like also makes a broad judgment that every teen is on social media or on multiple social media websites or apps. 

In the Teens, Social Media and Technology Overview 2015, Amanda Lenhart points out that only 24% of teens are constantly online, and that while a vast majority of teens use more than one social networking website or application, it is not 100% of them but instead 71%.  This overview gives further breakdowns on how teens use technology and social media by age, gender, socioeconomic background, and others. 

What can librarians do?

As stated earlier, every company has the same goal when they try to market to teens, make money.  Librarians aren’t trying to make money from teens.  Librarians want to appeal to teens so that teens are aware that the library is a space available to them, whether it is used for homework help or as a place to find their next read.  Certainly, making use of technology and social media can be a good way to attract teens to the library.  Many libraries have their own Facebook and Instagram pages and some even have a Snapchat.  Librarians can certainly interact with teens face-to-face  to learn what programs the library can run and how to make the teen space more inviting, but this is not exclusively for the benefit of the library, but also for the benefit of the teens themselves.  Librarians don’t want teens’ money, but their participation in programs and their interaction with the library.  


Dretzin, R., Goodman, B. (Producers). (2001). The Merchants of Cool. [Documentary]. New York, NY: Public Broadcasting Service.

Koughan, F., Rushkoff, D. (Producers). (2014). Generation Like. [Documentary]. New York, NY: Public Broadcasting Service.

Lenhart, A. (2015). Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015.

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