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Peer Review

Selling Teens: Using the Merchants of Cool PBS documentary to examine media influence on teens

by Michelle Kunz


Overall Numeric Rating:

4.5 stars
Content Quality: 4.25 stars
Effectiveness: 4.5 stars
Ease of Use: 4.75 stars
Reviewed: Jun 08, 2012 by Business Editorial Board
Overview: This assignment uses the PBS Frontline documentary Merchants of Cool as a vehicle for examining the influence of media on teens and their culture. Themes include, for example, (1) the dominance of five big global companies marketing to teens, (2) the importance of exploring focus groups consisting of teenage trendsetters, (3) the coarsening of teenage culture, and (4) the revolutionary relationship between cool hip-hop and Sprite’s worldwide success at reaching teenagers. After viewing any of these video segments students complete a summary analysis document, and identify ways this new information could be applied in their field. The approximately 55 minute documentary features a well-rounded set of interviews with market researchers, television and recording industry executives, and teenagers. The related assignment focuses on the marketing aspects of this documentary.
Type of Material: Assignment.
Recommended Uses: This could be used as an in-class or out-of-class assignment in a variety of marketing courses.
Technical Requirements: You will need Windows Media or RealPlayer to watch the 53 minute FRONTLINE program and other segments.
Identify Major Learning Goals: The learning goals, as identified by the assignment author, are as follows: 1. Identify elements of teen culture 2. Identify media tools to communicate effectively to teens 3. Discuss the influence of media on teen culture 4. Discuss the different views of positive and negative cultural influences. The documentary also touches on the research utilized to identify what is "cool". Therefore, market research focused objectives could be added.
Target Student Population: The material would be appropriate for undergraduates or graduates enrolled in the previously mentioned courses. It can be used in a variety of marketing courses including, but not limited to, consumer behavior, marketing research, principles of marketing, and promotion/advertising. It also be utilized in courses outside of business that focus on media and popular culture.
Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills: None.

Evaluation and Observation

Content Quality

Rating: 4.25 stars
Strengths: This is cutting edge material that breaks new ground by explaining how powerful marketing media firms are understanding teens through in-depth research with trend-setter adopter teens in focus groups. This focus group research finds what teens like in terms of music, TV, clothing, concerts, etc., and then the information is used in advertising to reach out to teens. This assignment is well-developed. The assignment author provides very detailed directions which include teaching notes and tips along with questions for assessment. The PBS documentary is top notch.
Concerns: The major concern is that this documentary is almost 11 years old. Given that it focuses on what is 'cool' and the cutting edge methods that are used to uncover and influence what is 'cool', this is a major problem. Examples in the documentary focus on a teenage Brittney Spears and Jessica Biel, the Insane Clown Posse, and Dawson's Creek. Using this video is the equivalent of using a textbook that features new products such as the ipod. This documentary was filmed before the far reaching influence of the Internet and social media was prevalent. Many of the research techniques are therefore dated. A minor concern, but one that could be easily overcome, is the PG-13 nature of some of the material in the documentary. Today's student should be open-minded enough to deal with the language and sexual content of the documentary. The instructor would have to use his/her judgment as to how to best handle this.

Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool

Rating: 4.5 stars
Strengths: There are various hints on how to teach the assignment effectively. For example, the 1-minute paper technique is introduced. This is a real-time feedback technique for measuring how many important ideas students recognize after completing the assignment. It raises lots of issues that could potentially generate productive classroom discussion. It is tailor-made for use in a marketing class.
Concerns: The problem is that this assignment and documentary are tailor-made for a marketing class being taught 10 years ago. While some of the basic lessons still apply in 2011 (almost 2012), too much has changed to make this relevant for classroom use.

Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty

Rating: 4.75 stars
Strengths: The assignment is clearly outlined and easy to understand. The PBS website is well-organized, and in and of itself, provides useful information.
Concerns: If an instructor does not want to utilize the entire documentary, he/she would need to invest some time deciding which segments to include. However, the PBS website organzies this into six video segments making this task less daunting.

Other Issues and Comments: Basically this PBS Frontline documentary focuses on the paradox of teens not wanting to embrace culture that is “sold” by the marketing media even if it originated from the teens themselves. As soon as firms discover what is cool for teens and spotlight it teens catch on and move on to more “authentic” cultural explorations. This is a powerful concept that will allow students to gain major insights into marketing to teens in the US.