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since June 19, 2001


The Coolhunt and The Merchants of Cool

How a handful of media giants form a symbiotic relationship with consumers, target teenagers to become consumerism addicts and in the process corrupt society

To claim that the media deliberately corrupt society may seem a little strong.  However, it matters little what words are chosen to describe the process of culturing the basest instincts of young children, teenagers and young adults — all for nothing more than to make a profit.  What counts are the results of the process: profits to fuel and finance ever-larger media mergers, while the tools used to achieve that goal are at the same time an integral part and a by-product of the process of the deliberate and gradual destruction of what had made our civilization great, civility.

The gradual and escalating coarsening of our culture is deliberate and inexorable.

Those are the conclusions I was led to make after we had a chance to watch a program produced by PBS-Frontline: The Merchants of Cool.

A search for web pages containing just two of the key words or phrases used in the program, "coolhunt" and "hip-hop", provided no more than 19 entries in the list of search returns.  That is odd.  The two concepts have become inseparable and mutually dependent.  There should be many more web pages covering the subject.

The PBS program The Merchants of Cool is a fairly recent production.  The concept and process of "the coolhunt" was the basic premise discussed in the program.   It is a little older than the PBS program covering it but still a very modern marketing concept that was first described in 1997 in an article The Coolhunt by Malcolm Gladwell.1

The phenomenon of marketing that targets teenagers is much older than the concept of coolhunt.  It goes back to the 19th century but was never more than a phenomenon that was localized in space and time, and was used predominantly by totalitarian regimes in indoctrinating their youths.   I do remember that a friend and I discussed in 1964 that it was then already being used for commercial applications in the deliberate targeting of the teenaged consumer sector but not to the all-pervasive extent that inundates and molds our culture now. 

Then, the enormous potential for exploiting the massive and growing teenaged market sector was just receiving its first recognition.  Now, the systematic exploitation of that market sector appears to have reached its apex – at least it is almost impossible to imagine what else could possibly be done to commercialize our children and to indoctrinate them to become not only addicts of consumerism but to become the engine that drives it.

The strategy by which teenagers are being subverted or steered to buy-in on a specific ideology or on a line of consumer products, even if it is nothing more than to shed traditional moral values, was described by Adolf Hitler when he related his views on how propaganda must be made to work.2

As far back as 1928, Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew, wrote in his book Propaganda:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.  Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . The important thing is that [propaganda] is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.3

The PBS program called the process of coolhunt "under-the-radar marketing", where manufacturers, producers, distributors, broadcasters, disk jockeys and radio hosts collude to smuggle the message in to kids – the goal of the message being the promotion of each others' wares, but mostly for the message to be part of a feedback loop designed for the purpose to market marketing, that certain products (for example, Sprite and Hip-Hop) are one and the same as, and the very essence of, the teen culture.

The new uncivil ideology is being created and promoted largely through MTV.  It is spread as well through almost all TV networks, through DVDs, music CDs and many other means by which a handful of media giants exercise their increasingly almost totalitarian control over the minds of our children, adultifying, sexifying, consumerizing, indoctrinating and inducing them to buy-in to what they wish them to buy-in to.4

It is far more than a fashion trend like that of the phenomenon of the return of the hushpuppies that Malcolm Gladwell described in his article The Coolhunt.

It seems clear. We are finished, done in, and Madison Avenue is who did it. The soul of our children has been stripped bare.  It has been bought by business and is being – its raw form molded and corrupted – sold back to teenagers with the eager help of teenagers.

Stripped of much of its civility, any society will revert to moral chaos.  The only role that adults play in the process is to provide the funding to drive it all, whether it is the funding of the media giants that will enable them to pay for the costs of their mergers or whether it is the money given to children with which our children then destroy their childhood and the moral foundation for their subsequent lives.  It is the Lord of the Flies on a global scale, except that the adults, instead of being unable to prevent children from becoming worse than savages, are very much present and are taken in themselves by the process of the corrupting of civilization.5  

Moreover, many of today's adults want to be as cool as their teenagers, so that our children have become the role models for our ongoing cultural devolution into something that may be, or at the very least has the potential to become, worse than savagery.

Other than the sheer scale of it today, there is not much new.  In the sixties, too, there were many adults who became wannabe-hippies and did their best to let it all hang out.  Then, we still expected to see some objectivity in reporting, but is it reasonable to expect that today, when the media are driven by nothing other than sheer profit and returns on investment to a handful of media giants?  John Swinton, called by his peers "The Dean of his profession", had no illusions about that already in 1953, when, giving a toast before the NY Press Club, he said:

There is no such thing at this date of the world's history, in America, as an independent press.  You know it and I know it.  There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print.  I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with.  Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job.  If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone.  The business of a journalist is to destroy truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread.  You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press?  We are the tools and vassals for rich men behind the scenes.  We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance.  Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men.

We are intellectual prostitutes.

What John Swinton addressed then in relation to the press is now even more true about all sectors of the media.  Somebody on the PBS program, in relating to it all, asked whether anything is left for children to look up to, even only a sliver of light to orient themselves by. The program left the question unanswered. It seems that our children are not even looking for any light other than that coming off the idiot box that shows them being their own models for their very own, unrestrained but firmly controlled ideology driven by new gods, foremost by Mammon.

Our children have got themselves to go by.  They are blinded by themselves and are being helped in that by the media giants, deafened by the terrible words and noise of their music — many and increasing numbers lured and driven by the deep-seated urge they are being indoctrinated with to out-do themselves in trying to be more cool than all other kids.

They are the ultimate and ideal slaves.  They crave what they are and wish to become, and they call their 'self-made' subversion freedom and rebelling.   Thereby they willingly become indentured slaves of consumerism and of their basest emotional drives.

Walter Schneider



  1. The Coolhunt – Who decides what's cool? Certain kids in certain places—and only the coolhunters know who they are, by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, March 17, 1997, ANNALS OF STYLE

  2. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Chapter VI (excerpts)

  3. Quoted in PR!: A Social History of Spin, By Stuart Ewen (1996, US$30.00 / hardcover / 496 pages, ISBN: 0-465-06168-0, Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins).  If you wish to find out more about Edward Bernays, search the Internet for <+"Edward Bernays" +propaganda> (excluding the chevrons), about 826 URLs will be returned

  4. Business Relationships of Media Giants; contains two charts constructed from information provided in connection with the PBS-Frontline program  The Merchants of Cool
       One chart is organized by media sector, the other by media corporation names.

  5. Lord of the Flies: A Novel, by William Gerald Golding; Paperback (Perigee; ISBN: 0399501487; July 1959)

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Thoughts are Free

Posted 2002 12 03