As a veteran of youth counterculture, I'm watching with curiosity the importance of youth voices as a gage for the so-called "real," not in the philosophical sense, but in the "keeping it real" sense. Marketers are not concerned whether or not adults think what they see is "real": it's the skeptical teen audience that is more challenging.
In the critique of the history of advertising it has been said that marketing in its modern form was invented to solve a problem for business: to sell a surplus of products that no one needs. Little did these futurists of behavioral science in the '20s and '30s who established the intellectual foundation of modern advertising imagine that in the future, advertising would develop its own problem: a lack of authenticity.
Few may realize that the US peaked in its industrial production in the mid-1960s, and since then the market has been saturated with such things as toasters and refrigerators. The average household has what it needs. Thus a prime market is the penetration of the youth demographic, people who are yet to furnish houses or buy cars but do have cash and want to spend it on mostly ephemeral things like entertainment. Reaching this coveted group achieves three goals: garner lifetime loyalty to a brand, develop consumer habits, and encourage the purchase of commodities.
In response to this growing need has been the advent of so-called "cool hunters," research agencies that "spy" on youth culture to determine how and what to market to them, and to also regurgitate as quickly as possible any trends that might be out there waiting to explode on the cultural scene. The increasing speed of the cycle of hype and decay in youth culture these days is astonishing. Consequently, within the 24/7-culture rotation of hip, advertisers are struggling about what to do. A recent conference announcement for youth marketers explained the problem succinctly:
"Teens are wired different than any another consumer group. They navigate through media clutter with a heightened 'BS' meter to sniff out hidden advertising agendas. In a post-scarcity media world, there is no shortage of brands or media pipeline channels. Attention is the new scarcity. Loyalty, trust and affinity become the new pipeline. When there is so much choice, what is the new role of earned attention?"
This is not the only instance in which marketers seemed a little starved for the "real." Fresh-Films.com boasts in its on-line advertising "authentic user generated content" and its website features a graphic of a post-it note with "your company logo here" above the photos of fresh-faced youth. Look-Look, the cool hunters made famous in Douglas Rushkoff's Frontline documentary, The Merchants of Cool," states on its Web site,
"Look-Look believes that youth culture has always been a subculture. An uncensored raw voice that demands to be heard. Look-Look wants to share these subcultures with the rest of the world. We want people to be inspired by the creative and brilliant young minds from around the globe that shoot photos, write poems, make art and think. We also want young people to know that there is a home for their collective voice that turns it into a two-way dialogue between our clients and these subcultures."
Cool hunters offer "field correspondents," "journalists," and "ethnographic research," all a strange new taxonomy that combines anthropology, journalism and marketing. The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that these are nefarious companies that are out to undermine youth culture by couching their practices in New Agey terms of empowerment. The other backlash (coming from both the Right and Left) is to assume that today's youth are "narcissistic."
But I like to think of this situation as a leverage point. If it's true that teens are skeptical of what is being offered to them, it's also not surprising that they are creating their own media on a scale never experienced, due largely to the advent of social network spaces like MySpace and Facebook, and the prevalence of free media production tools. When a kid can make a video with her cell phone and edit it into a clip and instantaneously upload it to an audience of millions, this is an amazing feat.
It's no wonder that marketers are starting to use Internet aesthetics as part of their marketing, as Pepsi did when it partnered with Yahoo to make a site of video clips that mimic vlogging ala Rocketboom and YouTube. Not surprisingly, the big trend of the 2007 Super Bowl was "user generated" commercials. The results were not interesting, but the novelty of user created ads was the marketing meme of choice. It was meant to represent a kind of consumer democracy, or triumph of the viewer, but there was little remarkable. A better example was when Chevy invited people to remix their Tahoe commercial on the Web. What resulted was a hilarious rebellion that attacked the concept entirely and turned Tahoe ads into anti-SUV diatribes.
This is walking the razor's edge of "authenticity." Marketers want to claim the aesthetic of the "real," but their intentions don't fulfill the promise. To me this means there is a leverage point: the potential for youth media to hack this desire for authenticity. There will always be an eternal thirst for the "real" real friends, real relationships, real love. That marketers could pretend otherwise is grandiose self deception. But search they will, on and on, for that magic elixir that advertising will never provide: a truly authentic relationship with the world.