My generation - Page 5
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 13: The Next Big Thing
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Creed O'Hanlon
MTV WAS LAUNCHED ON AMERICAN CABLE NETWORKS on August 1, 1981. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention had just recognised the first cases of AIDS, in five gay men in California. Of course, the two events were unrelated but it felt like the beginning and the end of youth culture.
With its all-music-video format modelled on Top 40 radio by former whizz-kid Baby Boomers fresh out FM radio programming and advertising – the first video that MTV broadcast was The Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star – and its use of young, good-looking "video jockeys", or VJs, who appeared to have been genetically engineered to match a broad cross-section of the racially diverse, financially disparate, youth demography found in densely populated American urban centres, and even if the music it first featured was predominantly white, MTV appeared to dull rather than enliven the collective imagination, despite its popularity. The symbiosis it had with a music industry already absorbed into huge, multinational media conglomerates – MTV was itself the product of a joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express, the Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, that morphed into MTV Networks Inc. just ahead of an IPO in 1984 – was obvious and a little creepy: apart from hourly entertainment news spots and studio interviews with music stars, MTV's only content was music video clips produced by the major labels and provided to the new network free of charge (although it would not be long before the network would charge them to put a video into what was called "heavy rotation"). In other words, MTV was running ads for the record labels twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
None of its growing audience gave a damn. "Too much is never enough" as one of MTV's earliest promotional slogans put it. In keeping with the times, the new network was about as cynical as you
"I think the relationship between authentic youth cultural happenings and youth culture consumption is indistinguishable," Douglas Rushkoff, Professor of Media Culture at New York University, said in a recent interview. He might as well have simplified it to "culture and consumption", because even by the '80s the porous membrane between the two had already been breached – and not just among youth. Shopping was the primary cultural activity of most major cities in the developed world, and with more products competing across more programming choices – if not yet more media – for the exponentially shorter attention of more consumers willing to spend more time and money on themselves than ever before, it was inevitable that marketers would have to look for other ways of ensuring, if not higher (or more conscious) awareness of their brands, then more constant visibility. We needed the brands to become ambient, ever-present. "Turn it on, leave it on" – another MTV slogan.
It didn't take genius to figure out that brands should behave like the media they used to distribute awareness of themselves. Nuances of meaning and emotional engagement could be different depending on how and where the brand insinuated itself into a consumer's awareness: the medium was no longer just the message, as McLuhan had argued when, in 1967, he rewrote his most famous catchphrase, but rather the massage, the effect on our sensorium. Traditional advertising was, and still is, interruptive – it deliberately intersected the periods of attention we allotted to entertainment and information programming across what was, in the '80s, a limited range of passive media – so the logical step was to create opportunities for brands, their product expressions and values to exist not only within the context of entertainment and information (still mainly as interruptive advertising), but also within the content.
Today, a high percentage of the multi-million dollar marketing budgets (and sometimes the $100-200 million negative costs) of blockbuster feature films – usually the action-driven "franchises" such as James Bond, Spiderman or X-Men, the so-called "tent-pole pictures" that prop up the intrinsically rickety balance sheets of Hollywood studios – are funded by "product placement" written into the scripts even before shooting begins. For example, Ford's multi-picture, multi-brand relationship (including Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Range Rover) with the most recent series of Bond films starring Pierce Brosnan was said to have cost the ailing US car manufacturer over $US125 million; and in 2000, international courier Federal Express underwrote much of the production and marketing budgets of Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks as your average FedEx executive who is transformed into a modern Robinson Crusoe when the FedEx cargo plane on which he catches a ride crashes on a remote island in the Pacific.
Pop singers such as Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Nelly supplement their already extraordinary earnings from record sales, music publishing and touring with millions more dollars just for "name checking" brands in songs that will pervade, for a short while, the awareness of a huge number of young, impressionable consumers impatient to realise their potential. Agenda, a US youth marketing company, even tracks what brands are mentioned most in the songs on US music charts to create a Top 40 chart of its own, American Brandstand. (The current Gen Y pop stars have studied Boomer formulae for appropriation and hype, now so refined that anyone can use them. Rather than rejecting them, they have embraced these formulae with such enthusiasm that, for the first time since the '30s, youth culture appears to be "aspirationally older".)
In some cases, entirely new, purpose-built content has been created as brand vehicles – not only TV programming, film and music but also sporting and cultural events. The array of high profile, sponsored literary prizes in the UK is an example. Another is the unregulated, post-apocalyptic version of "the world game", played inside a locked cage, that Nike invented to promote its involvement in the 2002 World Cup hosted by both Korea and Japan. Nike featured it in a couple of award-winning TV ads starring some of soccer's best-known international players. Then the US company built a real-life arena – a playing field deconstructed as theme park and sci-fi movie set – in a Tokyo warehouse, where Japanese youth, its target consumers, could play it as well.
All sides of the marketing/media/consumer equation are still dominated by Baby Boomers. We are the most powerful consumer segment in the global economy, with aggregate gross earnings in the United States alone of US4.1 trillion dollars a year (and with a projected global entertainment media spend of $US1.8 trillion a year by 2010). If we are no longer at the white-hot core of the hyper-mediated consumerism that passes for popular culture these days, our money – and the parasitic tenaciousness with which we have wormed our way into the imaginative ambitions of other generations, usually to their detriment, since the mid-60s – enables us to exert influence everywhere.
Advertising strategists, demographic researchers and academics argue that both Generations X and Y are inured to Baby Boomer attempts to market to them on anything but their own terms. "Young people have grown up immersed in the language of advertising and public relations. They speak it like natives," Douglas Rushkoff writes in his 2000 book Coercion: Why We Listen To What They Say."As a result, they are more than aware when a commercial or billboard is targeting them. In conscious defiance of demographic-based pandering, they adopt a stance of self-protective irony – distancing themselves from the emotional ploys of the advertisers."
To some extent, this ignores the depth of the Baby Boomers' experience. Boomers were still young when passive, pre-programmed mass media began a slow transformation of its hardware, formats and programming, and we not only participated in the early evolution of interactive media – through which individualised information, entertainment, transaction and communication could eventually be accessed any time, anywhere – we were among its inventors. Media are as much a "natural element" for Boomers as they are for younger generations. We have appropriated, co-opted or "remixed" the disparate perceptions, attitudes and trends of four generations of youth culture distributed – and preserved – by old and new media in order to "commoditise" them (while sterilising any inherent idealism): how do you think we came up with the amorphous "hip"-ness of The Gap's t-shirts and cargo pants, or Starbucks' Beatnik-manqué coffee lounges?
Will the younger generations ever break the ageing Boomers' suffocating headlock on popular culture? To some extent, they have already by sharing music, video, games and software online. Baby Boomer executives, lobbyists and lawyers decry file-sharing because it deprives a work's creator of both income and control, and because it threatens all businesses – not just those in entertainment or publishing – which derive revenue and power from the licensing of intellectual property (in other words, most of the world's largest corporations). Our real dread is file-sharing's subversive simplicity. All it needs is mass for it to erase traditional concepts of ownership and value.
The revolution starts there. ♦