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The Commodification And Commercialization Of Youth Culture Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5591 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Youth is the promise of possibility. It is the freedom to act on impulse. It is a time to establish identity and desire. At least that is what youth presently represents in dominant Western culture. Youth, as a concept rather than an age group, is often used as a signifier to represent freedom, efficiency, promise, possibility, rebellion, strength, endurance, potential, beauty, freshness, innocence. Youth keeps on meaning different things at different times. Youth as an age rather than a concept is a time to situate firmly the rules and expectations of consumer culture and our social world. Youth is a stage when these powerful rules and expectations are strongly dictated by communication disseminators such as advertising, music, movies, television, and magazines. These rules work through a consumerist ideology to serve corporations by producing meaning. These meanings that represent and signify youth have been engendered and mapped closely onto the understanding of the term “youth”. Images in advertisements are utilized to maintain these notions of youth. Their power is very pervasive in our increasingly visually based culture. This engendering of meaning comes at a cost to the group deemed youth themselves as well as to those attempting to achieve or maintain “youth”. The quest to find and capture “cool” is an integral part of youth subculture. “Coolness” is a concept that is widely accepted to mean a kind of popularity, mystique and sacredness, which inspires and motivates desire and appreciation. What is cool is evasive and elusive, both for young people and for corporations. As a subculture, youth is a site of variance. Corporations are increasingly appropriating the signifiers of cool, as produced by youth culture, to facilitate the selling of commodity goods to the masses, specifically targeting the young people with whom these meanings originated. Dick Hebdige, in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, discusses the origin and function of subculture as a reaction to dominant culture with a continuing (and struggling) position as opposite and counter. Corporations are consistently attempting to bridge the gap between underground youth subculture that is creating cool, and the ever-accepting mass youth culture that is consuming cool. There is an efficient system of observing, appropriating, standardizing and commercializing youth culture to the population at large. This proficient machine seeks out marketable subcultures to establish cultural ideals and maintain them, while selling commodity goods that reflect an ideology of what youth is “supposed to” be and look like, as well as how the consumer is “supposed to” participate within this paradigm. The tenets of youth culture in terms of social exchange, economic status and individual value change quickly. With the use of “cool hunting”, a highly complex system of exploitative research and target marketing, corporations can closely follow these changes and capitalize on their popularity and meaning. This system of selling culture is significant in terms of the power and potential of the media, conglomerate and corporation to exploit, co-opt and appropriate the experience and expectation of what it means to be a young person in our contemporary social world. The consequences of this selling include the corporation becoming the institution that we increasingly turn to, instead of government, to exercise power, to define our communities, to build up our economy, to identify ourselves as participants and to solve our social, environmental and personal problems.

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In the chapter titled Youth as an Industrial Ideal, Ewan discusses the “symbolic role of youth” as signifying a fresh innocence with very favorable prospects for the future (139). This view comes within the context of the development of industrialization. Ewan explores the influence of industrialization of the position of the family in society. He discusses the effects of leisure time and surplus wages on social culture, focusing in some parts on the situation of youth. With industrialization and the increase of hard factory work, youth quickly became privileged as an ideal to sustain and uphold. Work in the domestic or private sphere, deemed women’s work, quickly became devalued as the necessity to earn a wage outside of the home in the public sphere increased (Ewan 119). Youth, and the ability to work the necessary long hours with maintained endurance became a “central qualification for employment” (Ewan 141). Young men were able to find jobs relatively easily because of their stamina and strength. As a result, young men commenced their participation in consumerism.

Advertising played a large role in perpetuating consumption and the realization of consumer goods through the production of false needs (Ewan 139). Ewan argues that the skill shift from artisan to labourer directly reflects a shift in authority from the patriarchal family to the corporation or the advertiser (140). This shift is especially momentous in the development of consumerism. Advertising, consumer culture, and realization encouraged people to buy mass produced commodity goods, which could easily be and historically were produced within the home. With independently earned wages, young people previously expected to help with the family’s daily chores and tasks necessary for survival, began to be increasingly encouraged by business to see themselves as consumers of material goods rather than as producers of such goods (Ewan 139). These social and cultural changes associated with industrialization would set the stage for future embodiments of consumer culture, particularly for young people.

Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin in their Frontline program Merchants Of Cool, discuss contemporary youth culture today as a very powerful, evasive market unto themselves, demanding and being subjected to a large amount of unique advertising that attempts ever-changing approaches to specifically target and tailor market to youth. In their documentary, Goodman and Dretzin explore the complex relationship teenagers and young people have with the media they consume, and very similarly the elaborate fixation the media have with teenagers and youth. Both as the target market, as well as the signifier of youth, youth-culture is pursued aggressively. Goodman and Dretzin’s thesis poses that the media’s power and influence utilize commodity fetishism to establish and maintain ideological notions of desire and performance, both for and of young people in order to standardize, commodify and commercialize youth culture, or the “culture of cool”. Goodman and Dretzin offer the notion that the media and advertisers achieve this control by infiltrating, observing, studying and appropriating the culture of youth as it is, and then attempt to change it into what ever will sell the most commodity goods to mass market young people.

As Goodman and Dretzin’s film suggests, commodifying goods is often done with a cross-platform in mind to sell even more commodity goods and maintain a strong level of authority. For instance, many television shows produced by the WB television network exemplify Goodman and Dretzin’s point. Shows such as Felicity or Dawson’s Creek take advantage of their youth based audience with both subtle and overt product placements accented by youth dominated images and performances during the program. The commercials broadcast in the show often compliment the commodity goods featured in the program. At the end of the show, before the credits roll, there is a cleverly situated advertisement for all of the artists’ music appearing in that specific episode. Also, the soundtrack advertisement informs the viewer that all CD’s may be purchased at the WB.com website. Advertising like in this campaign is multi-tasking; it is selling more than one thing at a time, touching on more than one potential sense of lack at a time.

The division of age, specifically childhood, into unique and different identifying segments is a relatively new and highly effective practice. In our recent social history, it is only within the past century that businesses have placed emphasis on fragments of young life giving youth status as a separate category with names like toddler, child, tween, adolescent, teenager or young adult. Marcel Danesi, in his book, Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence cites Stanley G. Hall as emphasizing adolescence as a location of study in 1904 (3), and the 1950’s as the decade the “term teenager gained general currency within mainstream culture” (4). The term tween is a very new concept referring to pre-teenagers. It plays on the semantics of the word between [1] . The tween, to advertisers, behaves unequivocally like the teen. The corporation views both the tween and the teen as sites of differentiation in terms of marketing and potentially appropriate commodity goods. Danesi explains that before the 1950’s, the “teenager” didn’t exist as a category unto itself. This variation in segmentation of age group can at least partially be attributed to industrialization and the influence and effect of division of time, of work, and of living into separate exclusive periods designated by the clock (Glickman 100).

Stuart Ewan argues that the development and social construction of the category teenager is paralleled by a shift from familial authority to business authority and that the development of consumption is performed by segmenting life into highly specialized fragments that privilege youth and maintain spatial and social differences (140). The teenager and tween, as Goodman and Dretzin offer, occupy these same spaces, maintaining them with even more concrete rooting and even more segmentation and specialization of social, spatial, and sexual difference than when the social influence of industrialization was first encountered.

By seeking new and different ways of creating target market groups to capitalize on, the corporation seeks to further fragment groups of consumers to sell to on every angle imaginable. This means that populations such as “youth” will be segmented into groups such as the teenager and the tween. It means that individuals will be segmented into groups such as music fan, and fashionista. Fashionista, another new addition to post-modern vocabulary, refers to an individual, usually a girl or woman who is devoted to all things fashion related. Fragmentation increases the number of people in an audience and the number of times an audience can be re-appropriated. The segmentation ensures that every individual is being sold to in more than one market, and as more than one kind of consumer. The tween is an excellent example of this, as it identifies a new market segment to create commodity goods specifically for, and to advertise to. The corporation creates these highly specialized fragmentations so that every possible avenue of commodification and commercialization are explored and exploited to sell commodity goods and to create an ideology of a “good consumer”. Further on Theador Adorno approaches a similar concept in music, an ideology of the “ideal listener”.

Both Ewan and Goodman and Dretzin agree on the differentiation between the conception, approach, targeting, and advertising to girls and boys. The spatial segmentation of the sex-gender economy Ewan speaks of, instituted with the outset of advertising, is firmly upheld and perpetuated today as Goodman and Dretzin explore in their examination of youth culture. Ewan explains the industrial system’s reification of separation with the establishment of the domestic sphere as private and predominantly populated by women while the working sphere as public and predominantly populated by men. Susan Porter Benson, in Gender, Generation, and Consumption in the United States sustains a similar view “perpetuating the gendering of ‘production’ as male and ‘consumption’ as female.” (226). Advertising works to establish, reify, and perpetuate ideological sexual, social and spatial differences, with industrialization putting emphasis and privilege on surplus value being productive versus use value being consumptive.

Emphasis and privilege do not reside with production to the same extent as at the outset of industrialization. In consumer culture, use value and consumption are now favored as expressions of power; emphasis and privilege are placed on the ability to obtain commodity goods demonstrative of wealth and interest. At the time of industrialization, however, the result of the industrial system reifying separations was an elevation of men’s work outside the home while simultaneously devaluing women’s reproductive realm in the home (Ewan 118-9). I would argue that this system of value is closely related to the social celebration of industrialization and the privileging of production, while attempting to downplay the importance of consumption. A capitalist ideology will operate most efficiently when its participants are supporting its tenets whole-heartedly. If privilege lies with production and not consumption, it can be predicted and assumed that people will want to be immersed in that realm, in production, able to manifest some of its power.

Power, a patriarchal location was – and is – a male dominated expression. With industrialization and the recent shift in authority from familial patriarchy to the corporation, men were eager to maintain some kind of power position (Ewan 140). Consumption was new, and unfamiliar. In a patriarchal framework, anything that privileged work other than men’s was avoided. Men felt emasculated enough with industrial authority becoming powerful; they did not want to sacrifice power positions otherwise. Consumption, in a capitalist ideology is therefore secondary, and delegated to those not in power, women. In a capitalist framework our social world privileges capital-producing work above all else; thus, as women’s effort in the home is not capital producing, it is negated as non-work. In contemporary consumer culture, this power exchange is not the case. Consumption is paramount, for both men and women, and is a site of power.

Benson also outlines the circumstance during industrial exchange in which boys were able to spend their own wages, while girls had to contribute to the patriarchal family (227-8). Differences between the sexes do not stop there. Goodman and Dretzin explain established terms for the ideological character advertisers present to young people to aspire to be and incorporate into their being. For boys, it is the “mook”, an irresponsible and capricious character that manifests qualities of goofiness and the pursuit of pleasure. The term to describe the girls’ character is “midriff”. It connotes a sexualized yet innocent girl who can achieve anything she wants to through her beauty. These concepts offered to young people by corporations to strive to be are inherently unattainable. Like “cool”, these characters are forever vague and constantly changing to maintain their inherent appeal, as well as their preferred position as something to emulate. Both the “mook” and “midriff” abstractions are highly individualized and segmented concepts that reify expectations of what it means to be a young and cool teenager today.

These contemporary notions which aim to define youth are highly invested and pursued heavily by scores of young people. They are difficult to achieve, however. It is precisely the difficulty in manifesting these personas that makes them so perfect for an ideology of consumerism. Although young people may and will try to incorporate aspects of the mook or the midriff into their life, the mook and midriff are set up in such a way as to be impossible to acquire. The preoccupation our culture has with the importance of celebrity is an excellent example of this point. Although young boys may want to be like Fred Durst of the rock group Limp Bizkit, and young girls may want to be like Jennifer Lopez, they cannot be exactly like them. Young people are able, however, to buy the commodity goods that the celebrities endorse and therefore become some of what the mook and the midriff mean. These conceptions of youth and produced meanings are very effective in their attempt to command interpretation and to shape significance.

It is the goal of corporations to keep this separation between the desire of mass youth culture to possess “cool” and the reality that “cool” can’t be owned through possession or commodity goods, an invisible gap. It is corporations’ goal that consumers understand that by purchasing commodity goods, they are participating in the very system that can bestow to them a feeling of becoming what they want. Purchasing commodity goods that reflect a feeling of what they desire is the admission to being a part of it and becoming what they want. They are becoming the objects they are buying, they are becoming “cool”. It is then the corporations’ task to convince young people to believe that they are “cool” by buying their product. Consumption then acts like culture. It allows individuals to share a consciousness solely through acquiring by purchase. Consumption, however, is neither culture nor a community activity. It is an individualizing process masquerading as culture. As explored further on, Jean Baudrillard, in his piece, The System of Objects, discusses how individuals realize through consumption (15). This realization then means individuals perform, for the corporation, the desired result of acquiring to cooperate in consumer culture.

Because our commodities so effectively act as social communicators, status symbols and indicators of taste, there is clear motivation to consume the specific goods that convey the most appropriate and desired details of who we are and what we like. It is a representation or a perspective of our social identity, transmitted through commodity goods. This communication is performed through the acquiring of new and different commodity goods whose engendered meaning we hope to share with the world through ownership and display. This, however, puts consumers in a position of constant want and need for new objects and apparel. Colin Campbell, in his article The Desire For the New, explores concepts of desire, various kinds of “new”, and their relation to consumerism. Campbell describes the “Veblen-Simmel model of modern consumption” as a regulated and involved process of obtaining objects that communicate position, intuition and perception, as an inherent system of rapid obsolescence to maintain superiority, and as a hierarchy of style with elite classes constantly embracing the fresh and novel (50-1).

Colin Campbell examines the “Veblen-Simmel” “”trickle down” nature of fashions” approach to trends, as originating with high art and an aristocratic division and then being imitated and adopted by lower classes (48). Campbell, however, also writes about the limitations of the “Veblin-Simmel” system, and about how trends do not exclusively originate with the elite, but also from so-called lower classes (51). Campbell quotes Paul Blumberg as indicating the appropriation of underground subculture to be emulated in couture, and in turn, mainstream mass fashion (51). This appropriation is seemingly relevant to youth culture and the co-optation performed by the corporation. By utilizing “cool hunting”, the corporation is executing the same kind of exploitation of expression and trends of young people to sell to the mainstream that Campbell quotes Blumberg as illustrating.

Campbell’s article investigates Veblen’s theory of “conspicuous consumption” to maintain competition through consumption of communicative commodity goods, and its design to keep participants in a pattern of procurement in order to maintain participation itself (Campbell 49). Pierre Bourdieu, in the introduction of his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, writes about “cultural competency” and having the appropriate knowledge to be able to understand a cultural object or practice (2). Again these authors’ position is consistent with the appropriation of youth culture. By employing “cool hunting”, corporations are able to commandeer familiar and informed signs of “cool” from underground youth-culture to sell back to mainstream youth in order to maintain cooperation of consumption.

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Part of the institution of consumption, as Campbell illustrates, is the relatively quick onset of age, worthlessness and abandonment of commodity goods (50). Campbell informs us of the ongoing desire and experience of want that disappears when possession occurs. This cycle of longing is practical for the selling of commodity goods; however, it places the consumer in a position of constantly searching for satisfaction through consumption. This structure of rapid, abrupt and swift obsolescence is not unfamiliar to a structure of “cool”. Both have a period of desire and emulation, and both change invariably. I would endeavor to say that the ideology of “cool” so suitably works with, and for, consumerism for these very reasons.

There is a highly intricate network of tools in place to gauge, observe, measure and survey youth culture, getting more complex all the time. In Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence, Danesi quotes Stanley G. Hall as establishing adolescence as a unique segment to examine and study (3). In Captains of Consciousness, Ewan explains the introduction and establishment of the category “teenager” as being dependent on the evolution of consumerism. This development is the origin of the study of youth as a fragment – as a group unto themselves. Since then, as the documentary The Merchants of Cool explores, the study of youth as a group has become highly specialized undertaking, with the bottom line being profit.

Today, youth are a huge market. They have a significant disposable income of their own, and they have parents buying them additional commodity goods. The corporate gaze, the position the corporation takes and its involvement with selling to the youth market, is highly prominent and becomes a more specialized organism all the time. “Cool hunting”, the locating, documenting, and appropriating of underground popularity among teenagers and young people, is extremely big business as Goodman and Dretzin’s film illustrates. It is beneficial for corporations and advertising agencies to know and understand the youth market, so that they will be able to target them as efficiently as possible to sell the most commodity goods. Goodman and Drezin show that corporations achieve this intent by utilizing their tools, a number of investigative methods including focus groups, surveys, and market research.

As The Merchants of Cool features, on behalf of corporations, marketing firms such as Cornerstone recruit strong charactered and popular young people to be representatives for them to help convince their friends to participate in purchasing their respective commodity goods. These representatives are compensated either monetarily, or with commodity goods themselves. This process, deemed “under-the-radar marketing” (Goodman and Dretzin) is executed on behalf of the corporation to aid in building brand loyalty among young people. The representatives are hired, at least partially, based on their ability to convey word-of-mouth advertising to a significant group of young people. This practice is capitalizing on the hope that young people will trust and believe another young person rather than the media in the expectation that more commodity goods will be consumed (Goodman and Dretzin).

The youth market, a highly prized target group is idealized as a number of young people unified by their knowledge and participation in subculture. Dick Hebdige introduces the meaning of subculture as a subversive refusal and rebellion against dominant culture, having conflict contained in ideology and signification (3). Hebdige describes the site of subculture as “a struggle for possession of the sign which extends to even the most mundane areas of everyday life” (17). Objects, concepts, vernacular, et cetera are assigned to or take on meanings that both reflect and deny the meanings bestowed by dominant culture. For example, this process can be seen historically through the hand gesture containing two fingers held in a “V”; held one way the gesture is understood to mean “Victory in war”, while turned around, this hand gesture is seen to signify “peace”. As Hebdige describes, this appropriation of one kind of sign and its transformation into another – oppositional sign – works as a function of underground subculture (2).

Similarly, and more recently, the words “cheddar”, “cheddah”, or “cheese” can be used to signify the traditional understanding as a dairy product, but also these words have been appropriated to refer to money. The rap artist Jay-Z uses this signification on Vol. 3 – The Life & Times of S. Carter, in his song Big Pimpin’. The lyrics, “Big pimpin’, spendin’ cheese”, refer to the use of “cheese” as money. Hebdige offers the notion that this process of signification is utilized by subculture to communicate (18). In order to maintain ideology and sell commodity goods, corporations can also exercise this signification process to seek out signs apropos to young people and incorporate them in their marketing schemes and campaigns. This inclusion of signs is completed in the expectancy of attracting mass youth market.

Corporations rely on the consumer’s ability and desire to collapse the gap between the ideal of what they want – the corporation designed representation of the individual – and the reality of who they are. Media images are increasingly strict in their representations of ideals of beauty, of power, of health and of “cool”. Judith Williamson, in her book Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, talks about the “mirror phase” in advertisements that works to show a representation of a created image and concept that the individual can both locate his or herself in, and extend that location by attempting to “become” through consumption, altering their appearance or identity in some fashion (60). The discontinuity between this manufactured ideal identity and the reality of day-to-day existence does exist, however difficult to identify and endure. Young people, as well as women (and more recently, men), are expected to participate within this highly regulated paradigm and position themselves with the created image, rather than with a more attainable reality.

Advertisers aim to have consumers define their own unique identity and personality solely through consumption and the commodity goods we purchase (Baudrillard 14). It is the goal of the corporation that consumers will establish, build, and express an identity through the type of commodity goods we wear, use and consume. In consumer culture objects are used as social communicators, giving the individual an opportunity to become a part of what they desire, or in some cases as the corporation and advertisers insist, to become the thing itself. Through an ideology of competition, connotations are attached to objects, concepts are engendered to them and meaning is produced.

It is advertiser’s aim that individuals will capitalize on these produced meanings by buying commodity goods that closely reflect what people want to express about themselves, as well as what they want to communicate to others. Jean Baudrillard explores the potential of objects as social communicators and commodity goods as a code, each with a specific connotation (23). Baudrillard offers that by picking and choosing various competing objects we place ourselves into established like categories (20). He extends that individuality, uniqueness and distinctness is not to be found in commodity goods, as advertisers would have us believe. The meaning attached to commodity goods is engendered through a process of signification; these desired meanings for commodity goods are appropriated through the use of “cool hunting”.

Advertisers seek to capture and claim the meanings produced by youth culture for the commodity goods they produce, so as to secure the youth market for their products. It is a tight and highly engineered and maintained cycle. Advertisers will go to great lengths to find “cool” and employ found or produced signification to their products. In terms of meaning being engendered to objects, the effect of this can be understood through and examination of the companies Louis Vuitton and Kate Spade. Both Vuitton and Spade are fashion design houses that specialize in accessories and purses. Louis Vuitton, a well-established house that sells to wealthy and accomplished women possesses connotations of luxury, comfort and affluence. Kate Spade is a relatively new design house that sells to young, trendy women and has connotations of chic, taste and femininity. These design houses sell a very similar product; however through the signs and significations used and operated by each company, the product is understood very differently.

Both Louis Vuitton and Kate Spade are highly invested in the connotations they exude through their products. It is not just a commodity good they are selling with the name and brand Louis Vuitton, or Kate Spade. They are also selling an identity of who and what they are, and in turn who you are for owning their merchandise. It is interesting to note that in recent seasons, Louis Vuitton has secured designer Stephen Sprouse and the use of his graffiti typeface for some of their products. This graffiti type has added a more urban and young connotation to those Vuitton products. This typeface has been appropriated by other corporations and a very similar graffiti typeface is utilized on recording artist No Doubt’s latest album Rock Steady, not to mention countless knock-off type products that also use the graffiti. Louis Vuitton is able to maintian a very “high class” identity, while adding another dynamic to their complex market.

It is interesting to note the current trend of product diversification and market expansion. Martha Stewart has her mail-order company “Martha By Mail”, her products are available at K-Mart and she has an incredibly lucrative book series and magazine. Martha’s Hampton neighbour Puff Daddy, more recently known as P Diddy, is another interesting example. P Diddy has a successful rap career; his close relationship to the late Notorious B.I.G. helped catapult his album sales and fan interest. P Diddy also has a prosperous position as a record producer. He produces many other rap, R & B, and pop artist’s work, contributing to his growing empire. P Diddy, whose real name is Sean Combs, is also undertaking the auspicious role of fashion designer with his line of men’s wear titled Sean John. Also, P Diddy has recently entered the domain of acting including a role in the 2001 film, Monster’s Ball. As featured on the Bad Boy Entertainment website, P Diddy is also venturing in restaurants, and predictably enough “youth market consulting”.

P Diddy himself, and his conglomerate Bad Boy Entertainment, is expanding his horizons to increase profitability. Like P Diddy, Louis Vuitton and Kate Spade are expanding into other markets. Louis Vuitton, in addition to purses and luggage, is now designing and marketing shoes, and clothing. Kate Spade has expanded their catalogue to include shoes, clothing, stationary, pajamas and skin care products above and beyond purses and luggage. Stephen Sprouse, the graffiti typeface designer Vuitton has used for a number of their products, is now designing a line of clothing and accessories for the discount department store Target in the United States. Product diversification recently, it seems, is essential and obligatory to maintain a level of competition and admission to large market exposure. It appears that these corporations are attempting to saturate the markets that they are able to flourish in, in order to exploit the potential to create capital and incr


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