PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Playbook of Marketing Was Turned on Its Ear by Social Media

Douglas Rushkoff’s Frontline: Generation Like discovers that teens, it seems, are happy to work for free, essentially doing the work of the advertisers.

Frontline: Generation Like

Distributor: PBS
Network: PBS

Above: Ian Somerhalde in Frontline: Generation Like

You Are What You Like

In my former life as a college adjunct teacher, Douglas Rushkoff’s The Merchants of Cool (PBS, Frontline, 2001), was a staple text in my Freshmen Composition class. Most students did not buy into the argument that they were being force-fed their notions of “cool”. In fact, many outright denied it, claiming that their free will trumped any type of powerful persuasion tactics that companies such as PepsiCo and Sony ViaCom used to implicitly suggest what brands were culturally acceptable (“cool”) and which were not (“uncool”).

Despite Rushkoff’s well-researched thesis, most of my students found it funny—indeed, hilarious—that outdated examples of “cool” were being used to illustrate the vast hand of marketing over their lives (e.g., Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, MTV). But Rushkoff’s examination of the unseen hands of persuasion in marketing was lacking in one enormous factor: social media. Rushkoff was not at fault; at the time (2001 and later in 2004 when The Persuaders, his follow-up investigation, aired) social media was still a nascent outlier, yet to fully evolve into the juggernaut that it stands as today.

The playbook of marketing was turned on its ear by social media; it flipped the second that the consumer sought out the marketer, instead of vice versa. Now, as Rushkoff’s film points out, marketers no longer have to search for their consumer, their consumer will come to them. As much as we like to romanticize the notion of advertising, we no longer need the Don Draper’s of the world; instead, advertisers need more Tyler Oakley’s (a YouTube personality whose profile is essentially a textbook in how to snare consumers).

Oakley and dozens of other “personalities” and “YouTubers" like him make it easy for marketers to do their job—as long as they are willing to listen. After all, the entire crux of the film is how a new generation of teens is defined by what they “like” and, in turn, what they share. And they couldn’t be happier to share what they like with their audiences. Teens, it seems, are happy to work for free, essentially doing the work of the advertisers.

What Rushkoff brushes on, and should be more in focus during Generation Like, is how brand centers capitalize on, and ultimately exploit, free information teens provide. And the methods in which they turn “likes” into cash is a study in modern alchemy. The most jarring incident in Generation Like, is a scene where a brand expert from social media/brand center The Audience, is able to pull up, in real time, all of the particular brands and products that followers of a television star (Ian Somerhalder, Vampire Diaries) have liked and support on social media.

Onscreen, it’s the definition of being linked in; information is offered up voluntarily and instantly from a direct target audience—all for free. Not only are teen consumers a target, but they're the ones loading the proverbial gun and aiming it for advertisers.

Teens do this for a number of reasons, according to Rushkoff. They feel empowered when they show off what they like, they feel a connection, however fleeting, coupled with a sense of belonging, and there’s always the chance that companies or stars may “like” you back. You could get retweeted by a movie star or gain internet approval from dozens of followers for a new selfie. Either way, everyone wins. Teens gain validation and companies gain a foothold in their quest to compile every bit of data possible about their audiences. It’s easy to grasp who the real winners are in this scenario.

As with Rushkoff’s previous Frontline films, Generation Like leaves off with hundreds more questions than answers. The film ends on an odd, seemingly poignant note that suggests that online currency will never make us happy in the long term. But it's a point that occurs needlessly and isn’t truly broached prior to the final minutes of the film. If the existential crisis of teenage identity is worth mentioning, surely it’s worth exploring a bit more than say, YouTuber Tyler Oakley’s presence at a One Direction concert.

Also, there’s a belabored metaphor that Generation Like sticks to like a bird in a briar patch: social media is akin to The Hunger Games. Teens fight for likability and, once embroiled in the games, must become well-liked and gain sponsors to aid in their survival. All the while, game makers sit in a comfortable ivory tower, twisting the knobs, changing the rules of the game.

As a metaphor, it’s smart enough and ripe for the recognizing. But the most ironic moment of all comes halfway through Generation Like when a Twitter hashtag appears onscreen advocating, #GenLike. It’s a perfect example of the giant “feedback loop” that Rushkoff mentions in both The Merchants of Cool and Generation Like. Even PBS and Frontline aren’t immune to the gravitational pull of social media, a testament to its ubiquity, and a self-referential moment of pure illustration where the snake eats its own tail and the journalists become the subjects.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.