Selling Teens: Using the Merchants of Cool PBS documentary to examine media influence on teens

The page authored by Michelle B. Kunz, Morehead State University, based upon MERLOT material: Merchants of Cool,
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This case study uses the online support site for the PBS Frontline documentary, "Merchants of Cool." The report examines the influence of media on teens and their culture. There are six video segments, totaling approximately 55 minutes. Additionally, interviews with teens, media moguls, and producers, along with statistics and research methodology are presented.

Learning Goals

After completion of the case assignment student will
  1. Identify elements of teen culture
  2. Identify media tools to communicate effectively to teens
  3. Discuss the influence of media on teen culture
  4. Discuss different views of positive and negative cultural influences

Context for Use

This activity can use all or only parts of the material available on the PBS website. This Frontline program could be effectively used in a consumer behavior, media literacy, marketing communications, or marketing research class. After viewing one or more of the approximately 10 minute video segments, students complete a summary analysis document, and identify ways this information could be used, relative to the course in which it is assigned.

In a marketing research class, they might identify how "cool" is defined; how the teens were selected for the segment, and what weaknesses in the methodology could be identified. For a consumer behavior class, students might be asked to identify the types of media most relevant to the teen market, what reference group/peer influences could be identified, as well as what financial value the teen market presents to marketers.

Description and Teaching Materials

Assign the FRONTLINE video segment as the introduction to the case study. On occasion, I use the first video segment in-class as the introduction, to explain the overall case study assignment, again directing it toward the specific course I am teaching. The first video segment is about 10 minutes, and works well in class, without taking too much valuable time. Alternatively, just showing the website in class, and discussing the various components may work effectively too.

Each video segment covers a different component, all of which are from the media perspective, so the instructor will find it important to set the appropriate foundation for the assignment. Since the site and program are designed to report about how much influence the media has on teens, teen culture, and their consumptions patterns, the instructor will need to make sure students do not believe this is a criticism of the media machine.

After viewing one or more of the assigned video segments, students complete a critical written analysis of each viewed segment. Specific items they are expected to discuss are based upon the course in which the activity is being used. General items they should include in the discussion are:

  • Media that have an influence on teens,
  • Media that are a significant component of teen culture,
  • Media tools effective in communicating with teens,
  • Media influence on teen culture consumption patterns, and
  • Both positive and negative influences of media on teen culture.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I find that I need to view each of the video segments prior to this assignment, in particular #5 and #6. They are somewhat graphic/explicit in nature and language, so I might temper the introduction of the assignment, depending upon the class makeup.

I find that using the first segment "Hunting for Cool" in class as an introduction to the overall site and assignment works best, because I can frame it to the specific course and the students I have (advertising/PR students versus marketing majors). However, if class time is short (in the case of a winter term with missed sessions due to weather), just opening the site and discussing the various components of the site will suffice.

Finally, this assignment could be used in a marketing ethics course, and might provide the foundation for a good team debate, those supportive of media, and those critical of media and its influence on society and culture in general.


Questions students should answer in their critical analysis:
  • What elements of teen culture can you identify?
  • What media have the most/greatest influence on teens?
  • What media tools can be used most effectively to communicate with teens?
  • What negative views of media influence on teens can you identify?
  • What positive views of the media's influence on teens can you identify?
  • How would a _______ ( marketing researcher, advertiser, product development manager) view the information presented here?
  • What counterpoint comments would you make to the producers of this show/documentary?

References and Resources