Posted by: nickgerlich | October 24, 2007

Cool Today, Cold Tomorrow

Back in the old days, it wasn’t very hard to be cool. Whatever was cool stayed cool for a long time, so you really didn’t have to worry about obsolescence. And there were so few choices in coolness choice set that it didn’t require a whole lot of thought or concern. You were either cool or you weren’t.

Merchants of CoolBut today cool is an industry, and the marketers are in the driver’s seat. PBS’ epic documentary The Merchants of Cool, although a tad dated in 2007, still is an accurate depiction of the ever-sensitive coolness barometer used by the youth of America to determine what is cool and what isn’t. And, it is a chilling story of how marketers, the ever-loving socially responsible people that we are, provide ever more of the cool in a subtle yet painfully obvious feedback loop that give the kids exactly what they want. (Click here to watch the video online.)

Perhaps the greatest irony of the coolness industry is the speed at which cool grows cold. Whereas the coolness curve was slow and steady 30 years ago, coolness today is an ephemeral concept. It is fleeting; temporary. And if some activity or product that is deemed cool is adopted by the majority, then it is no longer cool.

In other words, cool is not as cool does. Cool is being in the minority, the leading edge of trendsetting. But once the trend spotters have merchandised and commercialized cool, it is no longer cool.

The result is an ever-faster extinction of coolness, as exhibited by everything from clothing styles to popular musicians. I often wonder if, in 30 years, there will be many artists classified as “classic rock” from the current realm, similar to how timeless “ancient” musicians such as the Eagles, Rolling Stones, and Elton John are still today.

In spite of the rapid rise and fall of cool things, marketers are chomping at the bit to chase after it anyway. There’s money to be made if you match the definition of cool, but as the video points out, you cannot let your marketing show. Today’s youth are far too savvy to allow someone to publicly market to them. In other words, marketers have to go beneath the radar to do their marketing.

Of course, marketing is still marketing, even when it is wrapped in Teflon. Young people just do not want someone to tell them what is cool, even though, as Douglas Rushkoff, the voice on the video, says, this is precisely what is happening.

For me aging feeble mind, I count myself glad that cool no longer matters that much to me. If I accidentally happen to be doing or wearing something that is cool, then there must have been a strange convergence of forces beyond my control. Good for me.

Too bad I can’t figure out what I did to be so cool, though.

Dr “Sunny and Mild Is Fine With Me” Gerlich


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