Advertising and Representation

Youth Culture

“The entertainment companies … look at the teen market as part of this massive empire they’re colonizing.”

(Robert McChesney, The Merchants of Cool, 2000)

This Frontline documentary, The Merchants of Cool, from 2005 journeys into the world of the marketers of popular culture to teenagers. They spend their days sifting through reams of market research data, conducting surveys and holding focus group sessions – all to keep their fingers on the pulse of that elusive quality of what is ‘cool’ in teenage youth culture.

Popular youth culture is often considered ‘cutting-edge’ or involves a form of expression that works in opposition to a mainstream culture as promoted by adults, corporations and schools. Therefore advertising that appeals to youth culture considers what young people believe to be cool and interesting so they can cultivate this growing market and its long-term brand loyalty. There are two significant areas of interest when studying advertisements that appeal to young people. One is, again, a question of representation. In order to bottle this ‘counter-cultural’ spirit, what do young people look, sound and act like in the mass media? 

The second is in the study of the cycle in terms of what is seen as new, fresh and original. In many youth sub-cultures, young people push away from what is seen as corporate and develop a rebel style all their own. This new style has very strong appeal, however, and may be quickly copied by commercial producers wishing to profit from what is cool and new. Therefore, corporations put a lot of time, effort and money into predicting and determining what the next big thing will be in youth culture. This effort results in a ‘feedback loop’: To find out about this phenomena, watch the Merchants of Cool documentary (above), and explore these articles: 

Class Activity: coolhunting


Learner Portfolio

Select a real company with an international range that markets ‘cool’ products towards young people: this could be a TV company like MTV, a clothing company, a games company, or another brand aimed at young people. Create either a written or spoken report for the CEO of this company. At the heart of this report should be the understanding that the meaning of ‘cool’ is not fixed; it changes from place to place, person to person, and culture to culture and is subject to the forces of the ‘feedback loop.’ How will your chosen company be able to trap the lightning-in-a-bottle of whatever is ‘cool’ right now?

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: texts for young people

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Although this is not a text type in itself, you may like to consider how various texts for young people use different formal and stylistic features in order to communicate messages and values to this particular audience. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of texts aimed at a younger audience and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Key features of texts for young people
  • Allegory: like symbolism, in children’s stories characters and objects often stand for things greater than themselves. The Wizard of Oz is a good example of allegory.
  • Diction: it would be unusual for children’s texts to contain too much difficult vocabulary, although stories and rhymes often use synonyms.
  • Visuals: look out for colourful visuals, vividly drawn people and places.
  • Fable: a particular type of children’s writing that anthropomorphises animals, who stand in for human characters.
  • Didactic: some texts for children are designed to teach a lesson or moral. You can look out for didactic messages in children’s texts.

Body of Work: Diesel Advertising Campaign††

Diesel ‘Be Stupid’ campaign official release video; choreographed by Arthur Gouroulian; Anomaly New York.

Diesel’s new campaign from Anomaly New York is just plain stupid. The risqué work celebrates stupidity as a kind of liberating antidote to intelligence, which, in the current political climate, you might think is a dangerous philosophy to have.

According to the brand’s ‘Be Stupid Philosophy’: “Stupid is the relentless pursuit of a regret-free life. Only stupid can be truly brilliant.” The print and billboard campaign in this Body of Work is part of a wider strategy, including encouraging people who are ‘doing something stupid right now’ to feature in a collaborative music video. You can find out more about the entire campaign here.

For the purposes of your study, you might like to discuss the way young people are represented in these adverts and explore the way certain adverts use genre tropes and elements of both visual and written language to appeal more or less successfully to Diesel’s target audience of teenagers and young adults. (If you want to find out more about how to analyse a visual text, you might like to visit Can a Picture tell A Thousand Words?)

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt:

Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

The Diesel Advertising campaign would work very well as a non-literary text in your Individual Oral assessment. ‘Diesel’ and/or ‘Anomaly New York’, which is the marketing company commissioned to develop these ads, can be considered the author of these texts. They can be explored in the light of the Field of Inquiry: Culture, Identity and Community and you might like to investigate the Global Issue of ‘the roles and expectations of young people in society’. Depending on the time and place, how young people relate to wider society has been a contentious issue, and ideas about how young people fit in – or should fit in – range all the way from the Victorian ideal of ‘children should be seen and not heard’ to very liberal attitudes towards children – ‘let kids be kids.’ These adverts bring up a whole range of other issues such as the sexualisation and trivialisation of young people, attitudes towards education, and even safety concerns. Speak to your teacher about your ideas for pairing literary and non-literary texts in your Individual Oral:

  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – look at the way the younger characters in the play are portrayed, particularly: Bassanio when he speaks and behaves in Act 1; Jessica’s character as portrayed in Act 2; Jessica and Lorenzo in Act 5, Scene 1. To what extent are they portrayed as flippant and superficial (I’m looking at you Bassanio) as those in the Diesel campaign?
  • J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – look at the way young people are portrayed in this novel by focusing on the representation of Jim, and his behaviour and attitudes at the start of the novel.
  • Keats’ Selected Poetry – in terms of the Field of Inquiry of Art, Imagination and Creativity, poetry is inherently creative, and you could compose a talk about how Keats peels away the popular definition of words (such as ‘beauty’ or ‘melancholy’) to suggest new understandings; in a similar way, you can explain how the adverts in this campaign repurpose ‘stupidity’ as an act of creativity.
  • Kadare’s Broken April – this novel exposes the cruelty of society in regard to how young people might be treated. Expectations for boys and young men are very different on the Albanian High Plateau and the behaviours of young people in the Diesel campaign are unlikely to be tolerated…
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – you might look at the speech and actions of Freddy and Clara more closely in light of the behaviours seen in this advertising campaign.

Wider Reading and Research

  • Childhood and Children’s Literature – to find out more about writing for young people in the Romantic and Victorian times, visit this fantastic British Library resource, browse and read some of the interesting articles curated on this site.
  • Prisoners of Pop Culture – an article by Bob Hoffman, the self-styled ‘Ad Contrarian’, that discusses breaking advertising’s dependency on youth.
  • Museum of Youth Culture – this fantastic resource traces the history and identity of youth movements ini Britain throughout the 20th Century and into the new millenium.

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