Readers, Writers, Texts

Youth Culture

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

Robert McChesneym 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: 

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:


Class Activity: coolhunting

Create a brainstorm in pairs, small groups or as a class. Try to define what is ‘cool’ for young people today. Provide examples of things that are ‘cool’ as well as expressing what makes those things, and not other things, cool. Share your ideas with other groups or classes. Can you come to a consensus on what is ‘cool’?

Discussion Points

  1. What is ‘responsible advertising’? If a company is communally responsible, what does that mean? Do you think advertisers have a responsibility towards society or the consumers they are targeting? Do you think adverts should have a special responsibility towards children? What might this be?
  2. Advertisements for jeans and perfumes tend to be more overtly sexual than those for other products. Why do you think this is? Do you think ‘sex sells’ still works as an adage? Do you think the sexuality you see in advertising is authentic? What other kinds of sexuality might there be?
  3. Do you think adverts influence young people as to how to behave in society? Do you think the media is to blame for, for instance, acts of violence or anti-social behaviour? Where else do young people get messages and values from? What makes media messages so powerful?

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)

The Diesel Advertising campaign would work very well as a non-literary text in your Individual Oral assessment. Here are two suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: The Roles and Expectations of Young People in Society
  • Rationale:

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.

  • Field of Inquiry: Art, Creativity and Imagination
  • Global Issue: The Malleability of Words and Meaning
  • Rationale:

The Diesel Be Stupid campaign demonstrates the truth of a linguistic aphorism: the meaning of words is not fixed. When they say ‘Be Stupid’ the company wants you to have a particular meaning of ‘stupid’ in mind. For them, stupidity is about rebelliousness, creativity, fearlessness and independence. How well do they succeed? Well, that’s for you to unpick in your talk.

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair the Diesel Be Stupid adverts with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.

Possible Literary pairings
  • 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?
  • Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – this coming-of-age novel tells the story of three teenagers as they come into their maturity against the backdrop of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution in early 70s China. A perfect pairing with the Diesel advertising campaign.
  • 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.
  • David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross – in this dark comedy, the meaning of words is never fixed. Communication is only ever a one way street, and you can’t trust anything you hear. This play would make a good pairing in the field of inquiry: art, creativity and imagination.
  • Selected Poetry by Charlotte Mew – in her famous poem The Farmer’s Bride, Mew depicts a society that has very different expectations of young people – or, more accurately, young women – who were expected to marry and bear children for their husbands. This could potentially make an excellent pairing with the Diesel Be Stupid 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 in Britain throughout the 20th Century and into the new millenium.
  • Impact of Media Use on Children and Youth – National Library of Medicine research

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