Saturday, February 19, 2005

MTV's 'two-headed dog' chases its tail and bites youth culture

Kids these days: all the sex and drugs and illegal downloading of music! The 14-24 demographic is full of jobless student slackers with no financial reponsibilities past cable bills and maybe a college loan. They spend all their money on CDs, video games, DVDs -- superfluous entertainment products manufactured by the culture industry. They only pay attention to what they think is 'cool', but it's impossible to know what's 'cool' at any given moment because 'cool' is constantly changing and seems to have a mind of its own.

The kids have all the power! Isn't this what we've always wanted, to realize the "Another Brick in the Wall" vision of a world where kids (we're talking about the 14-24 demo here) build their life experiences in their culture rather than our classrooms? As the demographic with the most money to burn, one can imagine a vision of all the Cool Kids stading at the top of Cool Mountain waving $20 bills at a climbling, clawing mass of youth cutlure marketing executives.

The truth is, the kids influence the culture industry as much as the culture industry influences the kids. It's a feedback loop in which both parties participate to create a combined culture, except the kids spend all the money and the industry takes it. Not so fair for the kids, seeing as they're doing at least half the work.

Arguably, no single entity in the history of the culture industry has been as deeply involved in this feedback loop as MTV. Before the PC revolution and the Internet, MTV redefined our visual and musical culture with a new style of programming that changed television and marketing entirely. As writer Douglas Rushkoff observed:

Like the drips of water coming out of a faucet at an increasing rate, once the speed of edits reached a critical frequency, the linear story just broke apart as the programs reached turbulance. The media chaos this turbulance generated was called MTV... This style of rough, disjointed media was precicesly the landscape preferred by the channel surfer. It made coercion through traditional, narrative programming techniques impossible, and required that a new language -- a language of chaos -- be developed. The kids watching MTV learned to speak it like natives." (from the excellent book Playing the Future: What We Can Learn from Digital Kids)


The kids' new chaotic culture pulled the rug out from under the marketing industry, who subsequently assembeled a counter-chaos of new marketing techniques intented to acknlowledge the youth's self-awareness that they are being marketed to. Of course, kids eventually grew hip to the marketers' ingenuous attepts to 'get on their level' and tuned them out in turn. Failing the subtle approach, the marketers decided the only way to get noticed was to be invisible. Thus was born viral marketing. Marketers would appeal to the top 1% of so-called Cool Kids who influence other kids wanting to be cool and so on -- a butterfly effect, a pyramid scheme. The best part was, marketers could exert influence on an entire demographic by interacting with only a choice few trendsetters.

A full history of how MTV became the center of youth culture will have to wait for another post. MTV basically became the best at what they do: understanding youth culture microcosms and macrocosms. They used this understanding to generate influence, and they used this influence to generate profit. There were ups and downs, moments when even the master marketers at MTV couldn't keep up with the kids. But MTV always found a way to shepherd the sheep back to the flock.

In the course of things, maintaining youth culture influence meant MTV had to move away from music as content and relegate it to a supporting role beneath celebrity. This music-critic.com article describes how "Video Created the Revenue Star." MTV drastically reduced the number of music videos it played in order to concentrate its marketing power on a few key acts. Shows were created in which the sole intent was cross-promoting the music celebrities that were in heavy rotation. This is most evident in the repurposing of popular show themes such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Candid Camera into celebrity showcases -- Cribs and Punk'd, respectively.

MTV received no real consumer or corporate challenege to its removal of music videos from its programming. Though many complained that, "there's no more music on music television", the kids kept watching anyway. MTV even assuaged their greif over the loss of music content with a sister station, MTV2, dedicated towards broadcasting more music videos (though you'll still catch a Beavis and Butthead marathon if you turn it on at the wrong time). Viewers were content until one company got the crazy idea that they could compete with MTV's music video monopoly -- and it worked.

That company was Fuse, which launched in 2003 with a marketing campaign that tore MTV to pieces. Though Fuse is, in essence, much like MTV2 (this article argues that the two are almost identical brands), savvy marketing gained them access to over 30 million households in the US. That's impressive when stacked up against MTV2's household penetration, approaching 50 million, though it pales in comparison to MTV's worldiwde viewership, which hovers around 300 million.

Fuse's slogan of, "more music, less crappy television" resonated with viewers and created a healthy niche market. As Fuse's ratings climbed, MTV felt compelled to react to the competition by setting MTV2 as a top-line business priorty. The company was done licking the wounds that Fuse's marketing had inflicted. It was time to chase Fuse out of MTV's monopoly. The new campaign was called "the two-headed dog."

The two-headed dog concept can be thought to represent many things including the channel's bisection of rap and rock or its approach at reaching viewers on both TV and the Web. It could also represent the two-headed corporate monster MTV is attempting to create by prioritizing MTV2. In any case, a silhouette of the animal was prominent in a special Super Bowl half-time launch promotion which saw the dog gracing the Jumbovision at Times Square and plastered on walls and magazines everywhere.

Like Fuse, the new MTV2 television identity operates in unison with a rich media website which ties programming to the Web, and vice versa. Comparing the sites side-by-side, Fuse seems to have a better understanding of interactivity and giving broadband site users what they want. MTV2.com will likely adapt with similar functionality as the idendity develops. As it stands, the MTV2 site falls flat with redundant content.

This great article at Business 2.0 summarizes the two-headed dog campaign's attempts at invisible influence on youth culture. In particular, the article releates the story of a message board poster calling out an MTV-sanctioned marketing agent disguised as a peer, effectively quarantining a media virus before it spread. (An example of the offending post can be found here and all over the Web.) Another part of the strategy included free two-headed dog clothing giveaways at NYC shows performed by bands who were to be featured on the new channel -- classic viral marketing.

Fuse's campaign was successful because the media virus it exploited had already infected the youth culture. Millions of viewers bemoaned the loss of music videos on MTV, and Fuse responed by eploiting that attitude. The only option at MTV2's disposal is to create a new media virus, an abstract concept centered on the image of a two-headed dog. The campaign was centered around a sort of "What is the Matrix?" appeal to curiosity, in hopes that the answer to the question, "What is the two-headed dog?" would be a revelation to cool kids everywhere. Unfortunately for MTV2, the revelation was just more of the same -- the same music, the same aesthetic and the same exploitation of both artist and audience for financial gain.

Does the dog have legs? Judging from consumer reaction to the re-launch, viewers are already seeing through the marketing ploy. After all, MTV2 is essentially a rip-off of Fuse, which is essentially a rip-off of MTV. Both companies are competing for the same position in the feedback loop between the kids and the culture industry. It's just that Fuse seems to like music a bit more, while MTV prefers money. The kids see through it all, and continue to dismantle parts of the culture industry and use them as tools to create their own culture. From the Web to decentralized file-sharing networks, the kids are struggling to overtake control of their own expression. This demand for an authentic cultural experience will eventually neuter the two-headed dog.

A deeper insight into the effect of MTV on youth culture and youth culture as a whole can be found at PBS's The Way the Music Died

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