by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Iremember when I first used the word “cool.” I was maybe 8 or 9, and my older sister was playing one of her records.

“This is really cool,” she said.

“Yeah, cool!” I repeated.

I had no idea what we were talking about. I think it was the Partridge Family. But it felt good to say “cool.” I knew, deep down, that I needed to be cool. I knew that cool would let me be with other cool people doing other cool things, which — given the era — meant antiestablishment.

So you can imagine my shock last week when I read in the New York Times that big marketing firms now regularly employ cool hunters. These people, aged 14 to 30, scour the country for the next cool trends, then run and tell corporations so they can market the hell out of them and make a big, fat fortune.

I am really depressed.

Also, I heard that the Partridge Family broke up.

But back to these cool hunters. According to the Times, they work for research firms named Iconoculture, Sputnik and Agent X. These are research firms? They sound like garage bands. There’s even one called Youth Intelligence, which, as any parent knows, doesn’t exist on this planet.

Anyhow, these firms tell big companies such as Coca-Cola, MTV and General Mills what the really cool kids are doing. Then Mr. Marketing calls Mr. Sales calls Mr. Promotions, and next thing you know, there’s an offer to get a tattoo when you buy a phone card.

Which really happened! Sprint, the long-distance company — acting on the predictions of cool hunters — offered temporary tattoos to people signing up for its service.

The good old days

Now, I hate to sound like a ’60s burnout here, but wasn’t cool supposed to be the antithesis of marketing? Cool was that small FM station that you discovered first, or a shirt that nobody else had, or the way your favorite singer wore his hair. It wasn’t meant to be dished out like birdseed — especially not by corporations.

But in an effort to justify jobs that shouldn’t exist, firms hire cool hunters
— I call them spies, and I want them hunted and shot for treason — to “prowl inner-city basketball courts and fashionable nightclubs …observing the arbiters of coolness whose tastes may eventually be adopted by the general populace.”

Funny. As a kid, I played on inner-city basketball courts. I don’t ever recall getting up in the morning, opening my clothes drawer and saying, “Hmm, what can I wear that will be adopted by the general populace?” I just wanted something to sweat in.

But don’t tell that to Tru Pettigrew. Tru (does he have a brother, Blu?), who the Times says works for a Boston advertising firm as the Voice of the Consumer, is hired to spot youth trends. He is 30 years old, spends a lot of time in schoolyards and nightclubs, and gets paid for it. (Sounds to me like Tru might change his name to Scam, but that’s another column.)

Anyhow, Tru, in an effort to keep hip, has established a network of teachers and coaches in major cities across America to put him in contact with teenagers.

Hey, Tru. I know families that will give you their teenagers! Take them home with you. Study them all you want. Give them a shower while you’re at it.

But no, Tru just wants to see which way kids are wearing their hats and how long they’re slinging their pants, so that his agency — full of men in designer clothes — can be on the cutting edge.

No wonder rap artists wear sunglasses and a scowl. It’s all they can do to keep from laughing.

Faking it

My favorite example of coolness overanalysis is Agent X, which the Times calls
“a cool-hunting firm in Los Angeles that advises the entertainment industry.”

Now, how much young advice can people in the entertainment industry need? Aren’t they all 17 years old? Didn’t most directors and producers just come out of schoolyards and nightclubs — and now they’re hiring people to go back?

Anyhow, what kills me about Agent X — which, come to think of it, sounds like something that could kill me — is that it was cofounded by a guy named Adam Leff, who writes screenplays. And one of his screenplays was “The Last Action Hero.”

One of the biggest bombs in history.

Why would anyone listen to him? Shouldn’t he be back in the schoolyard, studying some kid’s pant legs?

But no. In places like Hollywood and Madison Avenue, if you’re getting paid six figures to fake like you know what’s happening, you might as well share the wealth.

Personally, I have my doubts about anyone predicting coolness, since, like watering plants, if you try too hard to make it grow, you drown it.

But I do know this: Somewhere in a schoolyard, there’s a 9-year-old with a tattoo. And he’s owed a really big check.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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