We all remember Malcolm Gladwell’s influential article on cool hunters, the one he wrote in 1997. And the late 1990s did seem to be the hay day of the species.
It’s not mysterious. Popular culture was becoming more productive, more interesting and more influential. Corporations suddenly had to start paying attention, and as long as the only person truly in touch with popular culture was the 20 year old temp down the hall, the corporation was obliged to hire this expertise in. (Cause who listens to temps.)
It was pretty horrific. I remember listening to the consultant simultaneously wow and demean the marketers in the room with salacious stories of what the kids were up to. There was always something deeply self-congratulatory and other-condemnatory about the exercise. The cool hunter claimed glory for knowing what running shoes the kids were wearing. He might have divined this from the window of the limo on the way in from the airport, but hey.
Even this simple understanding raised the cool hunter in the larger of scheme of things, and from this great height he saw the marketer and saw that he was clueless. Always there was, on the part of the cool hunter, a fatal confusion between knowing cool and being cool, and you couldn’t help feeling that however much the coolhunter was being paid by the corporation, he prized his knowledge more. He wasn’t in it for the money. He was in it for the status.
This assumption/presumption of cool lead to shocking abuses of trust and privilege and more than once I heard cool hunters make things up that were not true. (Not, God knows, that I had a clue myself.)
So it was gratifying when we were treated to this recantation in the pages of Time Magazine in 2003.
ble was, it turned out that cool hunting didn’t work. “As hip as it was, as exciting as it was, very few people were a ble to monetize anything that came out of that,” [ Irma] Zandl explains. “People were fed this line that if the cool hunter found it, then six months from now you would have a rip-roaring business. And I think a lot of people got burned by that.”
How humiliating! Time Magazine! Flat footed, lumbering, always the last to know. And here was it was playing taps for the cool hunters who were supposed to put it out of business.
So what killed the cool hunting? Certainly, as Grossman pointed out, it didn’t work. But, as we all know, not working has done nothing to discourage several consulting juggernauts. So that can’t be it.
Three things, possibly. The corporation developed its own internal resources. Knowing and caring about popular culture ceased to be something to be ashamed of. Everyone got smarter about it, and some of them worked out for the corporation. Certainly, each successive generation coming into the corporation carried a still finer knowledge and a still greater love. The corporation would get smarter by simply standing still.
Second, the journalistic resources got steadily better. With the likes of Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and even Time Magazine (not least in the person of James Poniewozik), suddenly there was intelligence with intelligence, and the corporation always prefers this especially when it can be had for the price of a subscription.
Third, I think contemporary culture just got too complicated for any individual to claim comprehensive knowledge or systematic insight. Yes, we now have websites like PSFK and Agenda, and these do a great job. And they are wise enough not to claim to divine the source, trajectory or advent of cool, as the cool hunters often did. They give us lots and let us choose.
Who killed the cool hunter? I think contemporary culture did. It got more complicated, in the process outstripping the cognitive abilities of even those who claimed guru status. And the knowledge of contemporary culture became more distributed. Increasingly, even the corporation had a clue.
Useful in their brief moment, cool hunters would eventually be remaindered by historical forces beyond their control. Those who live by the trend, apparently also die by it. And somehow I think that’s fair. Surely contemporary culture is too interesting, important and difficult to be represented by catching phrases, exclamatory declarations and a haughty self importance. Cool hunters, you are now removed from fashion.
Gladwell, Malcolm. 1997. The Coolhunt. The New Yorker. March 17, 1997:78-88.
In Grossman, Lev. 2003. The Quest For Cool. Time Magazine. Vol. 48: September 8, 2003