Trendspotting

How a Minneapolis consulting trio discovered the "iconogasm," and other tales from the trendspotting business.

Twenty years later, solid research is no longer a requirement for those purporting to have nailed the demographic bull's eye. Witness Douglas Rushkoff, author of the book Media Virus (Ballantine, 1994), whose advice reportedly draws up to $7,500 an hour. Like McLuhan, to whom he is often compared, Rushkoff is a media man, claiming a special familiarity with "screenagers," and what they do in their "datasphere." Also like McLuhan, Rushkoff reports having stumbled upon consulting by happenstance; he suggests that most of his business followed a New York Times article that effectively hung out a shingle for him.

Rushkoff has taken advantage of the attention, though, attracting clients such as the J. Walter Thompson agency, Sony, PepsiCo, Tri-Star, and Turner Broadcasting. This year he put in an appearance at a national account planner's trade conference. What did he tell them? "Not a hell of a lot," Rushkoff says in a phone interview from his New York apartment. "At least nothing that I would think was that constructive. What I do is not so much research as thinking. And the thinking I do is valuable to people because they either don't have the time or the faith in their own zonedness."

At 36 years old, Rushkoff is the author of three books--a fourth, on coercive advertising, is in the works--but even this choice of mediums exposes his age. For the psyche of the young consumer is such an enigmatic and valuable commodity that sometimes words can not fully ken its content or contours. Enter Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca, creators of the video newsletter "The Sputnik Mindtrends Report." Their pledge is not just to survey the preferences of the young consumer in focus groups, but to infiltrate their clubhouses with cameras. "All of our correspondents," the pair writes in their 1997 book Street Trends, "are themselves of the age and mind-set of the people they interview--essentially 'one of them.'"

Sputnik's endeavor, then, is an anthropological one, Jane Goodall among the apes. The report gives its subjects "tribal" names--"The Collective Intellect," "Soldiers for Culture," "The Hip Hop Nation," "The Speed Generation," and "Club Kids"--and recounts their rites in the wild.

"Today's progressive youth," we learn, "have begun to use the words intellectual heads, intellectual crews, and intellectual gangs to describe themselves and their peers." More specifically, a tribe like the Soldiers for Culture "have an intellectual, spiritual, and artistic soul, mixed with strong ethnic, urban roots."

As an exemplar of this spirit, Sputnik offers an animated fellow named Bonz Malone, "a former interior decorator of NYC subways" and now a writer at Vibe. "This circuit here in New York City, with all the crews, all the intellectual gangs, performing on- and off-stage, is about to blow your fucking wig back," he says of the "hip-hop poetry" which is a touchstone of his tribe. "I'm telling you that shit right now, because the street's going to come to your fucking yard." And, as Sputnik proposes in their "bubble-up" theory of culture, to your WalMart too.

To accentuate their critical distance from the trends, the Sputnik authors, who have been called "cool hunters," play it square, putting the youth lingo in quotation marks and supplying lists of their subcultures' weird talismans and rituals: MUD rooms, ginseng cigarettes, National Public Radio, "virtual gender illusionists." "Not only are they trendsetters," Street Trends claims of its cliques and their habits, "they are the masters of interpretation."

Sputnik's own mastery of the data is a bit more suspect. Among their field discoveries is an urban upturn in straight-edge punk culture (popularized over a decade ago by the band Minor Threat). "In some regions like Minneapolis and the Hannepin Lake area," the authors write, "punk style has been steadily visible." Regrettably, Sputnik fails to identify on which shore of Lake Hannepin these steadily visible young rascals can be found.

But such quibbles are unlikely to trouble those who shell out for Sputnik, Iconoculture, and hundreds of other high-priced trend newsletters (one, "The L Report," fetches $20,000 a year). Doug Hagge, director of planning at local ad agency Carmichael Lynch, says he's heard talk of winnowing the trend information the company imports: Trend consultants, he grants, mostly "reinforce your judgement. They reinforce your perspective."

And yet in a hyperactive marketplace of paranormal possibilities, there is always the promise of The X-Files: The truth is out there. So Carmichael Lynch continues to call in consultants and subscribe to some 30 newsletters--at approximately $15,000 a year--while assigning two or three employees to sort through additional sources. And for now, Hagge acknowledges, these expenditures "are trending upwards."

Hughes's ambivalence hints at the core of the trendcasters' success: the realization in the executive suites that the consumer, if not a rebel, is at least a fickle figure. Bored customers have been breaking brand loyalty with increasing ease in recent years; in turn, corporations quickly drop ad agencies suspected of being "off-trend." This month, Levi Strauss severed its successful 67-year relationship with Foote, Cone & Belding, the shop that created the tag lines "Button your fly" and "The future's wide open." Leo Burnett, the massive Chicago company, has lost lucrative and prestigious accounts, including United Airlines and Miller Lite, after years of doing business together.

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