Television - Americans' favorite pastime - is spreading its allure around the world and, in the process, creating a new global youth culture.
Media moguls have taken advantage of deregulated telecommunications and media markets over the past decade to launch an array of commercial programming aimed at young people. The number of music video channels alone has risen meteorically: More than 100 have sprouted on five continents, and another half dozen are to be launched by the end of next year.
The world's largest TV network - MTV - now reaches 282 million households in 79 countries. And it faces international and local competition on virtually every continental front.
These battles are high-stakes contests over the right to offer worldwide audiences with vast purchasing power to advertisers like Nike, Pepsi, Sony, and Levi's. In Asia, Latin America, and Europe, a whopping 857 million "twentysomethings" hold $1.9 trillion in spending power. Advertisers see capturing this emerging global youth market as a financial holy grail.
This first global TV generation holds "dual passports," says Elissa Moses, managing director of the BrainWaves Group, a global youth research firm in New York. They're loyal to their own culture but want to connect to the rest of the world, she says. "This is a generation that wants a lot of stimulation. It likes to do six different things at once. They're not alienated, just overstimulated. Consumerism has become part of their culture. Young people in Asia and Latin America don't think it's immoral. They really like computers, CDs, and wireless telephones."
Last year, BrainWaves conducted the New World Teen study in 44 countries, talking with 27,600 15- to 18-year-olds, looking at attitudes, values, and consumer behavior of middle-class youths. The study produced good news for music video networks: 85 percent said they watched music videos regularly.
In pursuing youths, says Lucy Kung-Shankleman, a media researcher at the University of St. Gallen in Zurich, advertisers are embracing the philosophy: "Hook them while they're young, and you hook them for life."
Who are the television networks and international marketers going after? According to Global Business Opportunities, a market research firm in Pound Ridge, N.Y.:
* Two-thirds of Asia's population is under 30, with 652 million consumers in their 20s possessing $1.2 trillion in annual purchasing power.
* In Latin America, about 87 million people in their 20s control $203 billion in annual spending.
* Within Europe, 118 million people ages 20 to 29 have $684 billion a year in buying power.
Getting a handle on the mad dash to woo the first global youth generation involves a look at the network competition battles on three continents, advertising strategies, and the extent to which young adults are buying in.
Music as the medium
Music video channels are by no means the only way marketers reach global youth, "but they're a very important, almost essential part of the advertising mix," says Robert Triefus, senior vice president of global communications at Calvin Klein Inc.
When MTV jumped across the Atlantic to launch MTV Europe in 1987, it became the world's first international music video channel and the first to broadcast using local content. It now operates three feeds for Northern, Central, and Southern Europe, with another to be launched later this year in Great Britain. But despite its reach, the music behemoth faces rising competition at several levels.
In Germany, Europe's largest TV market, a 24-hour channel called Viva is rapidly gaining a following. France's M6 channel (not only music videos, but US films and soft-core shows) is developing audiences beyond its borders. Later this year, new digital platforms are being launched that will give Britain as many as 200 channels. Even in a small market such as Finland, MTV has a wildly popular competitor in the form of "Jyrki" (a name equivalent to "Mikey" in the United States). The 90-minute music video program airs daily in partnership with the Toronto-based MuchMusic network.
In Latin America, television is today's cultural pathway. A recent study by Audits & Surveys, a New York market-research firm, found that while only half of Latin American households have a telephone, more than 90 percent have TV sets. MTV showcases MTV Brasil in Portuguese, and MTV Latin America, with separate feeds in Spanish to northern and southern countries.
Some 40 pan-regional networks now bounce their signals to Latin youths. Music video channels are not as widely available as some major US-based entertainment channels, such as Discovery Channel, HBO, and CNN, but their impact is qualitatively different. Music networks are cross-fertilizing Latin cultures with one of the oldest program ideas around: the Top 10 countdown. Musical talent they showcase often reaches beyond the local market to create regional stars.
For example, Carlos Vives, a Colombian singer, became hugely popular across Latin America through music-channel exposure. Brazilians, once isolated from much of the region because of a different language, now watch Chilean, Mexican, and Peruvian bands on local music channels and MTV Brasil.
"Because we have such a large audience, we're able to expose music ... we think has international appeal - to audiences that would not otherwise hear it," says Bill Roedy, president of MTV Networks International.
In Argentina, the region's most developed cable market, six music channels cater to young viewers. The battle for audiences is intense in Buenos Aires, as MTV scraps with MuchaMusica, a local network connected to Canada's MuchMusic. Viewing habits are having an effect on buying habits: Industry analysts say that sales of wine are in a slow decline in part because young adults now favor beer, heavily advertised on music channels. Also, demand for ground beef has risen reportedly because of a growing appetite for burgers and US-style fast-food chains.
In Asia, vast distances between nations and island archipelagos are being bridged by digital television. Two of the largest digital program providers, MTV Asia and Rupert Murdoch's Channel V, are struggling for a twentysomething TV audience more than twice the size of the total US population. Channel V, launched in 1994 and delivered via Star TV, is now in 23 countries and 61 million homes. MTV Asia, first launched in 1991 and then relaunched in 1995, beams three different language services and is in 17 Asian countries and 46 million homes.
Channel V's thumping music videos are introduced by gorgeous VJs picked from Asia's modeling industries. The content heavily reflects the markets it serves. Given that 80 percent of music sales in India are Hindi music, for example, Channel V's southern beam in turn devotes 50 percent of its air time to music videos from Hindi films. The localization strategy seems to be working: Channel V says ratings in the Indian market have risen 30-fold since launch.
In India, you can almost see the global youth culture maturing before your eyes, says June Wong, a freelance marketing specialist currently working with Channel V. The VJs merge hip-hop and techno music with local sounds to create a synthesis, she says, and kids are "growing sideburns and wanting to dress like hip-hoppers."
The surging economic growth over the past two decades in several Asian countries has produced a potential gold mine: energetic, fashion-conscious young people earning more than their parents and expecting to live better. The vast purchasing power of this group is being courted by more than 200 international advertisers on Channel V alone, including Heineken, Levi's, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Calvin Klein.
While music channels match advertisers to consumers, they also serve as a "public-address system to a generation," says Ms. Moses, of BrainWaves, a subsidiary of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, a New York advertising agency. "When young Chinese people see music videos, they see emotional freedom, gender and sexual freedom." And whether Asian governments know it or like it, "a lot of music videos celebrate Western values, like individualism, self-reliance, and the freedom to dream," Moses says.
Where such messages travel in Asia depends how tolerant a local government is. In Singapore, where private ownership of satellite dishes is banned, Channel V is distributed via cable, after being cleared by government censors.
In Malaysia, where Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once described MTV as an agent of "ghetto culture," the attitude toward Western music is "not so fast." Inside Malaysia's "All Asia Broadcast Center," a staff of 50 reviews nine satellite feeds, including MTV Asia and Channel V, for content deemed "offensive."
"Institutions like the family are still very important in Asian societies. If you had a show that encouraged a kid to leave home at 16 and not respect his parents, you could be in desperate trouble," says Louise Caldwell, Star TV's vice president of television sales for Asia.
One reason music video channels are tolerated is their value as language teachers, says Chin-Ning Chu, president of Asian Marketing Consultants in Antioch, Calif. "Governments in Asia see English as an international business tool and believe young people must master it."
Selling cultural symbols
Ad saturation in the US marketplace has led businesses to look at emerging markets overseas less cluttered with multimedia marketing. More than 400 of the Fortune 500 companies now market their products abroad. Ten of the world's top advertising agencies have offices in more than 50 countries.
In marketing to global youth, international advertisers are not simply bringing their brands to the world, but they are also promoting products as commodities that connect cultures. As cultural symbols, brands like Converse sneakers and Doc Martins are portrayed not simply as great shoes, but indispensible success symbols that one should aspire to - a piece of American pop culture.
Conveying "aspirational values" has become a common strategy among marketers. It's an approach Pepsi took in its recently announced $500 million global marketing alliance with MTV to promote its "Generation Next" campaign, says Massimo d'Amore, vice president of international marketing at Pepsi-Cola. Like the "Pepsi Generation" campaign in 1963, this year's message embodies youthful optimism and irreverence, coupled with a search for authenticity, he says.
Likewise, marketing Levi's overseas is "not about selling, but about symbolizing youth and originality," says Roy Edmondson, director of global marketing for products and programs at Levi's. What makes teenagers want to buy Levi's is the fact that "we're the original. We did it first," he says. Levi Strauss, the world's largest clothing company, now draws half of its $6.7 billion worldwide revenue from outside the US.
It's the kind of message that seems to be resonating in Vietnam, for example, where 50 percent of the population - about 35 million people - was born after 1975. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City, access to television among young adults is now approaching 100 percent. Just three years after the US lifted its trade embargo, more than 400 US companies are doing business in Vietnam.
"What you wear and how you look is becoming more and more important in Vietnam, especially among young people in the south," says Thomas Emmers, research manager for SRG Vietnam, a market research firm in Ho Chi Min City. Increasingly, youths are seen wearing Doc Martins and imported sportswear.
The rise of brand consciousness has caused a slide in market share for local businesses, says Mr. Emmers. In the past three years, local companies making products like soft drinks and beer have lost more than 50 percent of their urban market share to foreign producers. At the same time, retail shops in Vietnam's main cities are brimming with fake youthwear. Illegal reproductions of Polo shirts and Calvin Klein cosmetics made in China and Thailand can be found at a fraction of the cost of the real thing.
Nevertheless, overseas expansion is what Nike is counting on for future growth, says spokesman Roy Agostino. Foreign sales already account for nearly 40 percent of Nike's total revenues, and chief executive Philip Knight predicted last year that Nike would double its worldwide revenues from $6 billion to $12 billion over the next five years.
Nike's biggest weapon may be Tiger Woods, a global phenomenon if there ever was one. With a Thai mother, an African-American father, and Chinese and Cherokee in his ancestry, Mr. Woods is the ultimate multicultural kid. The golf star has cut deals with several Fortune 500 advertisers, including a $40 million, five-year contract to wear Nike's "swoosh" sporting wear.
During a recent half-time interview on ABC's "Monday Night Football," Woods wore a new Nike outfit not yet available in stores - a baggy T-shirt with khaki pants and a Parisian cap with the signature swoosh. The next day, says Mr. Agostino, more than 1,000 calls came into Nike's customer service line asking about the outfit.
Rise of planetary youth culture
Last year's New World Teen study, conducted by BrainWaves, found teenage audiences around the globe had much in common. Among their findings: NBA basketball games are the most-watched international TV programs, and Michael Jordan is the most popular figure among Chinese youths.
The study found that today's teens - influenced by music videos, Western movies, and higher levels of education - are more similar than different. One of the most widely shared values is self-reliance: Nine out of 10 agreed with the statement, "It's up to me to get what I want out of life."
Music video channels and global marketers aren't creating a global village, "but a global mall," says Chip Walker, global trends director at BrainWaves. "Young people around the world seem to live their lives in a parallel universe ... knowing and wanting the same types of products."
Global youths, adds Mr. Walker, are more than a vast consumer market today. They're "the adults of tomorrow." Walker believes that the future lies "not so much in the hands of governments, or in political or religious movements, but in the hands of those who shape commercial TV."
* Todd Crowell contributed to this report from Hong Kong.