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How the Term 'Hipster' Lost Its Swing

Hipsters once seemed to be a marketing staple. Whether rocking out as iPod silhouettes, acting the cool Mac counterpart to the dorky PC in Apple ads, or modeling for Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, hipsters were ubiquitous.

But some of the companies that courted the "hipster" demographic have dropped the connection, now that they’ve realized "hipster" has become a dirty word.

Many consumers of indie music, art and culture who appear to fit the hipster mold are now shying away from the stereotype, according to researchers. Businesses that continue to woo that  demographic will need new ways to appeal to them.

"If you ask me, the word 'hipster' is so overused, and so carelessly used, that the category has been hollowed out," Zeynep Arsel, an assistant professor of marketing at Concordia University in Canada, said by e-mail. "'Hipster' has become a filler adjective, something so nebulous that anybody that is below the age of 35 and has some sort of cultural curiosity (or a different haircut) could be easily labeled as one."

She pointed out that a New York Times editor recently suggested his reporters avoid using the term "hipster" because it no longer conveyed much meaning.

What defined hip

The first hipsters, also called "hepsters" or "hep cats," were urban black jazz aficionados who hung out in places such as Harlem, Arsel said. Over the years, the term mutated and crossed racial barriers. By 1994, after a hipster had been featured on the cover of Time magazine, the New York Times saw a huge spike in the number of hipster references within its pages, according to Craig Thompson, professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin.

The rise of the hipster coincided with the rise of independent entertainment -- music, arts and culture that set themselves apart from mainstream tastes. "Hipster" became a cultural brand defining consumers of indie products. Companies took notice and began targeting products such as Camel cigarettes at the new group of young, hip trendsetters – the so-called hipsters.

"I think as a classificatory scheme – or a target market – it helped the marketers a lot," Arsel told BusinessNewsDaily. "It also helped cultural critiques and news reporters." It was sexy, precise and well-contained as a social category, she said.

Branding by companies and cultural critics helped deepen the connection between indie and hipster. American Apparel and Urban Outfitters signed deals with indie record labels and music retailers to create products tied with their clothes merchandising.

The backlash

With the huge popularity of the hipster mystique, however, the label began applying less to the trendsetters who created cool, and instead referred to the gullible consumers of cool who represented the worst of bourgeois affectations. For people who did enjoy indie culture but feared being saddled with a  now-unpopular term, that presented an image problem..

"It is not a desirable stereotype to be associated with, and in my work I refrain from calling anyone a hipster unless they would like to self-identify," Arsel said. "As you might guess, almost nobody self-identifies."

The downfall

To some extent, the hipster label misrepresents and oversimplifies indie consumers whose genuine interests go beyond superficial trend seeking, Arsel said.

Individuals will continue to delve into indie culture and distinguish themselves from mainstream middlebrow culture, Arsel said, but the term "hipster" is unlikely to work anymore for companies targeting a specific set of consumers.

"As a target market (or an avoidance group) it is rather useless, because what marketers need is a precise category to understand their target markets," said Arsel, whose research is to be published in the February issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Thompson said marketers are now just starting recognize the backlash against the hipster cliche but they are till pushing ahead with a business as usual strategy.

“Marketers and brand consultancy firms are using the hipster label somewhat indiscriminately to refer to the entire Gen Y market,” Thompson said.

A shift may well be in process, Thompson said, though it may not hit the "tipping point" for another year or two.

“If marketers wanted to be proactive, they should be looking for new lifestyle images and marketplace myths to appeal to Gen Y consumers,” Thomspons said. “However, past precedent suggest that most will likely be reactive and keep mining the hipster icon until well after its cultural currency has been exhausted.”

Jeremy Hsu is a staff writer at BusinessNewsDaily's sister site, Live Science.

Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.