Turning teenagers into conspicuous consumers

Karen Stabiner is the author of "All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters."

There are predators everywhere, as any parent knows who opens the newspaper, turns on the TV news or listens to the radio. In the virtual world and the real world, children are easy targets, and parents have become sentinels, trying and too often failing to protect them from overt and subtle dangers. Advertising may seem a rather benign threat, given what's out there these days, but Alissa Quart believes that Madison Avenue is engaged in a relentless campaign to capture the hearts and minds of our most susceptible consumers -- our sons and daughters.

Let's look at a girl, since Quart, in "Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers" focuses most of her attention on girls. Our subject dyes her hair with the brand that Sarah Jessica Parker flogs on television. She buys makeup because a friend heard from a more popular friend that a celebrity they admire (who always plays the girl who gets the guy in the end) uses that brand. Her shirt comes from a catalog that just happens to use some of her schoolmates as "trendspotters," ferrying style information back to the company and promoting its products to their friends. She's wearing a new skirt not because she loves it but because an "influencer" -- a style-setter -- was wearing one just like it last week. She has a can of soda in her hand that you have never heard of. Neither had she, until the company made a product placement deal with a movie company, to strew cans of the stuff all over the apartment of the heroine in a new romantic comedy. And do not be surprised if she says she wants breast implants for her 16th birthday, since that is the third most popular plastic surgery procedure in the 18-and-younger crowd.

Branding -- the selling of image as well as product -- is as old as advertising. The stats on two European sedans may be similar in terms of safety and gas mileage, but that indefinable something sets them apart. An agent once explained to me that she could not consider buying the kind of Saab I drive. Creatives drive Saabs; entertainment suits drive a Mercedes or a BMW to reflect their position in the Hollywood firmament.

Or as 1940s ad man Elmer Wheeler famously put it, "Don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle." Selling a product is business. Selling a set of amorphous attributes derived from the product creates a more lasting relationship between the customer and the goods; this is the essence of branding. So why children? Blame consumer America. Blame a culture obsessed with owning the right stuff. Blame the warp speed of life today, when an Old Navy devotee can move up to the Gap and then to Banana Republic, all the while pouring greater profits into the same corporate coffers.

Quart is unabashedly and appropriately appalled by this world, and she takes us on a tour of its various outposts: The teen magazines that solicit high schoolers to work as unpaid consultants, the peer-to-peer entertainment marketing groups that get teens to pass out their freebies, the party planners who gleefully relieve families of the equivalent of a year's college tuition for a quinceanera or a bar mitzvah, the plastic surgeons who insert breast implants in teenagers (despite the fact that the FDA has only approved them for women older than 18). She calls one chapter "Logo U," suggesting that the right private high school and an expensive SAT tutor are a down payment on an Ivy League degree.

If this sounds like a larger canvas than the title implies, it is, which is the strength and the weakness of Quart's book. She understands the overwhelming pressure to conform that all teens face; as one girl explains, only 10% of teens are cool enough to make their own style decisions. Everyone else either has to mimic the cool kids or take a stand with the DIYs -- the do-it-yourselfers -- whose anti-consumer rebellion often includes home schooling and TV-less homes.

The tactics of the marketing experts, such as dressing employees in youthful clothes and coaching them to effect the hip-speak of their targets, are offensive and understandable. Youth-market advertisers are simply doing what advertisers do when they try to sell us Ralph Lauren over Gucci or this year's Ralph Lauren over last year's: To create an imperative where there is none. Whether teens -- or anyone for that matter -- need a given product, is beside the point. It has always been the advertisers' job to create a deeper need and then satisfy it. But it's particularly grim when you accompany Quart to a marketing meeting, to a party-planning symposium, to the plastic surgeon's office and the conversation focuses on the most vulnerable demographic.

Only occasionally does Quart become a victim of her own passion. Her consideration of teen films is a good example: She blames Hollywood for the teen movie that enforces conformity, praises unattainable beauty and worships popularity -- in short, the kind of product that sends kids running for the right clothes or a new nose. But she fails to acknowledge that Hollywood is in the business of mainstream entertainment, for adults as well as teenagers. If you want sensitive adult drama, you don't go to see "Lethal Weapon 72" or "Die Hard With a Walker." Beside, teen movies are hardly a new category, as anyone who remembers "Gidget" can attest.

And I'm not sure about the brand aspect of plastic surgery; it seems more like the latest iteration of perfectionism, which is a different, and potentially far more dangerous, animal than the need to have the latest fashion. The further Quart strays from her announced topic, the more diffuse the material becomes; one wishes she had stayed longer at the retail fair and provided not just anecdote but narrative.

The one set of adults who get short shrift in "Branded" is the parents of all these consumer lemmings. We meet a handful along the way, from the ones who bemoan the bloated state of bar mitzvah parties even as they write deposit checks, to the ones who pull their offspring out of school to circumvent the buying spree that is American adolescence. But what about the vast majority between those two poles? Aren't there any examples of reasonable parents, who try to cope with this without going to either extreme? Isn't there anything we can do to stem the tide?

These criticisms aside, Quart makes it clear that being wary of advertising should be one of those childhood cautions, along with don't talk to strangers, and that it is our job to instruct our children, rather than stand by and wring our hands. She is right: There are people who are hellbent on buying your child's soul for the price of a hip new look. "Branded" is a cogent wake-up call for both generations.


From 'Branded'

Coming of age in the 1980s, I was aware of status signs and corporate logos and the distinction between them. ... I considered myself in a style war against the 'normal' girls, who wore ZaZu-colored hair and blue jelly shoes, their Polo by Ralph Lauren logos standing proud and emblematic on their cotton shirts. ... I carefully scissored the labels off my Levi's and Guess jeans. I believed the shadowy tell-tale rectangles and triangles that remained were an aesthetic of renunciation that would speak for me.

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