Marketing to Teens

Cynthia Peters

are what you wear, what you snack on, how you accessorize. Ever heard of the
“echo boomers?” Generation Y, generation wired, the digital generation,
millenials? If not, you probably haven’t been reading the retail trade
journals—BrandWeek, Sporting Goods Business, and Target Marketing,
among others. You’ve missed out on the frenzy, the corporate executives
tripping over themselves to survey, study, and create brand loyalty in their
“demographic darlings”—the 78 million children born since 1978.

Industry excitement is
palpable. By 2010, the teen population is supposed to peak at 35 million. Teen
income is thought to have risen 29 percent in the last 5 years. Teens spend
billions of dollars a year on clothes, and many of them use a credit card
(either their own or their parents’) for purchases. Surveys say that teens
love shopping. They go to malls 56 times a year for about 90 minutes each
visit, and spend $38.55—on average.


a Retail Industry To Do?

more surveys, for starters. Find out important bits of information like
“Snacks represent 35 percent of teen eating occasions—occasions that now
total 4.33 per day.” Pinpoint the age that kids start to develop brand
loyalty (10 years) and at which point that loyalty is fixed (15 years). Design
stores that play loud music and have the feel of a bedroom or a den. Offer
free food, fashion shows, and makeovers. Walk the line between being cool but
not gimmicky. Teens these days are media savvy. They’ve been raised on
television shows and Disney movies designed not just to deliver advertising
but an infinite array of sidelines. As Fortune magazine reminds us,
“If she’s moved by your CD, she’ll buy your licensed T-shirt, book bag,
candy bar, screensaver, lip gloss, cola, umbrella…”

Above all else, set up a
web site. Today’s teens make up the first computer literate generation of
shoppers. Not only are they used to media serving up advertising, they’re
accustomed to consumer goods representing lifestyle choices and identity. Teen
oriented catalogs (electronic and print) feature advice columns, fashion news,
and articles about health, sex, boys, and make-up. Junior apparel marketer
moXiegirl will send you a free subscription to its “magalog” (aka “catazine”)
as long as you buy at least “one little thing” from them. Their web site
defines what it means to be a “cool chick,” all the while blurring the
boundaries between “hanging out” and shopping.

 “Hey girls, welcome to moXiegirL. There’s places to hang,
to explore, and to read stuff by and about other kewl chics. We’ll feature
articles on grrrls who rip, hot boys, and hotlinks to other girlie sites, and,
while you’re here you can also shop for the most rad, luscious and tasty on
earth. We’re open 24 hours so come on in and poke around.”

Delia’s, another leading
marketer of teen clothing and accessories, sponsors the Gurlnet Network in
alliance with the advertising network (“You click girl!”)
This “robust online community” offers a magazine, community area, chat
rooms, and the opportunity to build your own home page. You can also get free
e-mail, and discounts on Delia products “just for checking your e-mail.”
“We see Delia’s as something like MTV or Seventeen. We’re an
arbiter of style and taste,” says Steve Kahn, president of Delia’s catalog
(Boston Globe).

Featuring emaciated teen
models and glossy spreads on home furnishings (including an inflatable
metallic “chill chair,” bathroom and treehouse, accessories), clothes,
shoes, and knick knacks, Delia’s uses every page of its catalog to invite
the teen shopper to ponder some cutting edge questions. About physics, for
example: “If the universe is expanding, why is there never enough closet
space?” About being wise to doublespeak advertising: “How can something be
a ‘genuine imitation’”? About the puzzling features of life in the new
millennium: “Why do the doors of 24-hour stores have locks?”

“We’re just like
you,” the catalog says to kids. “A little bit childish, a little bit
questioning, a little bit quirky. You can playfully celebrate your youth and
set yourselves apart from your stuffy parents by expressing yourself through
our products. Looking confident but not defiant, models of the “latch pocket
cargo pants” want to know, “Why can’t you remove those warning tags from

Oh, those teens. They’re
so cute when they’re questioning authority. So hip to the ways of the media.
As one teen-directed ad for jeans says, “Forget the ultra-skinny models.
Don’t make us read a lot of copy. Stop telling us what’s cool. And don’t
try to talk like us. Just show us the jeans.” This ad for Arizona Jeans is
discussed by Jessica Lind-Diamond, age 13, writing in the feminist publication
New Moon Magazine. She says, “Some ads seem to have great messages
even though they’re trying to sell something. But, in the end, they deliver
mixed messages. An ad for contact lenses says: ‘After all, it’s about
confidence and being seen for who you really are.’ I like it that the ad
encourages girls to be themselves. But before that, it calls the lenses ‘the
ultimate accessory.’ The message is that it’s good to let others see who
you are, but that you can only be yourself with the help of fashionable
accessories. I just think that wearing glasses or contacts is a personal
choice, not a fashion statement.”

An ad in Teen People
for Hang Ten clothing says, “In a world where you can be anything, be
yourself.” Marketers need teens to find self-expression in the products they
consume. Other ways of experiencing agency in the world—such as
participating in art, politics, sports, etc.—are muted or invisible. Make-up
and clothing ads thus get a ringing endorsement from the magazine’s content.
Commercially driven magazines feature articles about make-up techniques,
exercise regimens, and advice about how to get a boyfriend. The magazine’s
advertising then points teens to the products that will help them address all
the flaws (in their skin, their body types, and their sex lives) that teen
girls are now convinced they are vexed with. Consciously or not, commercially
driven teen magazines must make themselves attractive to advertisers by
featuring content that affirms the importance of the products and the
lifestyle choices that advertisers are trying to promote.

In a March 1998 Boston
article, writer Ellen Barry points out that 60 percent of teenage
girls rely on glossy magazines as their primary source of information about
birth control, relationships, and health. “So girls desperate for facts tend
to get them wrapped in a multi-front campaign to harness [their] buying

While corporations try to
convince teens that brand names will help make them “who they really are,”
a few national publications exist whose mission is other than marketing. New
Moon Magazine
( for girls ages 8 to 14, Teen Voices
(www.teen- for teenage girls, and HUES (Hear Us Emerging
Sisters, for young women ages 17 to 29, are all written and
edited by girls, teens, and adults in collaboration. Their objectives include:
being a tool “for a girl to use as she builds resilience and resistance to
our sexist society, moving confidently out into the world, pursuing her unique
path in life” (New Moon); offering an antidote to “magazines that
[teach] women to hate their bodies, that ignore women’s cultures and
identities, that encourage women to fade into the background instead of
showing their true colors” (HUES); and providing an “interactive,
educational forum that challenges media images of women and serves as a
vehicle of change, improving young women’s social and economic status” (Teen

Of these three alternatives
to mainstream teen publications, Teen Voices is least satisfied with
simply offering positive role models for girls. Alison Amoroso, who co-founded
Teen Voices in 1988, wants to empower young women and uncover the roots
of social problems in the process. According to a June 1996 Boston Globe
interview, she is after “nothing less than sweeping social change.” In
Volume 7, Issue 4, 15-year-old Ryan DiAngelis critiques a Nike ad that, on the
surface, seems to be acknowledging girls’ strength and ability. However,
DiAngelis points out, many Nike products are made by exploited young girls in
factories who will never have access to the opportunities that the confident
forward-looking white girl does in the Nike ad. Followed up with an interview
of a sweatshop worker, an analysis of how companies get you to buy,
information about labor laws, and suggestions for how to get involved in
anti-sweatshop activism, Teen Voices focuses on more than just the
narrow and sexist depiction of women in advertising. Rather, it effectively
probes the many institutions and oppressive systems that help make Nike what
it is. This sophisticated political context gives the teen writers, editors,
and readers a chance to experience themselves as agents of social change.

Published by the
not-for-profit Women Express, Inc., Teen Voices provides information
and airs opinions about diversity, abortion, teen pregnancy, teen motherhood,
health, the media, paying for college, and much more. Women Express also links
teens with adult mentors, provides an apprenticeship program, ongoing
journalism projects, and an advocacy and referral program. Teen Voices
is clearly a place where teens are valued for more than potential access to a
credit card.

Commercial publications see
their subscribers as consumers of advertising. They want teens to be
self-actualized at the shopping mall. Alternative magazines want to be a
catalyst for individual and grassroots empowerment. Support alternative teen
media by subscribing, donating money, and spreading the word.

Cynthia Peters is a former long-time staff member of South End Press, a
current staff member of GCN, and writes a regular column on parenting for