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Sales to minors: can commercial culture possibly corrupt today's teens more than it did their parents?

ALISSA QUART BELIEVES THAT KIDS today are victims of an unprecedented barrage of slick, mind-numbing advertising, a phenomenon dissected at length in her book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. To check her thesis, I called a 40-something friend and asked if she remembered which brand of sneakers she wore as a child. My friend burst into song: "Run a little faster, jump a little higher, feel a little stronger, in your P.F. Flyers!"

I was stunned; I'd always thought of her as a Red Ball Jets girl. But I wasn't surprised that the insistent commercial jingles of her childhood remained embedded in her brain. It's hard to imagine a baby boomer who doesn't know which brand of chicken noodle soup is "M'm! M'm! Good? what kind of bread builds strong bodies 12 ways, or why Tony the Tiger starts every morning with sugar-frosted flakes. (For you youngsters out there, it's because they're "Grrrrrrr-eat!") It's certainly true that children today are bombarded by commercial messages in a way that was unimaginable back when there were only three networks, and children spent each endless week waiting breathlessly for the glories of Saturday morning cartoons.

But it's an open question whether Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, and their ilk have made today's children more vulnerable to commercialism than their parents were. With so much kid-oriented programming available, no current shows can boast the hegemony--and commercial muscle--of old must-see juvenile hits like "Batman" or "The Monkees"; advertisers on those shows knew that every self-respecting third-grader in the country would either tune in or face playground humiliation the next day. It's impossible for an advertiser to make that kind of direct hit in today's cluttered media marketplace.

Children, Quart argues, have been transformed into "victims of the contemporary luxury economy." To her, the villains in this case are obvious: They are the corporations that heartlessly market to underage consumers, slavering after the annual $155 billion in discretionary income Quart says they control (although the source of that figure is not cited). Some of her anecdotal evidence is chilling, such as the 150 school districts nationwide that have accepted soft-drink companies' sponsorships, taking relatively small donations in return for exclusive on-campus access to the districts' thirsty young customers. Quart reports that one young rebel who wore a Pepsi shirt to his school's Coca-Cola Day was suspended for "insurrection."

Still, isn't criticizing a marketer for targeting a group of affluent consumers, whatever their height, equivalent to deploring your cat for targeting songbirds? It's in the nature of the beast. The real challenge is deciding whose job it is to bell the cat. Quart blames Congress for its failure to regulate advertising to under-18 consumers. She notes with approval that Sweden bans commercials on kids' shows, a move that demonstrates that "many European countries are much more enlightened than the United States in their attitudes and laws toward branding aimed at minors." But that's a spurious comparison. Unlike the United States, where commercial jingles and slogans have been part of the cultural fabric for more than half a century, Sweden didn't allow any commercials on television whatsoever until 1991. (That ban had one unexpectedly lovely unintended consequence. Marketers, desperate to get buyers' attention, started plastering their brand logos on brightly colored hot-air balloons and setting them aloft over Stockholm.) And the current ban on marketing to kids doesn't actually work; to circumvent it, two Swedish channels simply beam their signals from ad-friendlier England.

The author seems to put more faith in legislative action than in parents' own ability to monitor their children's exposure to advertising and limit their purchasing power. Sadly, she may be right. Many parents, whether motivated by guilt or wrong-headed fondness, seem unable to resist their children's demands for expensive branded merchandise, even when those desires wreak havoc on the family budget. A few days ago, I was minding the cash register at our elementary-school book fair when a distressed single mother asked me to total her purchases. She had planned to spend only $60, but her son's wish list totaled almost $100. I offered to take back the most expensive volume, a $28 hardcover version of the Guinness Book of World Records. "It'll be out in paperback soon," I assured her. "He wants what he wants," she responded flatly, digging in her purse for a few more crumpled bills. How can we expect our children to build up any sales resistance when we ourselves are unable to say no?

Brand News

Although it's easy to share Quart's indignation about the branding of America's littlest consumers, it's unfortunate that her ire sometimes distorts her vision of popular culture. Her chapter on recent teen films proves that it's possible to delve so far into subtext that you can miss the text entirely. In bemoaning the lack of "responsible, liberal reflexes" in today's teen movies, she takes aim at Bring It On, Legally Blonde, and a token brunette movie, She's All That--a trio of warm-hearted, if featherweight flicks. In Brand's view, these films celebrate "influencers"--better known as "the cool kids"--to the detriment of everybody else.

But while it's true that the stars of these films are all substantially more physically attractive than, say, your average Miss America contestant, the plots of these movies all turn on the value of personal integrity over social acceptance. Even though these films are all so sugary they should have carried a warning to diabetic viewers, they're hardly evil. (Indeed, Quart distorts the most memorable line in She's All That. After the teen Galatea turns her back on high-end prom culture, she returns to her loving middle-class home to find her smitten young Pygmalion patiently waiting for her. As he draws her close in the warm, starry California night, she breathes: "I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman--except for that whole hooker thing." Indefensibly, Quart cuts out that last, knowing phrase.)

It's a shame that Quart chooses to stack her deck, because she raises some interesting points about current teen culture and the adult marketers who have so effectively plugged into it. In her chapter on peer-to-peer marketing, she reports on the growing army of enthusiastic teens who cheerfully volunteer massive amounts of time to help their favorite brands reach other young consumers. These un- and underpaid teens believe their efforts eventually will be rewarded by cool jobs in fashion and marketing. While Quart tsks that the corporate adults who recruit these easily exploited young people "do not have the kids' interests at heart" (there's that carnivorous cat problem again), it's more interesting to wonder how nobler organizations might use these marketers' techniques to harness these kids' energy, hope, and idealism.

It also seems both pessimistic and disrespectful to dismiss the current generation of teens as "branded for life." Sure, if you walk through your local mall, you're likely to see more brand names displayed on young bodies than in the Store windows. But there are also signs that this generation of kids is savvier than Quart believes. As evidence, take a look at "Daria," a teen-oriented cartoon about a young, suburban Dorothy Parker in combat boots. Smart, sarcastic, and socially aware, Daria repeatedly proves herself more than able to fend off the dark forces of marketing and materialism. When Lawndale High's principal sells the school's soul to Ultra Cola for a cool 50 grand, Daria takes action to get (most of) the company's intrusive ads removed from the hallways--and the curriculum. And when Val, the editor of an eponymous teen magazine, tries to exploit Daria as a one-girl focus group, the cynical teen denounces her as an opportunist and advises her to start helping young women with their problems, instead of adding to them. From 1997 until its final episode in 2001, "Daria" was a favorite of both sophisticated anti-corporate teens and the Abercrombie & Fitch wearers the show so gleefully lampooned. (In 1999, Teen People gave "Daria" a Readers' Choice award.) And which pioneering, anti-materialist pro-feminist network dared to create this intelligent, subversive show? MTV. Go figure.

ELIZABETH AUSTIN is the co-author of The Good Girl's Guide to Negotiating.
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Author:Austin, Elizabeth
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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