As research for my upcoming media workshop for teens, I picked up a book called "Branded". Reading it has been nostalgic, scary, eye-opening, and a little bit hopeful. The author candidly discusses how marketing affects the teens of today.
One of the most impressive concepts she outlines is that teens are getting "older younger". For years I thought it must just have been my imagination. I was a teen less than eight years ago. It was hard to believe that in such a short time teens could be growing up so much faster. And yet, here in print, I found my observations validated. The author claims marketing is the number one suspect responsible for the crime.
I am aware of advertising. I am aware of the brand names that surround me. I use "Kleenex" (not tissues) and "Band-aids" (not adhesive bandages) and "Tylenol" (not acetaminophine). I remember the popular clothing brands my classmates wore. I even dabbled part time during university at an advertising agency. Half the people working in the industry had four-year university degrees that taught them how to effectively infiltrate our minds; the other half had street experience in understanding how we think. But this book was eye-opening, even for me.
Most-horrifying for me to read about was "peer-to-peer" marketing. Companies solicit the elite popular crowds in schools and shower them with branded gifts. Mostly girls, these teens act as free marketing tools by strutting these brands around school and inciting a frenzy that trickles down to the very "dregs" of unpopularity. We all know who the "in-crowd" was. We saw what they wore and what shows they watched and whether or not we had the means to imitate their lifestyle, we all ardently wished we could.
I never had the money to keep up with the affluent peers at my high school. University, a supposed bed for breeding individuality was no better. My classmates were mostly made up from the same affluent background as my high school friends were. I did my best with what I had, and was fortunate to be a part of the "grunge" years, when shopping at thrift stores was fashionable.
My mother never allowed fashion magazines to filter into our home (too dangerous, raising three teenage daughters - and thank goodness!), but I was aware of the perfection that graced the covers. I was not aware, however, of airbrushing, touch-ups, and the magic of photoshop. So I, too, fell into the trap of wishing I could be as tall, as thin, with eyes as wide and hair as perfect. Luckily for me, I could never manage to equate beauty with pain, and so mostly I did the best I could and let the rest slide. (I can't say I wasn't affected by it all, though. Just last week I felt a tiny thrill of joy when I read in a beauty magazine that fuller, more natural eyebrows are in style this summer. I've never plucked. And by chance I'm finally in style this season).
Even "anti-branding" is a marketing ploy. I imagine Dove's sales skyrocketed when they launched their new "natural beauty" campaign. Yes, we were finally seeing more average looking people in TV and print ads, and some of the model mystique was thrust under the spotlight, but those who bought into the product simply bought into another ad campaign.
I have two more weeks to prepare my workshop for the girls, and each day I'm realizing that eight years out of the teen life is a long time, and the pressure they feel is infinitely more than what I experienced. But I am now able to be more honest with myself and therefore will be able to be more honest with them. I think more than anything they need to hear that it's hard, and they won't make it through unscathed, but the morals they are trying to implement will come through one day.