When Tyler Lungren wore the shoes to show his biking buddies, no one said they were cool.
"The shoes were so ugly," says the freshman at Anacortes High School in Anacortes, Wash. "They were like space shoes, and everybody said they were ugly."
Tyler was wearing prototype shoes as a paid "consultant" for a teen-research firm. He is one of a growing number of teens across the United States who are either hired, or volunteer, to tell advertisers, marketers, and researchers what is cool in the explosive $153 billion teen market.
Although many teens, like Tyler, say they frown at the negative aspects of American consumerism and advertising, they are part of Generation Y, a teen culture of some 30 million that is largely fascinated by brands and brand recognition. Competitive marketers, in the American tradition, seek every advantage for their brands in a blizzard of messages seen nearly everywhere by teens.
To the big brand-name companies like Nike, The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy, and American Eagle, teen brand loyalty stems partly from the craft of creating cool and memorable advertising images and words.
To discover what clicks with teens, marketers are turning to research firms that solicit teens on the streets, at hangouts, on campuses, or through friends and databanks. Ideally, they want classic "early adopters," a sociological designation for teen leaders and trendsetters who buy products and in turn influence other teens to buy.
Exploited? Who's exploited?
Many teens reject the possibility that they are being exploited by the companies. "Advertisers are just going for their target market," says Dani Allred, a teen from Weber High School in Ogden, Utah. "As long as they aren't promoting alcohol or other substances to teens, it's no big deal."
Still, many teens resist consumerism, and are concerned about advertising's reach into their lives. They criticize schools for welcoming Channel One TV into classrooms with commercials. They fight against cola companies signing exclusive contracts with schools. They resist buying name brands, and often buy clothes at thrift stores.
Studies indicate that teen boys in the US spend an average of $70 a week on themselves. Girls spend $64. And for beauty products, Latino girls part with an average of $400 a month. In addition to the $153 billion teens spend on themselves, add another $33 billion for their input in family grocery selection.
"Teens are jaded, bombarded by tons of advertising messages," says Jon Winsor, president of Radar Communications, a consumer-intelligence firm in Boulder, Colo., which researches the teen market. "How do you connect with them so they want to tell you what they think, and participate in an ongoing dialogue?"
Radar hires teen reporters like Tyler (paying from $10 to $250 for a project) to explain their interests, for example, to a client seeking insights into the world of mountain biking.
Radar first selects teens who are part of the subculture of mountain biking. The teens keep daily journals and sometimes are asked to photograph what they know and love using a disposable camera. Or they are asked to interview 10 friends with assigned questions, or they design a product, a CD cover, a magazine cover, or draw a portrait of themselves, all intended to illuminate their teen subculture.
"I also kept a list of the words we used," says Tyler, who worked on two projects for Radar. "It was a good experience," he says, "but it took them four months to send the stuff they promised me like a CD, a baseball hat, and a long-sleeve T-shirt."
The point of the teen research is a synthesis of a particular culture, a distillation of underlying attitudes and reasoning. The advertiser uses the results to shape messages, images, or products that speak to teens. For instance, the best TV commercials are known to elicit a "that's me" response from teens or teen wannabes.
"Corporations are not really looking to benefit teens in some way by hiring them as reporters," says Troy Pickard, a teen from Portland, Ore., who successfully led an effort to stop a Pepsi contract with his school. "They don't want to enrich the lives of teens, or something like that. They are out to make money," he says, "and it is exploitative to hire teens as reporters or trend spotters."
Today's teens know they have become a cultural and economic force. Newspapers, magazines, Web sites, video games, and MTV appeal directly to teens. Even The New York Times, recognizing the importance of the teen market, launched "Upfront," a Web site for teens.
Visit the Candies Web site, where shoes, clothing, and fragrances are sold to teens and young adults, and if you are selected as a Candies "Trend Tracker," you'll get "a welcome package that includes a full Candies wardrobe and a full set of Candies fragrance products, and [your] very own digital camera."
Flattered by the hoopla
Many teens like this kind of attention, and view the possibilities of their lives as endless, including the choice of products.
Peter Eichar, a teen at Newtrier High School in Winnetka, Ill., says, "It's all the loose wires, all the possibilities, a million different things you can do now. That's what's great about being a teen."
Jared Lowe, a home-schooled teen from Charleston, W. Va., sees advertising as part of the mix of life. "I don't see it as a bad thing that teens are subjected to so much advertising," he says. "It just means we have a lot of discretionary income and we are worth the pursuit."
Advertisers can only agree. "What is important to understand is the underlying motivations of teens that make them like or not like something," says Janice Figueroa, a senior vice president and strategic planner at Bates Advertising in New York. "How does something make them feel good about themselves, and what are the hot buttons?"
Teen People magazine hovers near the "hot buttons" with its 8,000 Trendspotters, a corps of unpaid teen volunteers from around the country who stay in contact with representatives of the magazine.
"These are the first ones to find out what is happening," says Anne Zehren, publisher of the magazine. "These are not the edge kids, the 3 to 5 percent of teens experimenting on the edge," she says, "but these are the influencers, the ones who really influence what is going to hit the mainstream."
At the Teen People Web site on AOL, some 300 "cyber informants" also keep ahead of what to do and see on the Internet. "We use our Trendspotters in focus groups, surveys, and we talk with them all the time," says Ms. Zehren. "They are the secret behind our success."
Molly Kawachi, a 10th grader at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, N.Y., has been a Teen People Trendspotter for almost two years. Among other projects, she has modeled in an advertising CD for the magazine, appeared in the corporate Christmas card, served on focus panels, critiqued the new fashions of designer Todd Oldham, and participated in a cooking-school demonstration.
"They never tell me what to say or feed me information to tell anyone interviewing me," she says. "It's such an amazing experience, and it just opens up so many doors. I'm much more privileged than exploited because they have been so nice to me."
Since launching publication two years ago, simultaneously with its Internet site, Teen People has zoomed to a circulation of 1.5 million, but not yet close to its main rival, Seventeen magazine, at 2.4 million.
One of the pioneering youth-research firms, Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) in Northbrook, Ill., had to convince clients 17 years ago of the value of research about teens. "Now people are knocking on our doors," says Kate Danaj, TRU's director of research.
Their clients have included Nike, The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Seventeen, NBC, and Nintendo. Each year TRU publishes an annual teen report based on interviews with 2,000 teens. Average cost for the report is around $10,000 depending on the breadth and depth of the content a buyer wants.
Over the years, TRU has tried an arsenal of custom approaches to meet clients' needs, including gathering teens in the company's "college dorm room," which is a faux room with couches, stools, lava lamps, and posters of rock stars. Clients can sit on the floor, talk, and eat pizza with teens if they want.
"Some of the teens have allowed us to go into their closets, where they pick out their favorite clothes," says Ms. Danaj, "and then they tell us why they like them. Or one of us will be on the streets and see a really trendy-looking teen and say, 'Hey, if you're interested in doing some research....' "
For Bates Advertising in New York, TRU brought together some 30 urban and suburban teens for a year-long panel. "We pay them $60 an assignment," says Ms. Figueroa, "plus a bonus at the end if they complete all the assignments."
One assignment focused on heroes. "We asked them what are the attributes of a hero, someone they would look up to," says Figueroa. "They told us they look for people who tell them the truth, who fight against adverse situations and come out feeling good about themselves."
From the teens' comments and insights, Figueroa is looking for a "tone" and a "personality" to be used in ads. "It's not what you say in the communication," she says. "It's sort of how you say it. That's the art of it."
Critics charge that the overall impact of such advertising research can co-opt teens both individually and collectively. Teens are taken deeper into a consumer culture, say the critics, where the desire for material goods prevails over knowledge and resourcefulness.
Diane Samples, president of Media Knowledge in New Fairfield, Conn., sees a society that first creates too many "mini-consumers," and then keeps "them in a constant state of discontentedness and wanting more." Instead of encouraging informed citizens and consumers, she charges, the result can be lives based on consumption. "What the kids may not realize is that the companies that pay them $120 are repackaging the information from them and selling it for thousands," she says. "They are gouging these kids, who think, 'Oh great. Isn't it cool I did this for this magazine or ad agency?' "
Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert in Washington, part of Ralph Nader's public-interest groups, says, "The companies see our children as an economic resource to be exploited like raw timber or bauxite. The kids feel important because the corporations lavish attention and the trappings of importance on them to get them to assist in the machines of marketing."
Teens can smell hype
Some teens say it's not quite so black and white, that the adult world needs to give them a little more credit for being able to spot the difference between advertising hype and honest value in the marketplace.
"I'm very brand-conscious," says Matthew Sowell, a skateboarder and guitar player from Philadelphia, who did research on skateboards for Radar Communications. "But that doesn't mean I buy the brands. In fact, I buy most of my clothes from a thrift shop," he says. "Better to support a local company than a big company that doesn't know what your need is."
Brady Coates, a teen from Ogden, Utah, has recently changed his approach to shopping. "I don't look at brand names too much anymore, " he says. "I used to do it a lot, and only wear a certain brand of clothes, but I learned I was being ripped off for paying much more for something made much cheaper by someone else."
But Ms. Danaj knows all too well how and why ad images prove to be powerful and attractive to teens. "Abercrombie & Fitch, for instance, has tapped into an age-aspiration thing," she says.
"Teens want to be a couple of years older than they are. So the company presents the whole image, the store, the packaging, the magazine, all around a lifestyle," Danaj says. "And teens walk through the store and see the huge photos of these young, happy people, and they want to be a part of that."
Another factor for this generation that could lead to a ruthless winnowing process in the marketplace, is the growing technological capacity to deflect unwanted advertising.
"The attitude is that this generation doesn't like to be hard sold, " says Kevin Umeh, president of Emerging Adult Research in New York, which maintains "element USA," a Web site for Generation Y. "Everything like caller ID to screen out telemarketers, browsers that can block banner ads on the Web, and all the technology that is coming, will make it increasingly hard to reach this audience."
Perhaps the Achilles heel of advertising is best described by 10th-grader Molly Kawachi, who lives in New York. When asked if she feels bombarded by advertising in the city that invented Madison Avenue, she says, "I see a ton of advertising, but I don't notice it because there is so much of it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society