How Branding Is Shaping Teenagers

Ever wondered how growing up in a branded culture effects the way a person views the world?  Have you noticed a differences between the way you respond and identify with brands and products and the way teenagers do?

I came across this video today while catching up on some of my blog reading.  It is a promo for a film, Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, about consumerism and the affect a world saturated with marketing messages has on children growing up.

Not sure what your response is to this video, but it raises real questions for me, both as a parent, and as someone who has an interest in youth and teenage culture.

What does it mean for our current and future generation of teenagers to grow up with brand identification so much a part of their self understanding?  How will effect the way they view themselves, their peers and their future? Can adults make a difference to the branded culture, given that many of us are just as caught up in it as our children and teenagers?

How Advertising Affects Teenagers

Advertising works best when it creates insecurity about something. Such insecurities are easily found amongst pubescent teens. Be it body shape, skin condition, fashion, music, being cool, or just having the right type of gadget, teenagers are very uncertain about who they are or where they fit in.

Identity

The message of our hyper consumerist society sells the belief that you are what you own. This message of identity is an answer tailor made for teens who are are asking the question “who am I?”

Apple didn’t ask teenagers which type of iPod they preferred or liked the best. No, they sold iPods by asking  “Which iPod are you?”

The obvious downside to this is teenagers basing their identity on what brand they belong to, or what stuff they can accumulate.  Such beliefs can be stronger and overshadow the values of developing integrity, thought out values and sound relationships as the basis  for understanding who they are.

Self Image

Similarly advertising and media messages are designed to influence how teens evaluate themselves and their self worth. In the December 2007 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, researcher Deborah Roedder John, found that a young person’s level of materialism is directly connected to their self-esteem. “When self-esteem drops as children enter adolescence, materialism peaks. Then by late adolescence, when self-esteem rebounds, their materialism drops.”

Via a constant stream of messages suggesting what is normal,  cool, popular, confidence building, or good for relationships, marketing can easily play to an adolescents natural insecurities. Teenage girls spend over $9 billion on makeup and skin products alone. This is an example of advertisers selling the message “we can make you fit in / feel good/ be happy.”

Of course you don’t need to be a sociologist to connect the dots between a society saturated with branding designed to generate inadequacy and growing rates of eating disorders, depression, anxiety and obesity amongst teenagers.

Belonging

As adolescents engage in the task of establishing a place to belong in the world away from the childhood family unit, questions of belonging and fitting in become paramount.  This is why branding is so significant for marketeers trying to reach teens. Branding is about finding a group or tribe to identify with.  The message teens hear is “if you have the right brand you belong to a family who share  your identification with the brand and its lifestyle/ values.”

Research by Linda Simpson (Adolescence Vol. 33, No. 131) has demonstrated the attraction to prestige brands develops in adolescent years because it’s a time when peer pressure and fitting in are very important.

One of the downsides of belonging and identification branding is it  encourages disapproval of anything different, be it a different generation, different cultural group or different school clique.  Combine this with natural teenage tendencies towards black and white or absolute thinking, and you end up with increased opportunity for segmentation, segregation, and ultimately hyper-individualistic attitudes.

How Big is the Issue?

In her book “Consuming Kids,” Susan Linn states that U.S. companies have a marketing budget to adolescents and children of over $15 billion, influencing $600 billion worth of spending. This is about  two and a half times more than was spent in 1992. There is a lot at stake in selling and branding young people.

In a stirring article titled Commodifying Kids: The Forgotten Crisis, Henry Giroux states:

“society in the last thirty years has undergone a sea change in the daily lives of children – one marked by a major transition from a culture of innocence and social protection, however imperfect, to a culture of commodification. This is culture that does more than undermine the ideals of a secure and happy childhood; it also exhibits the bad faith of a society in which, for children, “there can be only one kind of value, market value; one kind of success, profit; one kind of existence, commodities; and one kind of social relationship, markets.”

A little later he picks up on the the profound nature advertising is having on children from very early on in life.  I’ll share with you another brief part of the article where he quotes Juliet Schor:

At age one, she’s watching Teletubbies and eating the food of its “promo partners” Burger King and McDonald’s. Kids can recognize logos by eighteen months, and before reaching their second birthday, they’re asking for products by brand name. By three or three and a half, experts say, children start to believe that brands communicate their personal qualities, for example, that they’re cool, or strong, or smart. Even before starting school, the likelihood of having a television in their bedroom is 25 percent, and their viewing time is just over two hours a day. Upon arrival at the schoolhouse steps, the typical first grader can evoke 200 brands.

Generational Questions?

This post does not even being to scrape the surface of what is obviously a large issue. I have been learning a lot on this topic from the Shaping Youth Blog and can highly recommend  it as a great place to start if you are interested in exploring these issues more.

Some of the significant questions I hope to explore in the future are about the generational effects and distinctive’s created by a media soaked landscape which is fueled by advertising.  How exactly will it impact the way kids today view the world and relate to each other? What does it mean about how older generations communicate to the younger generations?

I hope to post on these questions in the near future, but until then I would love to know your thoughts on this complex issue.  Have you noticed any effects? Are you aware of some good resources or information sources dealing with these issues?  Please let us know.

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