Book Review from the September 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. By Alissa Quart. Arrow.
“Catch them young” has always been the slogan of those peddling religious ideas, but it has now been taken on board by people in charge of marketing in capitalist corporations. As Alissa Quart shows in this interesting if sometimes superficial book, clothing and cosmetics companies in particular are increasingly targeting teenagers and 'tweens' (nine-to-thirteen year-olds).
The idea is that youngsters who develop an attachment for a particular brand (Gap, for instance) will continue to buy it as they get older. Thus money spent on advertising to kids will pay big dividends over the years ahead. Brands and logos become crucial in adolescent peer groups: if you don't have the right bag or shoes, then you may have trouble being accepted by your would-be friends.
But how to advertise? Teenagers spend less time watching TV these days than a few years ago, preferring to surf the web or play video games. So, while TV advertising remains important, it is being rivalled by sneakier ideas such as product placement in films. In Legally Blonde, for instance, it is clear which make of nail polish and shampoo the main character uses. Another avenue for publicity involves planting logos in video games: a skateboarding game may contain logos for a company that makes boards and clothing, or the 'characters' in the game may skate past one of the company's shops.
Teen peer-to-peer marketing is another ploy, with teenagers being 'employed' as unpaid salespeople, to spread the idea of a particular brand to their friends and provide feedback on proposed new lines. At the same time, parents work longer hours and so have less time with their children, who they may buy off by spending more money on them. As a result, the brand has become a kind of surrogate parent:
“Teenagers have come to feel that consumer goods are their friends – and that the companies selling products to them are trusted allies. After all, they inquire after the kids' opinions with all the solicitude of an ideal parent. Tell us how best to sell you our products, they ask. If you do, we will always love you.”
There may be a bit of exaggeration here, but it remains a pretty dreadful condemnation of the pressures that commodity-based society places on workers as both producers and consumers.
I must confess that I found parts of the book barely comprehensible – I'd like to think that this is due to its American emphasis rather than my being an old fogey. Quart supplies a preface for this edition, where she discusses the extent to which US-derived marketing ideas have spread to Britain. Schools, for instance, often house subsidised vending machines from Coke and so on, while the Walkers' Crisps campaign involving “free” textbooks has boosted their brand rating. On the whole, though, things are not quite as commercialised here – not yet, anyway, but there is little doubt about the way that capitalism is going and about how it is driven by marketing considerations rather than any satisfying of human needs.