When Debbie Gordon asks a group of eighth-graders
at Hillcrest Public School in Mississuaga to concoct a recipe for cool,
they quickly come up with the ingredients.
Clothes top the list, the 12- and 13-year-olds
agree, pointing to their must-have brand names Old Navy and West 49.
Then there are the technical must-haves, such as cellphones, multiple
Hotmail accounts, software for downloading music. Extreme sports, such
as skateboarding, seem to be all the rage, and of course, the crowd
you hang out with is key.
The answers drawn from this group of barely-teens
-- girls in the tank tops and miniskirts modelled by their favourite
pop stars; boys in high-top sneakers endorsed by hip-hop heroes and
sports stars -- have been virtually scripted by an advertising industry
that holds greater and greater sway over their budding brains.
Ms. Gordon spent 15 years in the industry, carefully
crafting and distributing these very notions of cool. Today, as a media
literacy trainer in the Greater Toronto Area, she is teaching how to
make them think through the hype.
The task isn't simple: She has encountered students
from affluent areas who were labelled "wannabes" if they shopped
at Winners, and single teen moms from poor neighbourhoods who bought
Nike shoes for their babies instead of formula.
"Kids understand brand hierarchies at a very
young age," Ms. Gordon later explains. "They know which brands
are the power brands -- which brands carry status -- and they wear those
brands with pride."
As advertisers began gauging the spending power
of tweens and teens in the 1990s, they realized that instead of targeting
the gatekeepers -- namely Mom and Dad -- it would prove more lucrative
to sell straight to their kids.
A recent study of 1,806 young Canadian women done
by the marketing firm Youth Culture Research shows that 12- to 14-year-olds
have an average of $84 available to them weekly "on demand"
and that most of them spend their money on clothes. Twenty-five per
cent of these girls have a debit card; 11 per cent have access to a
credit card, and 98 per cent want to fit in with their peers. In short,
they make the perfect prey for advertisers.
With today's youth tuning out conventional forms
of advertising and getting on-line, marketers have adopted craftier
strategies to win them over.
Attuned to research that shows the majority of
sales among youth are now directly influenced by word of mouth, advertisers
are taking to the streets and the Internet, and recruiting youngsters
to generate the buzz.
Ms. Gordon guides students through the mechanics
of this trend of "viral marketing" by drawing the distinction
between authentic and manufactured cool.
Authentic cool is a grassroots force that comes
from the streets and is often based on values, she says, using the hippie
era and independent music as examples.
One strand of viral marketing Ms. Gordon helps
her students decode is "trend-seeding." Here, cool kids are
hired to carry a new product around in the hope that admirers will feel
pressured to buy it.
The tactic is used by Youthography, a Toronto marketing
agency. "There are a whole bunch of different kinds of influential
people in a group," says company president, Max Valiquette.
"Borderline geeky guys can be hugely influential
with tech products; fashionable girls are influential in terms of clothing.
We make sure we're getting the right kid for the right job," he
"Young people have to contend with a ton of
media messages from minute to minute and [viral marketing] cuts through
the clutter the way Tier 1 advertising [TV, radio] can't," Mr.
Valiquette says, adding "young people are becoming savvy enough
to separate the good advertising from the crap."
Ms. Gordon disagrees. "They'reliving it, and
they're consumed by it, but they're not thinking about it or analyzing
it," she says. "I have a lot of adults telling me they've
lost their ability to parent because of this haze."