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 says.

"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."