The catalyst for my dreams growing up as a teen were the icons I looked up to and aspired to be like. Long before celebrity scandals were everyday news I, like many of my peers, were left with the innocent feeling of putting my heroes on impenetrable pedestals. Bobby Brown (see: mug shot), Charles Barkley (ditto), and yes, Brandon from Beverly Hills 90210 were at the top of my list.
No matter whom I looked up to as a teen, every icon had one thing in common ... cool. They acted cool, dressed cool, talked cool and walked cool.
Fast forward to 2010, and the headlines are much different as are teens' perceptions of their icons. The Internet, camera phones, and Perez Hilton have exposed those who might otherwise be teens' everyday heroes as frauds or creeps, and there is little left to the imagination. The halo of cool has become blurred and faded with yet another flash from a TMZ photographer.
Enter the "age of anti-cool" for the modern teen. With each new celebrity wart exposed, the notion of hero and idol has virtually disappeared only to be awkwardly replaced by the likes of Michael Cera, Shaun White and Glee. Today's rising teen heroes are largely embraced because of their flaws rather than their airbrushed perfection. We are entering an age that celebrates and promotes imperfection.
Teens are infatuated with Shaun White not only because he is an American teen icon* that is a killer snowboarder but because he is in many ways as relatable as the free-spirited, pimply kid next door. Michael Cera (or Jonah Hill for that matter) is not as easy on the eyes as Jason Priestly once was, but who would you rather spend a night playing Xbox with? Glee celebrates the inner shower singer in all of us that just wants to belt out some "Journey" ... and something about that feels so right.
Social media has made the anti-cool acceptable and widespread. No longer does today's teen need to be a cheerleader or sports jock to fit in. There are meet-ups for Star Wars geeks and tweetups for Circus Freaks and everything in between. Pepsi, long seen as an arbiter of teen pop culture, no longer uses the likes of Britney, MJ, Madonna or Shaq in its ads, but instead a promise for everyday people to make a difference.
Is your brand still hiding behind the bright lights and makeup of a paid celebrity shill to tout your wares? Or are you embracing your warts while becoming more authentic and relatable? The jig is up for fooling teen consumers with a paid endorsement by their heroes. Now you must earn their trust by letting it all out and embracing the anti-cool.
*Editor's note: The word "icon" was left out of the original post.