I suspect that this decades-old feeling was not unique to my generation, and, if anything, today's Internet-accelerated news cycles may have exacerbated the problem. To test my theory, I went to Google News and searched for "teens" (with "Safe Search" enabled -- a sign of the times itself). The 24 hours of news I reviewed fit rather neatly into six categories:
"Study: Smoking Can Alter Teens' Brains"
"Overuse of Energy Drinks a Danger to Teens"
"Teen Pregnancy High in South-Central Idaho"
"Most Teens Waiting to Have Sex"
"New Campaign Seeks to Get Teen Drivers Off Their Cellphones"
"Teen Dies Following Apparent Game of 'Chicken'"
"Teens Charged with Stealing Beer and Cookie Jar"
"2 Teens Arrested in W.Va. Home Invasion"
"Teen Lucky to Be Alive After Swallowing Magnetic Tongue Rings"
"Colo. Teen Dies of Cardiac Arrest During Rugby Match"
"Local Teen Earns Boys & Girls Club Top Honor"
"Teens Get a Lift from Competing in Arnold Sports Festival"
While this exercise was far from scientific, it yielded an all-too-familiar sense that the news continues to mine the teenage experience more for the worst stories than the best. "If it bleeds, it leads" is alive and well as are stories that create a sense of fear around the teenage experience. For heaven's sakes, just look at those headlines above one more time! If the cars, cell phones, and energy drinks don't get you, there's always magnetic tongue rings to finish the job!
So what can we glean from the news about teens that isn't sensational? Lots:
1. Teens aren't "finished" people. They're still developing physically and emotionally. We, therefore, bear an enhanced responsibility when marketing to them. Depending on your industry, this may take the form of enhanced product testing, more robust product labels/warnings or investments in teen and parent education.
2. Teens are inherent risk-takers. This can be great for marketers pushing the latest fashion trends but dangerous for those companies whose products may have an impact on the user's health or safety. Make sure you think beyond how you would use your project and consider how the riskiest of teens might use it.
3. Teens aren't a monolithic group. Just look at those in the news above. They are as diverse (and, occasionally, as crazy) as the adult population. Be careful that in your quest for easy answers on "how to market to teens" you don't forget to segment, personalize, and customize wherever possible. Teens are, after all, still individuals.
4. Lastly, teens are accomplished. You wouldn't know it but for two news reports above, but there are countless teens out there doing amazing things with their time. To the news, these are "good feeling" stories that rarely crack the front page. To your brand, however, these could be the stories that resonate most with consumers.
So where can we find a true portrait of today's teens? While the news may provide clues, the best answer comes straight from the mouths of teens themselves. The question is whether your brand is talking at teens or talking with teens via focus groups and other face-to-face outreach to deepen your ability to serve their interests and needs.
If you're only talking at teens, be forewarned. They like to talk back. And they're hopped-up on enough energy drinks and cellphone minutes to do some real damage. I can see the headline now: "Teen Chews Off Marketer's Ear."
Now that's an article I'd read for sure.