How marketers are contributing to widespread teen pop-fanaticism.
It’s so common -- teens dressing up for late-night movie premieres, gushing over their social networks about the latest pop phenom, buying incredibly marked-up movie props, chasing Justin Bieber, you name it -- teens, through sheer force of their group, are defining what is “pop” and what is not in today’s society. There are even names for their fanaticism: “Twi-Hards,” “Gleeks,” the recently developed “Tributes” of “The Hunger Games,” and though some debate remains, “Potterheads” or “Potterphiles.” Screaming fans ranging from 11 to 17 years old throw themselves in front of cameras and celebrities alike at concerts and movie premieres.
But what contributes to this cultish form of dedication? The answer might surprise you.
It’s not just the teen form of the psychological phenomenon “groupthink,” in which people tend to lose their identities when participating in large crowds or via social networks. Instead, marketers, and the philosophy of marketing across all touchpoints in today’s technological environment, may be having a drastic effect on the way teens perceive and interact with culture today.
Marketing to teens has been in a strong upswing since the 1980s, and teens were projected to spend approximately $209 billion in 2011. With this spending and buying power, it’s no wonder that marketers are trying to snag spenders at an early age, adopting the “from birth to grave” philosophy in which brands aim to “own” relationships with consumers throughout their lives. According to child psychologist Allen Kanner, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, teens are now inundated so much with marketing messages about the importance of brands to one's identity and image that it has changed the way they socialize with each other, interact with adults, and view themselves and the world. According to Kanner’s article, “Globalization and the Commercialization of Childhood,” this is affecting them to such an extent that marketing’s identity-molding effects are slowly but surely diminishing the influence of parents and other role models in teenagers’ communities.
If teens are starting to adopt brands as the true sources of their identity, it’s no wonder that mass-marketed pop fiction would also have the same effect, corroborated by the amount of oversharing that now takes place among this demographic on social networks.
Teens identify with these pop phenomenons as they would with any brand -- even more so, as these stories often represent fantasies of a better life: ones where the main characters aren’t dependent on the opinions of their peers, and have traditional role models such as parents, Dumbledores, and Haymitches. Add that to their love of brands such as Apple, and it can almost be inferred that teens are identifying with brands and entertainment that let them feel like they can break out of the box, that they, in fact, don’t have to identify with brands in order to feel validated.
Of course, with the prevalence of oversharing on social networks, cyberbullying, and the ability of people to provide anonymous insults and opinions over the Internet, this cycle isn’t likely to break anytime soon. But since marketers have found their ways into teens' hearts and minds, maybe it’s time to start inserting more traditional role models into the picture, while creating stories that teens can find truly compelling and aspirational.
As “The Hunger Games” so poignantly shows, the goal is not to produce a generation of brand-obsessed, looks-dependent personalities who need to feel constantly validated by their peers and participate brainlessly in branded events. Instead, maybe the way marketers can create truly loyal and smart customers is by becoming caring role models -- like parents, even -- who are concerned with the outcome of their teens’ lives.