Does Marketing To Teens Mean That We Are Manipulating Teens?

Researching for a recent posting, I was once again reminded just how many people think we have treacherous intentions when it comes to youth marketing. We all know there’s a stigma around anyone trying to influence consumer behavior. But it gets downright ugly when applied to children. has a posting asking parents to teach their children how to be ad savvy. I was surprised to see blanket statements like “ads thrive on undermining self-confidence” and “devious ways advertisers reach teens.” Of course, there are companies that take advantage of teens’ (and adults’) insecurities. But there seems to be little differentiation out there between those opportunistic marketers and the rest of the industry. It’s the classic case of one bad apple spoiling the bunch.

Child psychologist Allen D. Kanner has been quoted as saying, "The whole enterprise of advertising is about creating insecure people who believe they need to buy things to be happy.” Yes, the bottom line is often to sell products, sometimes to teenagers. But that doesn’t mean we abandon our sense of decency to reach that goal. We want to inform and educate. We have values and ethics and respect our consumers, young and old. 



Today’s teens have tremendous buying power and more freedom than ever to decide for themselves. It’s unrealistic to think that a demographic controlling such a significant chunk of the economy isn’t going to be sought out by marketers. A recent article writer proclaimed that “advertiser’s efforts seem to work” and then went on to talk about how much money kids spend or influence their parents into spending. Advertising cannot be held solely responsible for that shift in consumerism. It’s one piece of a larger puzzle. We help drive interest. But we aren’t putting dollars in their pockets and dropping them at the mall. It can’t be reduced to just one influence point or, depending on your outlook, one point of blame. 

Let’s give these kids some credit. They are in a different life stage. But that doesn’t mean they are helpless or incapable of differentiating between good and bad. If they are going to have the power to buy, they should also have the power to decide how they will accept advertising; identifying negative advertising and defending against it. But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Marketing can coexist with today’s youth in a healthy and balanced way. 

The controversy heated up recently over the use of psychology and lifestyle characteristics to target youth more directly. It’s being seen by some as a deeper attack on children. The contrary thinking is that the more accurately we can target ads, the less we have to dump irrelevant ads on the masses. If we do this right, maybe we can cut back on the amount of ads kids are exposed to every day. Marketers are using this information to narrow their focus. This is a good thing if done well and with respect for the consumer. 

I once read an article with the lead that marketers are “encouraging teens to tie brand choices to their personal identity.” Don’t we all do that, to some degree? Our choices are driven by our personal identity and vice versa; filling our world with things that help us define and display that identity. We can’t expect teens to act differently than the adults around them. But we can take responsibility. We should teach our kids how to weed out the ugly marketing.

Conversely, marketers need to care about more than just the bottom line. There are fun, informative, entertaining ways to influence our teen consumers without feeding off their insecurities or feeding into the negative impression that many people have of our work. We all navigate the same ad-filled waters while fighting the same physiological battles; trying to find our place, build our identity, fit in. That’s not just a teen issue. If we are thoughtful and intentional with our marketing, we can start to chip away at the idea that “advertising” is a dirty word.

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