Commentary

Teens: It’s like, a great demo, y’know

Why are advertisers so interested in wooing the teen market? It probably has a lot to do with the fact that adolescents will soon graduate to the highly coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic, the slice of consumer Americana that marketers crave. So it would seem to behoove a brand steward to get a jump on these inchoate buyers the way a baseball scout starts tracking a prospect at the beginning of high school, hooks ’em early and keeps them for life.

That intention is much easier declared than accomplished when you’re dealing with this mercurial market, which presents as many challenges to America’s brand purveyors as it does to parents. Teens are moving targets whose tastes and predilections change quickly, and it requires savvy and patience to figure out what makes them tick.

While they may have little disposable income, teens’ influence on household purchasing decisions can’t be underestimated, as this generation is growing up faster than previous ones. This generation is the first to grow up with the Internet and the ever-increasing explosion of media messages that digital technology has sparked. According to Mediamark Research Inc., a New York–based media and marketing research firm, nearly 60% of teenagers 12 to 19 use email and nearly 20% of the same age group are on the Internet every day.

One of the end results is that kids are exposed to more at an earlier age than previous generations. There has also been much written about the cynicism of Generation Y toward advertising and other sales pitches; advertisers should heed that insight when tailoring their messages to the upper end of the teen spectrum. One thing is certain: there is no shortage of media channels with which a brand advertiser can engage American teenagers. Their infatuation with the Internet notwithstanding, American teenagers are well rounded in their media propensities. According to MRI, 83% of teenagers 12 to 19 read magazines, while nearly 94% listen to the radio and close to 92% watch TV.

The Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) format is the most popular radio listen for teens; nearly half of them tune in, with Urban Contemporary the next most popular with 24% of teens listening. Conversely, Black Gospel and All News are the least favorite radio formats with teens, as only slightly over 1% and a tad over 2% listen to those formats, respectively.

It’s typical of fickle adolescent attitudes that despite the apparent hegemony of teenybopper faves such as Britney Spears, NSync, and the Backstreet Boys, it’s an aging rap star, LL Cool J, who has a higher likability rating, according to MRI’s 2001 teen survey. Over 56% of teens like LL Cool J, while 53% go for Britney, 46% like NSync, and 42% dig the Backstreet Boys.

As far as TV viewership is concerned, Fox’s The Simpsons rules as the runaway favorite among teenagers, with 40% of the demo saying they tune in to Bart, Homer, and the rest of the gang. While regarded primarily as an adult vehicle, the Regis Philbin– helmed ABC prime-time game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, has the second highest penetration level in terms of teen viewership with 31%.

NBC’s Must See TV mainstay Friends is watched by 28% of teens, while other faves include The Drew Carey Show, Malcolm in the Middle, and WWF Wrestling, which garnered 22%, 20%, and 20%, respectively. Teens are big sports fans, as you might expect, with pro football on the weekends drawing a significant audience with a 25% penetration rate.

One disturbing trend gleaned from the MRI data is that most teens don’t seem to have any interest in current events or news-oriented programming. Shows like 60 Minutes, Dateline, and Nova all are viewed by fewer than 10% of all teenagers. No wonder Mike Wallace is scaling back his hours.

As for magazine readership, logically enough, teenagers seek out titles that are fashioned specifically for them; Seventeen and Teen People rank as the top magazines in terms of teen readership, with 25% and 23% of teens, respectively.

Beyond the aforementioned pop stars, other celebrity personalities who rate high among teens include Michael Jordan, who is liked by 70%, as compared to fellow hoops superstar Shaquille O’Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers, who registered 56% likability. In the battle of the network TV vixens, Jennifer Love Hewitt gets the nod over Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar handily, 57% to 48%.

But as we know, teens are a fluid lot and are wont to change their minds and tastes on a dime, so flavor of the month, beware — you could end up as next month’s has-been.

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