Secrets of Teen Marketing Revealed!

Of all the mystical powers associated with teen-agers, my favorite is how incredibly media-savvy they are. The Wall Street Journal has been sounding this theme in a current series of articles about marketing to kids, called “Buying Gen Y.” (Before I go any further, I’d like to recommend the piece that David Plotz wrote for Slate last year, in which the marketing profession is rightly blamed for constantly stoking the obsession with decoding teen-age-ness. Despite the effectiveness of this assessment, the marketers march ahead.)

Today’s topic is teen movies, and the producer of one teen flick tells us that the thing about Gen Y is: “They can tell when they’re being marketed to.” As an example of the fact that, as the Journal puts it, “the ability to decode marketing messages is like a birthright,” teens reveal that they can tell a good movie trailer from a bad one, and tend to shy away from actually going to see the movies that look bad. They can also discern, simply by decoding the marketing messages, that American Beauty and American Pie are different sorts of films aimed at different sorts of audiences. Another teen points out that Hollywood movies can be superficial and deal in stereotypes, which is a mistake because “our generation is very diverse.” This is an insight, because as everyone knows, all previous generations have consisted entirely of middle-aged, white marketing executives.

Turns out that a key factor to this new generation’s startling savvy is that Internet thing, which you may not be familiar with if you aren’t a teen-ager yourself. “The Internet allows [teen-agers] to rely on each other for movie information,” the Journal reports. This, too, is an insight: When I was a teen-ager, for instance, there was no comparable way for me to obtain movie-related information from the roughly 2,000 other teen-agers at my high school. The Internet really does change everything.

I really don’t mean to pick on the Journal, whose marketing coverage is generally excellent. And certainly the paper’s current Gen Y musings are no more superficial than anyone else’s. (A recent Fortune piece found it “surprising” that today’s teens say they want to build loving families when they grow up, and further reported that teens’ friends are important to them and that they “don’t want to be consumed with work.” As opposed to what? Prior groups of 17-year-olds who were indifferent to their peers and aspired to put in long hours at a meaningless job and cheat on their spouses some day?)

Obviously it’s true that teen-agers have different tastes and respond to different messages than non-teen-agers do. And certainly I don’t doubt that teen-agers know when they’re being marketed to. But really, at this point, is there anyone alive who can’t tell when they’re being marketed to? If awareness of marketing negated consumption, the American economy would grind to a halt immediately. Teen-agers don’t like to be marketed to, they know it’s happening all the time, and yet they keep on buying things that are made for and marketed to them. That doesn’t make teen-agers different from practically every American who is old enough to spend money; it makes them precisely the same.