Let It Grow

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Adbusters on 1 November 1999

It’s not easy being a marketer these days, especially a teen marketer. Budgets are down, the promises heralded by Internet commerce have all but vanished, and the kids themselves–those very kids who you are hoping to attract–hate you and everything you’re trying to do to them. There are more than 32 million teenagers in the United States, spending $100 billion on themselves every year, and directly influencing the spending of another $50 billion by their parents. And, unlike most consumers, teens spend their money almost exclusively on luxury purchases such as music, designer clothes and movie tickets–purchases that have almost nothing to do with product attributes or intrinsic value, and everything to do with branding. This makes teens your holy grail: the ultimate target market. It’s also why there are so many of you out there, desperately competing for their attention and their loyalty. You put an average of 3,000 television and print advertisements in front of the American teenager each day. It’s a crowded media space. How can you make your brands appear cooler than anyone else’s?

For most of you, the answer rests with research. You hire high-priced, young anthropologists armed with Polaroid cameras to follow teens around and document their activities, their piercings and their tattoos. Problem is, once you identify a new style or trend, you seize upon it and then pump it out across the breadth of the broadcast universe. Then it’s no longer cool, but ubiquitous. So the kids move onto something else, and the cycle begins again.

If you put yourselves in the shoes of your customers, rather than simply noting which brand of sneaker they’ve purchased, you’d find out that just as you use all the tools at your disposal to trap them, they use everything at theirs to avoid you. Kids armed with remote controls surf away from your paid programming as soon as they can identify it as marketing. The way around that seems to be to turn entertainment into marketing. Movies and television programs are themselves extended commercials for the rock groups, fashions and lifestyles appearing in them. MTV is an end-to-end advertisement; there’s no need to cut to commercial because the programs are themselves ads, often paid for by the company or film studio whose product is being featured.

You closed the loop. Even teen rebellion is a marketing trend, sold to kids in the form of rage rock bands like Limp Bizkit or faux sexual liberation icons like Britany Spears. But today’s coolest cool kids are learning to see corporations and consumption as the enemy. Witness the news footage of demonstrators outside World Trade Organization meetings. It would seem that there’s no winning. But what if the job of marketers isn’t to predict teen trends, but to create real possibilities for new ones?

If so, the alternative would be to seek out or even conceive new companies that are making products or creating experiences of genuine value. It’s been done before. Take video games… In 1998, the industry took the business world by surprise by surpassing Hollywood in total revenue and profits. It happened organically: Games provided kids with an alternative media experience–one where their interaction encouraged skills such as problem-solving and learning new interfaces. Many games offered kids the ability to create their own worlds. Video games were empowering.

Larger corporations took notice of this thriving electronic subculture and began applying conventional wisdom to an unconventional business. Instead of relying on the game culture and its community of diehard fans to develop new games and ideas—as they had been—game companies got greedy and impatient. They began to leverage existing media properties, such as TV and movie characters, into games instead of inventing new ones. They began instituting high licensing fees and other barriers to development, so that young, independent shops could no longer develop for the major platforms. After all, this was now big business.

They conducted focus groups and market surveys, which led inevitably toward an emphasis on least-common denominators such as sex and violence. By adopting a top-down development scheme, they ended up destroying the bottom-up culture that they should have been nourishing. In short, they made the same mistake that almost everyone makes in marketing to kids: They destroyed the thing they should have been promoting. And, predictably, game revenues went down.

The way I see it, marketers have two choices. Either create products and brands with genuine value, or give young people the tools to develop their own. In order to recognize what’s valuable, try to determine whether the product you’re pushing comes from an organic culture. Skateboard clothes do; the manufactured fantasies of the Abercrombie and Finch catalog do not. Pogs and baseball cards appeal to an innate desire to collect, learn and trade. Pokemon cards exploit this desire by turning obsessive purchasing into a crucial part of the game.

Promote as much autonomy as possible. Think guitars, cameras, and editing systems. True, it’s hard to brand creative experiences, and if young people are actually making videos and music for themselves, it could compromise their loyalty to Britney. But then again, maybe teens have something more to offer our society than their disposable income. Let’s find out.