The current generation of children has been found to be the most brand-aware in history. Why should we be concerned about this? Because along with heightened consumerism, adolescents are taking on some very adult-size burdens. Australian teens are working and earning more than ever before and a significant number are suffering stress from owing money to credit card companies, mobile phone carriers, and friends and family. They are even beginning to show signs of something you may be familiar with as an adult: ‘choice fatigue’. That’s when you become overwhelmed by the vast array of consumer products you seemingly must make a selection from. More and more kids wish that the whole consumer merry-go-round would just slow down for a second. Researchers have even found that when a child is more materialistic, she tends to be more depressed and anxious and have lower self-esteem.
We should be concerned, too, because teenagers now account for such a big chunk of the consumer market that they are ferociously targeted by marketing and advertising campaigns. While our daughters are still learning, growing into adults and forming their own identity, they are especially vulnerable and impressionable consumers, and marketers know that. You can’t help but feel a chill when you read the words of one marketing professional who said at a big marketing-and-advertising shindig in New York: ‘Kids are the most powerful sector of the market, and we should take advantage of them.’ Can you think of any circumstance where it’s okay for the words ‘kids’ and ‘take advantage of’ to be linked? Me neither.
Often teen girls are told both by the marketers and her peers that if they wear a particular label, they will be noticed and accepted. Teens feel a strong need to carve out their own identity. They want to be and look like individuals, with their own style and image. Yet at the same time, no teenage girl wants to be on the outer or to be perceived as uncool or clueless about what’s in. They want to be part of a group; they have a genuine and valid need to fit in with friends and peers. You may remember treading a fine line yourself in your high school years. If you were too slavish a follower of the latest fashions you looked like a try-hard; on the other hand, if you were wearing the wrong shoes you risked being relegated to the outer reaches of the girl-world galaxy.
The people who sell products to our kids are only too aware of this eternal teenage paradox. Owning the right brands and products – and putting them together in her own style – is one way that a teen girl can walk that razor’s edge between being in and being out. Brand ownership enables girls to associate with a group: the other kids who gravitate towards those brands. The labels and products a girl displays can be like a social code, offering up signs of what kind of girl she is and who her tribe is. For instance, a Ralph Lauren top, Tiffany charm bracelet and Burberry bag sends out one signal. Vans sneakers, Roxy cargo pants and a Billabong T-shirt – a whole other signal. The importance of the social aspect of clothing can be seen when girls go shopping: they like to shop in packs. When a girl holds an item up to her friends and asks ‘What do you think?’ she’s second-guessing her own taste and testing whether it fits in with her tribe’s.
In our marketing-saturated culture, product ownership has joined the list of factors girls use to rank each other socially: to a girl’s beauty and popularity we can now add the rating of how fashionable and prestigious the stuff she owns is. American author Alissa Quart investigated the world of teen marketing for her eye-opening book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. What she noticed during her research was that the girls who owned the most name- brand products tended to be those who struggled to fit in according to the standard criteria girls judge one another by: they had an awkwardness about them or weren’t conventionally attractive.
‘While many teenagers are branded,’ she writes, ‘the ones most obsessed with brand names feel they have a lack that only superbranding will cover over and insure against social ruin.’
Kerri-Anne has recently asked me to help parents deconstruct the fashionista hype and to discuss a new label that has been launched by Madonna’s daughter Lourdes – aptly named Material Girl. I thought both interviews worth including here as they do offer practical advice on how you can support your daughter to look beyond the brand; particularly if it is a brand that wants to encourage her to look too sexy, too soon!
This post is partly based on “Shopping for Labels…or Love?”, in my book The Butterfly Effect (Random House Australia). My book may be purchased by clicking on the Paypal link on the right hand side of this web page.