Youth and Pop Culture Marketing: A Fair Fight?

October 2nd, 2009

You ever have a 16 year-old in your group look up at you and seriously ask you if it’s wrong for her to get a tattoo? Do you quote Leviticus 19:28 and condemn tattoos as demonic? Do you say that there’s nothing morally wrong with them as long as her parents are okay with it? Do you leave out moral condemnation but talk about them in such a way that let’s her know that good Christians don’t have tattoos? I suppose you could even encourage tattoos as a way for kids to be more relevant witnesses to their peers?

What’s the deeper issue in questions about tattoos, clothing, and other stylistic marketing efforts? Just as medical doctors must realize that behind symptoms are the greater causes of disease, so too must the spiritual physician (the youth worker) understand that she faces many questions about stylistic issues because of the marketing to teens in media. So, what’s the precise nature of teen-oriented marketing? And what’s the youth worker’s role in addressing the risks of marketing tactics with teens who are so attentive to the latest trends in fashion and music?

Today’s teen-oriented marketing represents a continued slide away from the marketing of products to the marketing of values, and the youth worker’s role is to equip teens to see beyond name brands into the ideologies being conveyed.

Teens weren’t always the target of such intense marketing. Many writers attribute the shift in marketing to a younger demographic to two radical shifts in American culture: the growth of the electronic media, and greater access to spending money by teens.

Explaining the impact of the electronic media, Quentin Schultze and his colleagues from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship write in Dancing in the Dark:

“In the decades since World War II, [youth and electronic media] have forged an extremely close relationship based on mutually beneficial interdependence. Indeed, at the current pass in American culture, it is not an overstatement to claim that the world of adolescence and the electronic entertainment industry need each other in order to survive…that they have developed a symbiotic relationship. The result of this symbiosis is a powerful cultural world whose influence effectively rivals and often surpasses the influence of traditional sources of adolescent nurture such as family, church, and school.”

I can hardly imagine a youth worker who hasn’t at some point pleaded with those in her care to be careful of what they watch and listen to. These pleas recognize the immense power of the media, especially in families with little or no cohesion, or with at-risk teens left largely to raise themselves.

However, youth workers often fail to strike at the heart of the dangers that face youth through marketing. The media is often condemned as the cause of many social evils, but complex processes are responsible for what youth find on the airwaves and Internet. Today’s marketing is a calculated, targeted effort, and youth workers often overlook those behind the scenes who are the real culprits of the moral crimes being addressed. We could put it this way: the media conveys the value-loaded messages traditionally given by family and church, but there are others in the shadows responsible for designing those messages.

While youth workers identify the evils of one movie here and one song there, many of us don’t realize that there’s an agenda underlying every advertisement, TV program, and radio station as a whole. Marketing executives, via the media, are attempting to build a complete moral code for the lives of today’s teens. The biggest danger for youth may not, in fact, be the swearing and sex they’re exposed to through mainstream media; the greatest threat may be that the GAP, Old Navy, and Eminem aren’t marketed as products or pieces: they represent a lifestyle. Teens themselves recognize this at some level; clothes and music separate Goths, preps, cowboys, hip-hop, and many others.

The danger today, though, is that new movements and divisions no longer come from teens. For better or worse, movements of the past (fashion, music, student protests) originated with the people, and with young people in particular. Today’s movements are highly influenced, and often designed, by marketing executives for purposes of profit. The result is that the very shoes on a teen’s feet are part of an entire program to direct the values of a young person’s life.

One of the best-documented examples of this process is MTV’s programTotal Request Live. The premise of the program is that viewers can call in their choice of videos they want to see in the course of the program. Celebrity guests often drop in, and there’s a small audience in the studio to add their applause to the mix. On the surface, the idea is that youth have a choice of what they want to hear. The reality is that the choice is an illusion: all the videos from which kids can choose belong to artists who have contracts with MTV, and over the weeks, older videos are phased out for new releases. The effect is the same in clothing and television: teens are presented with the illusion of choice, and the end result is that American youth are at risk of having their very interests and moral codes engineered by a handful of executives stashed away in office buildings.

These factors contribute to what has been called the “national youth market,” as explained by Quentin Schultze:

“Compared with localism and traditionalism, then, the electronic media offered young people membership in a broader and seemingly more important, significant, and exciting national community. Before long, the entertainment media began to ‘pitch’ just about everything to youth according to the industry’s image of the needs and wants of youth. The media began to tailor the presentation of national events and personalities to the interests and moods of youth. Even local radio stations played to a larger youth community with a ‘corporate’ identity by announcing the latest ‘national’ youth events, including rock concerts and Hollywood gossip.”

Case in point: American Idol. The program is a singing competition, looking for the next American pop star. Judges select contestants based on how credible they look and sound for a pop star. And with the name “American,” it conveys the idea that this is an event that draws the whole nation together (and it does). Indeed, by drawing such a large audience, the program (just as do thousands of other images every single day) reinforces an idea of cool that becomes a cue for teens on how to look and be in their own lives.

However, all this talk about teens receiving their cues from media and marketing would only be theory if not for the drastic increase in teens’ access to spending money. The Merchants of Cool, an important documentary by Frontline, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the marketing strategies of some of the most important teen-oriented industries. It reports that in 2000, teens put an estimated $100 billion into the economy. An estimated $50 billion was given by parents, called “guilt money” by some culture watchers.

These enormous figures are more than just representative of teens’ buying power; they are, in fact, the very reason that teens have become the primary target of marketing executives. Those enormous numbers put dollar signs in the eyes of very powerful media and entertainment conglomerates. As the money teens had available increased throughout the years, execs realized the enormous market potential now staring them directly in the face. From the youth worker’s perspective, those billions of dollars put a huge bulls-eye on every single teen in America.

The ability of the electronic media to proliferate commercials with value-loaded messages (The Merchants of Cool estimates that teens are exposed to an average of 3,000 ads per day) and teens’ access to substantial amounts of cash create a difficult challenge for today’s youth workers. What is the youth worker’s role in helping teens navigate the messages they receive and the actions they take as a result?

1. Understanding the teen worldview.

While America is filled with diverse cultures and sub-cultures, remarkably, at some level, most teens are in some way shaped by the national youth culture; even when rejecting mainstream fashion or music, most teens will still have some familiarity with the artists and songs on the Top 40. The first responsibility of the youth worker is to become familiar with the adolescent’s world in a non-judgmental way. If unsure of where to start, make use of the materials mentioned in this article; spend time observing at a mall; simply talk with your teens; or check out the “Youth Culture Update” section of Youthworker journal.

Familiarizing ourselves, however, means more than simply knowing what teens are seeing and hearing; it also means teaching ourselves to be observant to the hidden messages in advertising that we so often take for granted. We need to ask ourselves: What message is being conveyed? What values are being advocated? What image is being used to sell this product? Most importantly: How is this product being used to create a total worldview for teens? Check out The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.

I cannot emphasize enough how different this is from the ordinary process of warning kids to avoid swear words and sexual content. The process of observation that youth workers must teach themselves is one that looks for the moral values present in even the most seemingly innocent commercials and programs. However…

2. Authenticity and balance.

Being overzealous will make our teens defensive. In fact, as we gain new insight, it’s very easy to be overly passionate about such messages. (My family occasionally has to remind me that comments aren’t necessary after every commercial.)

At the same time, attempting to be cross-cultural by listening to the latest rap album and wearing baggy clothes will probably come across as fake (unless this is what you normally do). We need to be authentic. We can share our experiences, observations, and concerns, but we always need to be who we are. At one point with one of my youth groups, I felt it was necessary to use more street slang (without the profanity) around my teens. Looking back, I don’t think I could’ve been more wrong in this choice of tactics. My attempt to reach out ended in a loss for all concerned; I lost by pushing them away, and they lost by not learning who I really was.

Recognizing kids’ independence is also key. Despite the manipulative hand of the marketing industry, teens are often more savvy than we give them credit for. Youth workers must resist the temptation to believe that they are engaged in a battle of control; they must reject the idea that if teens don’t accept one contextualized version of the gospel then they are being controlled by “The Media.” The true tragedy of today’s marketing push is that it undermines the role cultures and sub-cultures have had in creating their own identity and worldview by building one for the consumer for the purpose of increasing sales. Therefore…

3. The youth worker must guide kids in building their own worldviews.

Though we all bring a fundamental belief structure to our ministries, perhaps too many youth workers have responded to marketing manipulation by attempting to impose a fully defined worldview on the Christian teen, and we find ourselves in a battle for who’s marketing message will win out.

So what do we do when our kids ask us questions about tattoos, piercings, and other fashions? We may find that the best way to deal with these questions is also the best way to teach teens to guard against the overall influence of marketing in their lives: instead of assaulting and condemning social evils, thereby putting your teens on the defensive, equip them to look for the deeper messages that run underneath the images to which they have become desensitized. By deconstructing video, audio, and print clips with which teens are familiar, we can guide teens through the process of learning to see, to re-sensitizing themselves to the ways that certain cultural forces are attempting to exploit them.

Such an approach restores to kids the creative process, which the national youth culture has, in some sense, robbed from them. This also increases the probability that teens will choose to develop a worldview rooted in Christ. Youth workers, instead of trying to contextualize the gospel and then present it to youth, can equip teens to contextualize it for themselves. This approach recognizes the Christian liberty that Paul stoutly affirmed: “For freedom Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Just as a child will never do exactly what their parents would want them to do, so you must run the risk that your teens won’t look or act quite the way you want them to. But haven’t we seen that the risk is worth it?


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.