Smells like teen spirit

The buying & selling of youth culture.

Feb 12, 2003 at 12:00 am
For more than a century, advertisers have packaged conformity and peace of mind in tidy units, like bars of soap, cereal boxes, and clothing catalogs. Products don't last if people don't buy into them, so millions of superfluous goods compete to suck away our free time, extra income, and the anxiety associated with having either. It's impossible to acknowledge all of the ads inundating us — or to even want to. But there's always a new product to hype and a new way to sell it.

Alissa Quart's Branded discusses recent attempts at enticing money and mind from the most attractive demographic on the charts: a middle-class adolescent with a disposable income but none of its responsibilities. Quart, 30, depicts a bleak cultural wasteland in which many teens rush into adulthood and form brand loyalties before they're emotionally or economically mature enough to know they have a choice.

The author acknowledges that this isn't a groundbreaking topic. "Companies have been targeting teens since teenagers existed, but the unblinking gaze is . . . new," she said during a recent phone interview. "There's a total, rapturous intensity that started in the mid-'90s that's an intensified extension of [traditional] marketing. It's the seduction of youth culture."

Quart divides the book, and classifies the teens, in three sections: those embracing corporate labels, those making over their bodies and minds into a "self-brand," and those attempting to reject the consumer culture that surrounds them. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, Quart has written for publications such as The New York Times, Elle, and covering teen life. Such assignments, coupled with her own interest in books on youth culture from the 1970s and '80s, inspired her to tackle the topic. And although Branded too often surveys the marketplace from the privileged perch of white upper-class kids, Quart's brisk study is engaging and enlightening.

Accounts of corporations that seduce and subvert teens makes the first third of the book its best and most consistently disturbing. For example, Quart notes, the clothing store Delia*s mails catalogs directly to 45 million teens annually, and it recruits teens to keep the company aware of trends. Delia*s co-founder Steve Kahn — one of the few corporate executives quoted in the book, since most refused to cooperate with the project — keeps it simple: "Teens and tweens wanted mail, they wanted attention. . . . [K]ids would wait on the steps of their homes for their orders to arrive, and they liked that they placed orders with someone who was almost their own age."

This foreshadows Quart's subsequent discussion of peer-to-peer marketing, or "viral marketing," where kids participate in the false democracy of MTV's "Total Request Live" and push corporate creations such as the Backstreet Boys on their peers in exchange for free stuff and a sense that they're part of something bigger than themselves. "All fandom is viral," she says. "It's part of the continuum about people conveying passion about a band. . . . I went out and got [the latest Lou Reed album] when I was 13, but it would be different if I was told to by an adult, did so, and reported back to them."

Quart describes how a growing number of corporations also succeed in infiltrating many aspects of the cultural landscape at once, to influence trends and purchases: Teen-friendly versions of adult magazines place fashion and dating tips between ads that reach more than 8 million readers. Tony Hawk's lucrative "Pro Skater" video-game franchise hawks more than 30 different company logos in its virtual environments. And movies are increasing product placements while decreasing plot complexity.

In one of her more astute observations, Quart points out how movie reviewers who handle teen fare with kid gloves are complicit in this youth branding. Any hint of complexity — whether it's basing Cruel Intentions on Les Liaisons Dangereuses or aptly naming the Bring It On cheerleaders' high school Rancho Carne ("meat ranch") — garners a relatively positive spin from reviewers. Critics, Quart says, "offer more generous readings of films that may be read as camp, but the kids are not reading it as camp. The intended audiences don't take them as a joke."

Another explanation for this critical leniency that she misses, however, might be the desire for major media outlets themselves to tap the teen market, too. In an age where Newsweek puts the Matrix sequel on its cover six months before the movie's release, a film's box-office potential — and audience — is often more exciting to talk about than the film itself.

In the second section, Quart deals with teens who are looking to reinvent themselves through any available means. Her accounts of adolescents getting plastic surgery and using steroids to improve their physiques are nicely contrasted with the equally absurd anorexic girls who promote their lifestyle in "pro-ana" Internet communities. But as subsequent chapters focus on teens who mold themselves to meet adult expectations — like Ivy League hopefuls getting the expensive tutoring they need to be competitive, and young authors such as Nick McDonnell and J.T. Leroy getting praise for writing mature tales spiked with sex and drugs — Quart's notion of "self-branding" only seems available to those who are white and well-connected.

She is right, however, to note how technology influences this generation like no other. The Web especially, Quart says, provides a new space for teens to reinvent themselves. "It's a more positive sense of branding oneself outside of consumer culture, and there are all sorts of possibilities," she says. "It's not as much community-building as identity-building."

That sense of control appears throughout the final section of the book, as Quart examines the ways in which some teens try to define themselves in defiance of corporate America. Chapters focus on various forms of "unbranding," with teens rallying against the war in Afghanistan on MTV's "TRL", do-it-yourself punks — albeit well-off Long Island punks — creating a music space in a basement, and students protesting the privatization of their school.

"Youth is an embattled market," Quart says. "They're only identified as buyers or creatures to be contained, but not as citizens." She considers teen involvement in protests of the World Trade Organization and other multinationals as one reaction against the marketing machine.

"Anti-globalism reflects to some extent the overabundance of corporate images in kids' lives," she explains. "It wouldn't have been able to make the connection if kids hadn't been inundated by designs of marketing."

But a lot of times, Quart says, teens only recognize the ads after they've made their mark. Almost every interview she conducted for the book, she says "would start out with the kids saying, 'I'm not branded. That boy in my class is branded,' or, 'That girl in my class is branded.' Then they were expressing an incredible need for buying different products or having certain clothes. And later, they said, 'I guess I kind of am branded.'"

Frank Diller writes for the City Paper, where this review first appeared.