No longer little children, and not yet teens, tweens are starting to develop their sense of identity and are anxious to cultivate a sophisticated self-image. And marketers are discovering there’s lots of money to be made by treating tweens like teenagers.
The marketing industry is forcing tweens to grow up quickly. Industry research reveals that children 11 and older don’t consider themselves children anymore. The Toy Manufacturers of America have changed their target market from birth to 14, to birth to ten years of age.
In its 2000 report to congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. raised concerns on how Hollywood was routinely recruiting tweens (some as young as nine) to evaluate its story concepts, commercials, theatrical trailers and rough cuts for R-rated movies. In its 2009 report, the FTC noted “explicit and pervasive targeting of very young children for PG-13 movies”, with Hollywood continuing to conduct market research on children as young as age seven for the advertising of these films. 
By treating pre-adolescents as independent, mature consumers, marketers have been very successful in removing the gatekeepers (parents) from the picture—leaving tweens vulnerable to potentially unhealthy messages about body image, sexuality, relationships and violence.
Marketing “cool” to teens
“The entertainment companies … look at the teen market as part of this massive empire they’re colonizing.
(Robert McChesney, The Merchants of Cool, 2000)
Corporations capitalize on the age-old insecurities and self-doubts of teens by making them believe that to be truly cool, you need their product.
According to No Logo author Naomi Klein, in the 1990s, corporations discovered that the youth market was able and willing to pay top dollar in order to be “cool.” The corporations have been chasing the elusive cool factor ever since.
Trying to stay ahead of the next trend can be a tricky business however, as cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff explains. “The minute a cool trend is discovered, repackaged, and sold to kids at the mall—it’s no longer cool. So the kids turn to something else, and the whole process starts all over again.”
Some companies hire cool hunters to infiltrate the world of teens and bring back the latest trends. However, with the Internet just a click away, many companies prefer instead to let teens come to them, through online quizzes and personality tests. Often these forms of data collection use the language of empowerment and encourage teens to spread the word to their friends. For example, after completing a quiz on the COSMOgirl site, teens are told: COSMOgirl! Has heard a lot of stories, so let’s get yours straight. What makes you so CG!? Be sure to post this to your fave social networking site and link back to cosmogirl.com – your friends are probably interested in what you have to say (we know we are)!
Teen anger, activism and attitude have become commodities that marketers co-opt, package and then sell back to teens. It’s getting harder to tell what came first: youth culture, or the marketed version of youth culture. Does the media reflect today’s teens, or are today’s teens influenced by media portrayals of young people? It’s important that teens be provided with opportunities to discuss these issues, and challenge the materialistic values promoted in the media.
Body image and advertising
It’s difficult for teens to develop healthy attitudes towards sexuality and body image when much of the advertising aimed at them is filled with images of impossibly thin, fit, beautiful and highly sexualized young people. The underlying marketing message is that there is a link between physical beauty and sex appeal—and popularity success, and happiness.
Fashion marketers such as Calvin Klein, Abercrombie & Fitch and Guess use provocative marketing campaigns featuring young models. These ads are selling more than clothing to teens—they’re also selling adult sexuality.
Studies show that while teens received most of their information about sex from the media: magazines, TV, the Web, radio and movies, the majority say their parents shape their sexual decisions most, so it’s important that parents talk to their kids about healthy sexuality, and about exploitive media images.
Media images can contribute to feelings of body-hatred and self-loathing that can fuel eating problems. While body image has long been considered a female issue, an increasing number of boys now also suffer from eating disorders. A 2012 study found that 50 per cent of both boys and girls in Grade 10 felt that they were either too thin or too fat. 
Studies have also found that boys, like girls, may turn to smoking to help them lose weight. 
Tobacco, alcohol and cannabis
“Advertising has always sold anxiety, and it certainly sells anxiety to the young. It’s always telling them they’re losers unless they’re cool.”
(Mark Crispin Miller, The Merchants of Cool, 2000)
Tobacco and alcohol companies have long targeted young people, hoping to develop brand loyalties that will last a lifetime. More recently, “vaping” (e-cigarettes) has become popular among these targeted groups, attracting the attention and investment of tobacco companies.
With smoking killing over 45,000 Canadians each year and thousands of others quitting, it’s crucial for the tobacco industry to continually cultivate new and younger smokers. While cigarette purchases were nearly halved between 2001 and 2017, tobacco companies are constantly seeking new methods of developing a new generation of buyers, especially in the vaping industry.
In Canada, government attempts to restrict tobacco advertising culminated in a 2007 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that upheld federal legislation restricting tobacco advertising, banning tobacco sponsorships and requiring larger warnings on cigarette packages. This is significant when it comes to youth because studies have clearly found that nonsmoking adolescents who were more aware of or receptive to tobacco advertising were more likely to become smokers later. Girls are a particular target of the tobacco industry, with brands in the U.S. like Superslims Lights and Camel No. 9 designed specifically to appeal to females.
Since the 1950s, tobacco companies have waged public relations campaigns to cast doubt on the relationship between smoking and health problems, even producing its own “industry-sponsored research entity” so that people would see it as a personal choice rather than a public health issue. Tobacco advertising also played heavily on themes of liberty and independence, especially for women and young people.
Restrictions in Canada do not necessarily prevent Canadian youth from being exposed to ‘ads’ for smoking. These more subtle media influencers include:
- Celebrities smoking on TV shows or movies (from 2004 to 2016, nearly half of the top-grossing movies in Ontario included smoking or other tobacco imagery, with 86% of those being rated 14A or below)
- Integrating smoking into video games (a recent study found alcohol and tobacco content in 44% of the 32 top-selling video games and that teens were twice as likely to have tried smoking or drinking if they had played at least one game that included tobacco or alcohol use).
- Associating smoking (and drinking) with being sexy, cool, independent and risk-taking (particularly physical risks)
- Aggressive marketing of flavoured and coloured cigarettes
- Exposure to cigarette ads in American magazines
The vaping industry largely borrows from the “tobacco playbook” in their advertising methods, presenting an image of vapers as being cool and rebellious, independently choosing a vaping lifestyle.
Tobacco companies have invested heavily in e-cigarette and vaping products. While the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act (2019) outlaws ads for vaping “if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the advertising could be appealing to young persons,” vaping ads reach youth in many of the same ways as other tobacco ads:
- Offering flavoured products.
- Encouraging youth who vape to see themselves as rebels or independent thinkers by portraying health concerns about vaping as fearmongering, as on Imperial Tobacco’s Facts Not Fear website.
- Creating a communityeffect by holding events, contests and “cloud-chasing” competitions at vaping product shops.
- Using social media advocacy groups and influencers to promote their products.
- Having vaping products appear in television, movie and video game productions.
As well, vaping is often promoted under the cover of tobacco harm reduction, disguising promotional websites such as Unsmoke.ca (whose funding by a tobacco company is only visible if you scroll all the way to the bottom) as public health campaigns that promote vaping as a way to “move towards a smoke-free future.” While vaping may be effective in helping adult smokers quit, studies have found that young people who have used e-cigarettes are three times as likely to smart smoking as those who have not.  Nevertheless, some e-cigarette companies have offered scholarships to students entering college or university with essay contests that use leading questions, such as “Why do Teens Choose Vaping over Cigarettes?” Vaping company Juul offered high schools a stipend of up to $20,000 US to teach its “mindfulness” curriculum.
Young people are also exposed to tobacco-related content on the internet. While many social networks have banned or discouraged overt advertising, sites such as YouTube feature an increasing amount of user-generated content that either encourages or glamorizes smoking and vaping. Vaping companies made particularly heavy use of Instagram until 2019, when the social network banned “influencers” – users who take money to promote products in their posts – from promoting tobacco. As one influencer put it, “they target a super young profile… the people they selected are always the youngest. They look for young people that have large groups of friends so [the message] gets expanded.” Social networks can also expose youth to smoking or vaping imagery posted by their peers, which has been shown to increase the chance that they will start smoking. It can, of course, be difficult to tell whether a social network post has been paid for. Companies advise influencers not to include notices required by law to show that something is paid advertising, such as “#ad,” and encourage them to use other hashtags that users will imitate for free.
Whether they are posted by paid influencers or by youth themselves, social network posts have a strong effect on young people’s tobacco use. Despite the ban, pro-vaping content on Instagram outnumbers anti-tobacco posts by ten thousand to one. Vaping companies are even alleged to have bought ads on youth-focused websites such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
Cannabis companies have similarly strict restrictions on advertising: in particular, they are not allowed to promote their product in any way that “there are reasonable grounds to believe could be appealing to young persons.” Online, though, while the law requires them to take “reasonable steps to ensure that the promotion cannot be accessed by a young person,” cannabis companies have advertised in movie theatres and on youth-oriented social networks such as Snapchat, as well as posting outdoor display ads that don’t mention the product but include a link to its website.
Like tobacco ads, these have an impact: teens who like or follow cannabis marketing on social media are five times more likely to have used it, and those who’ve developed a brand preference are eight times more likely. Because platforms such as Instagram only allow cannabis-related posts that are “education or entertainment” rather than advertising, while companies rely heavily on influencers to promote their products, these influencers don’t identify which posts have been paid for.
Like the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry spends billions of dollars annually trying to grab the eyeballs of consumers of all ages – and for good reason. When it comes to youth, research shows that alcohol advertising normalizes drinking, changes young people’s attitudes about alcohol and is linked to early initiation to drinking and risky behaviour.
Compared to tobacco, legislation relating to alcohol advertising is less restrictive, providing more opportunities to engage youth. The U.S.-based Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) notes that studies have found that exposure to television beer advertisements on TV, alcohol ads in magazines, alcohol ads on billboards, in-store beer marketing displays, beer concessions at sporting events and alcohol use in movies increased the likelihood of drinking among young people. Other research has shown that youth are frequently exposed to alcohol ads that are designed to appeal to them.
Many of the strategies used by the tobacco industry can also be applied to alcohol advertising. The alcohol and beer industries also target youth by:
- running ads during TV shows with a high number of young viewers, such as edgy comedies or sporting events
- placing ads in magazines with high adolescent readerships
- sponsoring rock concerts and sporting events
- creating and extensively marketing “alcopops”—sweetened, lightly carbonated drinks that don’t taste like alcohol, such as White Claw
- linking TV commercials and magazine ads with online videos and immersive ‘lifestyle’ websites that further engage young consumers
- using social media posts, both paid and unpaid, to reach kids who would otherwise be too young to see alcohol ads, and to normalize teen drinking
The most significant medium for reaching youth remains television. CAMY found that youth exposure to alcohol advertising on U.S. television increased 71 per cent between 2001 and 2009. In addition, TV commercials often provide direct links to websites and online social media platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook.
The alcohol and beer industries were quick to recognize the value of the Internet as an effective tool for reaching young people. The Web offers marketers a medium that is a huge part of youth culture—with the added bonus that it’s unregulated, with very little parental supervision.
Young people are actually more likely to recall having seen alcohol ads online than adults. In 2011, CAMY released a report on digital marketing by the alcohol industry that noted, among other findings, that:
- Ten leading alcohol brands have more than 16.5 million people “liking” their Facebook brand pages.
- Ten alcohol brands with youth appeal had uploaded 35,725 photos and 377 videos to their Facebook pages.
- Fans of brands with youth appeal had uploaded 15,416 photos and 98 videos to the brand Facebook pages, taking their messages viral.
- Sexually suggestive photos and photos indicating binge consumption of alcohol were on the industry’s social media sites.
- “Age affirmation” technology to control exposure of minors on these websites was meaningless.
Packaging girlhood and boyhood
As they make the transition from childhood to the teenage years, tweens (ages 8-12) are continually bombarded with limiting media stereotypes on what it is to be a girl or a boy in today’s world. This “packaged childhood” is sold to them through ads and products; and across all media, from television, music, movies and magazines to video games and the Internet.
If you believe the media messages aimed at kids, tween girls are mini-fashionistas who are pretty and sexy and who are obsessed with boys, friends, shopping, pop stars and celebrities; tween boys are independent and strong, and preoccupied with sports, video games, adventure, cars, music, and hanging out with friends.
Young girls in particular are targeted by marketers, and the focus of these ads – beauty, sexuality, relationships, and consumerism – is worrisome for parents. According to Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown, authors of Packaging Girlhood, images of girls as “sexy, diva, boy-crazy shoppers” can be quite harmful to their self-development. At an age when girls “could be developing skills, talents, and interests that will serve them well their whole life, they are being enticed into a dream of specialness through pop stardom and sexual objectivity.”
Media stereotypes of boys are no less harmful: they are nearly always presented as “tough guys” and, as with girls, there is a consistent emphasis on their physical appearance. Ads and movies communicate a masculine ideal that is athletic and muscular. In fact, over the last twenty years action figures for properties such as Star Wars and G.I. Joe have gained more muscles than even the most dedicated body builders. Rap and hip hop videos reinforce this narrow vision of masculinity: particularly popular with youth, this musical culture – whose origins are broad and diverse – has narrowed to present a single, stereotypical image of masculinity and relations between the sexes.
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