Quart-ing Teenagers

NEW YORK — Smells like teen spirit? According to journalist-author Alissa Quart, it could be the odor emanating from the co-opting of teenage utopia as a marketing tool.<br><br>That’s the principal premise behind Quart’s...

NEW YORK — Smells like teen spirit? According to journalist-author Alissa Quart, it could be the odor emanating from the co-opting of teenage utopia as a marketing tool.

This story first appeared in the January 24, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That’s the principal premise behind Quart’s just-published book, “Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers” (Perseus Publishing). And the stakes are particularly high these days, given the mammoth size — and purchasing power — of Generation Y, those ages 25 and under, now 71 million strong. The group bought $46 billion worth of apparel alone, or one-third of the clothing sold in the U.S., between January and November 2002, for instance, according to new figures from just the kind of concern Quart takes aim at in her book, market researcher NPDFashionworld.

Despite Quart’s many protests, teens, of course, willingly participate in market research, from focus groups to online surveys and even MTV’s “Cribs” — must-see TV for many brand promoters. But from Quart’s idealistic perch, what those teens may not know can hurt them.

“Youths don’t always understand the deeper implications of marketing studies and experiments — they don’t necessarily get why they are so drawn to certain products,” Quart contended. “I wish focus groups would have a warning on them, like cigarettes,” she said, with only a whiff of irony. While quickly acknowledging that focus groups are not nearly as harmful as cigarettes, Quart insisted, “It’s about being mindful that kids are mindful” of the meanings symbolized by various brands and products, values that are often transferred to teens themselves.

The solution? Quart counsels that brand marketers ought to be licensed to obtain access to youths in forums such as focus groups. If they took this route, Quart suggested, “marketers would be supporting teens’ efforts at achieving a state of healthy self-identification.” In the absence of such an effort, she maintained, teens’ participation in market research amounts to “a sort of evacuation of selfhood — a selling of one’s insides to marketers.”

Clearly, materialism, hyped by marketing, becomes the most problematic when people can’t afford something or are too young to get it. And the stakes keep getting raised, in this regard, by what Quart calls “wall-to-wall branding in a logo-driven world.”

The decision to write “Branded” stemmed, in part, from Quart’s realization that the American teen’s sensibility during the Nineties had become increasingly ironic, and in some cases cynical — a sense they’d shed their traditional role as outsiders for insider status. The new viewpoint amounts to the polar opposite of the one expressed by the Mickey Rourke character, Boogie, in director Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie “Diner,” when he asks: “You ever get the feeling there’s something going on out there that we don’t know about?”

In contrast, as Quart notes in “Branded,” today’s teen mind-set was effectively embodied in director Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film “Clueless,” which exalted high-end goods and opulence while camouflaging an ardor for consumption with sharp-edged satire. “‘Clueless’ was about getting, having, being made over,” the author said. “It was material driven.”

Asked what most surprised her in researching her book, Quart, a 31-year-old freelance journalist, said simply: “How true my premises turned out to be. Lower-middle-class kids I interviewed would say, ‘I’m all about Burberry; I’m DKNY’ — yet these kids were struggling [economically] to get to college.”

Expanding her perspective from the psychographic to the political, Quart queried, “If teens, in a post-Columbine world can’t be trusted to drink, vote or have sex, then why can they be exploited by market researchers?”