Yanking Youth – Advertising to Teens


I’m at the mall. An American term. Actually it’s Chadstone. Mecca for merchandise. One of the leading shopping centers in the world and an Australian commercial icon. Promoted as ‘the fashion capital’, it’s not hard to see why.

Chadstone swells with a throng of people. Self-conscious about what they are wearing, how they look. A flowing sea of ages, shapes, sizes, outfits, carrying bags, sitting on stools, bumping into each other, meeting.

Two Paris Hiltons, perhaps 14, are stopped by three younger 50 cent types (Hip Hop clothes – baggy pants, trucker hats, hoodies) wanting directions then asking if the girls want a Juice? The girls are polite but cool, disinterested, non-committal. Looking around for a better option. A couple of 16-year-old surfer guys wander past. They see the scene. Turn. Sharks sensing an easy feed. The two surfer types (cords, t-shirts, paler colors, bleached hair) stop about 4 meters away. They whisper quickly then  turn again and look straight at the girls, challenging them. The three younger guys tense up, knowing they are not winning. One taps his mates on the chests and walks off. The other two follow, regretting.

The girls hide their grins. Walk over towards the surfers and stare into the window of the shop next to them. Knowing the boys are interested, they enter the store. It’s House. Pans, napkins, plates. They point to stuff and I can see them mouthing, what’s this for? The boys follow, pick up similar things, make the same funny observations and thus, contact is made. The whole process might have taken 3 minutes, the time it took me to get a skinny latte.

This is the life of Australian kids, other than school or home, they live at shopping centers and fast food outlets, surrounded by tons of stuff. Tempted by everything. Swimming in a sea of brands, retailers and tribes of people.

Estimates vary from $5 to $10 billion of direct sales go to teenagers in Australia. (US figures are $100 per week, per kid) A conservative figure from the Australian Family Association put the average weekly disposable income of a 14-17-year-old at $37.79, which totals about $2.1 billion for that age group alone. Add to that their influence across everything from the family computer or TV to what kind of car Dad gets or the brand of bread he buys, you can see they are a critical market for many companies. Marketers find them a challenge – almost out of reach. Marketing pundits like me usually refer to them as media savvy. Switched on. I think it’s crap. They are technologically savvy – they’ve been brought up with PC’s, mobile phones, the Web, but they are not marketing savvy. They haven’t been around long enough to have seen the ads or heard the lines before.

But they are no doubt cynical, born out of years of being sold to. My seven-year-old knows the jingles for lots of ads word for word. By seventeen how many will she have seen? A lot, but a hell of a lot less than a 37-year-old.

How they think

Yes, teenagers are cynical, but still passionate. They are often passionate about being cynical, (which confuses many researchers, who take it at face value) but they are passionate about everything. They feel. They care. It’s about hormones. From 12 to 20 your body is raging with Testosterone, Estrogen, and the thousands of other hormones that ark up your libido and spark up your brain.

Embarrassment a way of life

One of the key side effects of raging hormones is an acute self-awareness. If you are trying your best (to get laid, noticed), you often mentally sit outside of yourself, critical of your own behavior, clothes, friends, family. This leads to embarrassment wherever reality falls behind your expectations. For a teenager, brought up on a diet of mega cool music videos and TV ads, faced with the blunt truth of growing up in Dandenong and being driven to parties in Mum’s Magna, embarrassment is a way of life. But it always has been. I’m pretty sure Jesus was embarrassed about Joseph being a carpenter, when He wanted to be the Son of God.

This constant observation, coupled with their rapid learning, due in part to the fact they are at school, being continually conditioned to learn, means they change and develop rapidly. They are quicker to take up a new concept than any other significant market segment. Making them the main group to launch new technology and fashions at. They are, by definition, the major early adopters of our society.

This speed of information up-take is neatly balanced by the desire to fit in. To find peers they can relate to, people with whom they have common interests. You can’t have a social life or a sex life if you don’t have any friends. Kids get together and form tribes, gangs. You’ve seen them. The Skaters, The Goths, The Barbies. There are heaps of tribes and most of them act according to what they see in movies, video clips, ads.

As teenagers have for decades, they copy the heroes of the day. In the 60’s it was Jagger or Lennon. Today it was Paris, last week it might have been Delta who those two girls modelled, as they put on their mall outfits. These gangs also stand for certain values and words. This tribal behavior makes psychological segmentation vital if you are to target them successfully.

A negative outlook

One of the key differences you can see between a teenager in 2005 and one of 20 or 30 years ago is in their perception of the future. Even with the cold war, things were not this bleak for my generation. Today’s teenagers feel they are living in dark times – the clouds are swirling over the land of Mordor.

We have a very effective education system. Those lefty teachers at most government schools have taught the kids about the poor state of the environment, about global warming, about over-population, about globalization, about genetically modified foods, about greedy board members paying themselves millions while the company goes backwards etc. The kids see corporate behavior not as a good or neutral thing, but often as a real evil. So they often view people who work for those groups, that means you, reader, in the same light. Not to be trusted.

Regardless of the fact that teenagers can’t stand us, and would rather have their finger nails peeled off than talk to advertising people (According to Speak Easy Magazine, BSB World-wide recently video taped the bedrooms of teenagers in 25 countries supposedly to gain insight into how they think, but I presume it was because they are closet voyeurs and also because the teenagers wouldn’t talk to them face to face.) My mates in adland absolutely love them. They’ll always include them in the media mix. They’ll always talk you into designing special ads for them in street press or on TV. They’ll always make a fuss about their particular angle with youth. Why?

Why is marketing to youth so important to the ad industry? Because we all want to be young. And our young creative teams are more familiar with youth trends than with older people’s trends. And because they remember, very, very fondly, being young. Young people have thick hair, tight muscle tone, rampant sex lives and no worries about mortgages, spouses or kids. Young people don’t have to clean up. Don’t have to make a dollar and can just live on a beach somewhere if they feel like it.

And ad guys love this market because it’s a fickle market. You can get it wrong and often no-one over the age of 20 will ever know. You look good just by trying. ‘This is our hip ad for the youth market’ says the 60-year-old board member to his wife proudly – they both agree it’s very slick and funky. They wouldn’t have a clue. But their 14-year-old grandson will barf with embarrassment.

The differences between someone 12 or 19 are extraordinary. Sadly, they are often targeted by the same campaign. As a person I think you change more during these years than at any other stage. You are more experimental, more political, both on a micro and macro level, more idealistic, more certain, more easily influenced. You are being educated at home, at school, on the bus, in the back of a car. You are being manipulated by friends, governments, corporations and someone you’d like to manipulate too if you could only get them to think of you as cool…

How to market to teenagers

You have to get into their minds.

One of those square daily philosophy diary things that some guy had in his office one day said ‘Life is a journey of going from cocksure ignorance to insecure awareness’. We are all sure we know everything at seven to seventeen. It’s when you’re 27 that you start to question your own assumptions, and ask better questions. You have to get past their biologically based belief that they know all.

You need to either make them fall in love with your brand, which isn’t hard, given they are so full of hormones each and every one of them could jump-start the sex industry. You can use sexiness itself as a tactic, (the fashion industry is really only about sex, when it comes down to it) no doubt they focus on it. Or you could shake them like a football coach, shouting at his team during the half time break when they’re 20 goals down. On the subject of sports, celebrity endorsements work well, but chose your hero wisely. Pepsi is still often associated with Michael Jackson.

Give them a forum

The research says if you give teenagers a way of expressing themselves, of debating issues, talking about say the environment, or corporate governance, they appreciate it. If you’re prepared to view things their way, and not dictate what’s correct, they will treat you with the same respect. I’ve yet to see a marketer pull it off effectively, but I like the theory. I assume the best ‘forum’ would be chat rooms on websites. Particularly as 38% of teens are on-line more than once a day, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Focus on your core brand strengths – don’t patronize

Look at Foxtel, Macintosh (I-Pod), Rimmel (The London Look). If you work on the basis that they are not stupid, but rather, just less experienced, and you don’t assume they have already heard it all before, cause they can’t have, you’ll focus on core brand strengths. If you do, you won’t need to segment as much. And no one likes being talked down to, but it’s worse if you use their language.

Speak in your own language

The kids absolutely hate it when an older person or a company uses their words or phrases. Speak in plain English, only. No matter what your research says, if it sounds OK to a 30-year-old – like how a teenager would say it, it’s cringe-worthy.

Media to use


Teenagers will listen to their I-Pod while watching TV and reading a magazine and doing their homework on the web. Giving all of them equal attention. I don’t know how. What that behavior does say however is that your creative better be bloody good or it won’t get noticed – it’s often competing with three or four other bits of very professional creative at the same time.

But which media?

Teenagers use all the media except perhaps direct mail, as few of them are on lists – they haven’t bought a car in their own name or registered for the dole etc.

I favor TV and some radio stations for mass. (1 in 4 children have a TV in their bedroom). SMS (teens want instant gratification and results and SMS provides this. and outdoor, (particularly barely legal street posters) work too – you can’t exactly avoid an ad at a bus shelter if you take the bus from there everyday to school. I think the soon-to-be-here video phone ads will be a great opportunity to get a message to them at a relevant time. You will be able to send a message when someone is within a certain distance of your store – ie. “Feel like a drink? There’s a Juice bar on the corner of High & Long Streets”…

The internet has a 75% penetration rate amongst Australian youth, teens are also the Chief Technology officer in their household. Yet 89% of 13 to 17 year olds have never made an online purchase. Due to a lack of a credit card. Have you tried online accounts where parents deposit funds and the teens can redeem them for points at certain websites, creating opportunities for tieing in parents loyalty cards.Digital credit where teens win points on websites, they are then directed to an advertisers site to redeem points for purchases. Or shopping via web-enabled phone, with charges applied to their monthly bill (hopefully) overseen by parents. And remember that the internet is not a boys domain as 48% of teen internet users are girls.

Getting a brand recognized as ‘cool’ is important, so advertising in the right magazines is vital. Teenagers read a lot of magazines as mags give them a chance to feel like they belong in that crowd, yet are not expensive. Dolly, Girlfriend, Smash Hits and many of the skateboard, surf titles, like Chick etc are effective, as long as your creative matches the environment.

Point of Sale

‘Cool’ packaging is a big winner in this market, as it is with any market. Anything bright and funky looking is usually popular with the younger female members of this group. Save the chic, streamline stuff for those in their twenties.

How to behave

Respect them

No-one wants to deal with a company which doesn’t make them feel welcome, and a valued member of the human race. Especially when you as a teenager suspect a company’s motivations. You can’t just say ‘we respect you’ either. You must prove it. Watch the kids entering a bank. Are the staff friendly, welcoming? Or do they stare at them, wondering if they are on drugs?

Educate them – Demonstrate

At few other stages in your life are you as open to information than at this stage. This segment represents a great opportunity to attract people who may be customers for many years. But they need to know why they should buy your product or service.

And frankly, as a marketer with an ad budget, and hence some kind of influence on their lives for whatever period, a blink of an eye or a year of the same series of ads run on TV night after night, I feel you need to communicate with them in a way that helps us as a society. Please do your ads with respect for our way of life and their long-term good. ie. If you’re going to show a gorgeous girl eating, don’t have her eating crap. If you are going to show people enjoying themselves, don’t make it hip to be stupid. I’m very sure much of the youth suicide epidemic has to do with their lives being hopelessly outside of where the kid’s expectations are.

Where you have a weakness in language – and we know you and I hardly speak it, and various tribes and ages use different terms (12-20 is a long road), you’re way better off to use visuals to communicate.

Teenagers are acutely visually receptive. They are observers. Which is why fashions are so critical. And so dangerous. Instant segmentation. Instant loyalties, values, instant dating of the ad…

But showing intelligent actions works fantastically. (Think of the current ‘you can’t choose your family’ Ad for Toyota Ecco) not for any arty or smarty-pants sake, but to demonstrate the product, the service, the benefit, the reason to be of the brand. And hopefully also giving the teenager tools for life. (ie. In the Ecco situation, you write the number down when the person calls. Derr.)

Given you are exploring the minds of our youth, I reiterate I think you have a responsibility to our entire society to do it with good intentions.

Here I need to add the key rider –if you can’t say something with entertainment value, something either emotive, beautiful or clever, you have absolutely no hope of holding their fleeting attention. It is far more cost effective to avoid trying to drum a dumb message into their heads, the cost of the media is prohibitive due to the need for repetition. Due to poor advice and a lack of either decent research or creative resources, lazy or silly management often spend a great deal more than they need to on communicating with teenagers. Use the powerful, scary creative. It’s cheaper to run and way more effective.


Our kids live on a diet of American fast foods, wear American fashions, listen to music, watch American movies and TV shows and use American slang. This is nothing unusual across the globe – kids all over the planet are wearing Nikes, eating Hershey bars, listening to Eminem. It’s laughably referred to as ‘Globalisation’ by Americans and their cohorts. I see it as an invasion of our culture by another, larger one. And it’s simply a reflection of laziness and weakness on the part of our marketing managers. It’s so much easier to go along with the yanks and use their product choices, their ads. You’d have to ask what a marketing manager’s role actually is, if everything comes from the States. Media booker? Sales person? Only? And look what the effect is, over time – our kids become American.

Is that a bad thing? The answer depends on whether you think ‘Australia’ matters.


I don’t hate America. I wear American clothes too. I am using a Mac right now. But I don’t love America. I love Australia. And I want to defend it’s culture. We must look after our people, our way of life. It doesn’t have to be jingoistic crap with Waltzing Matilda as your sound track, but show Australians in ads. Use Australian locations. Use our words. Use our personality. (Don’t just use our voice-overs and hope you’ll get away with it, either.) Or we won’t have an Australia. We’ll be just another banana republic distribution point for Proctor and Gamble or Ford. If you really want to see where the balance lies, where the values are, try suggesting to your American bosses that they use Australian ads, cause you’ve already done them and our teenagers are the same anyway….

I don’t just blame Marketing Managers. Our media barons are doing exactly the same thing. It’s cheaper to fill our airwaves with American shows than make Australian ones. I loved watching Sex in The City, but I loved even more, for very different reasons, The Secret Life of Us. You’d hope Kerry or Rupert would give a fig about where they grew up, wouldn’t you?

You’d think those who influence our kids the most – the media, (besides you, Miss Marketing Manager, with your 30 seconds a time golden opportunities) would get a kick out of creating shows that actually make Australian’s proud to be Australians, and may-be our teenagers feel a little less suicidal, a little more motivated, wouldn’t you?

image sourced from Angie Wang

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