Stuck between a rock and a tween marketer

By Ginger Strand

My daughter is going to turn ten this year. When she does, we’re going to have to have The Talk. I’m going to have to find a quiet place and sit down with her to address something complicated and nuanced, something that still baffles adults, a topic on which reasonable people often differ. I’m going to have to raise an issue I shouldn’t even have to think about at her age, but do, because today’s culture has been forcing it at younger and younger points.

“Miranda,” I’m going to have to say, “you’re a tween now.”

That’s right: it’s not sex I’m going to have to explain, or drugs, or the history of racism or why a woman has never been president. Those things, like most self-styled with-it families I know, we’ve covered already — no doubt in more objectively presented detail than strictly necessary. Now we must address something darker, something vague and slippery that gets to our culture’s very heart of darkness: marketing. Because now that Miranda is reaching the Age of Tweenity, I can feel the long, slim arm of the marketing machine gliding towards her with its eager, grasping hands.

I may actually be a bit behind on this one. Tweendom, according to marketers, is the period between age 8 or 10 and age 12. These prepubescent mini-consumers are currently near the top of every marketer’s wish list. Forget Gen-X. As part of that cohort, I grew up being ignored by advertisers. Despite the cultural shadow they cast, Gen-Xers are an insignificant blip on the demographic map, a skimpy, skeptical, disaffected cohort not worth winning over. Not Miranda. Miranda falls into what’s called the “Echo Boom,” a cohort swelled by the children of Baby Boomers. They’re numerous, eager, and delightfully un-difficult, a vast dawning brigade of happy buyers-to-be.

And their moment has arrived. “Spending by U.S. tweens will reach nearly $41 billion in 2005!” screams the prospectus for a conference called “Targeting Tweens,” put on last summer by the Institute for International Research. Tweens are seen as increasingly important influences in family decisions: cell phones, P.D.A.’s, clothes —even family cars — are all chosen with input from this powerful cohort. Furthermore, today’s tweens are an advertiser’s dream: close to 90% of them prefer to act in a group rather than on their own, about half of them feel like they ought to wear the “right” brands. It’s no wonder that that Dairy Queen has instituted “DQ Crews,” 90-tween strong focus groups in major cities who test new products and give tweeny feedback.

What’s a mother to do?

There is help available. PBS is supporting a Web site called “Don’t Buy It” (www.PBSKidsd.org/dontbuyit) that aims to teach kids to be intelligent consumers. There are sections on common advertising tricks, decodings of popular commercials, opportunities to design ads, and informative debunkings such as “Cover Model Secrets” and “TV vs. Life.” Laid out with tween-friendly graphics and language, it’s a nice counterpoint to MaryKateandAshley.com’s “Cosmetic Tips for Tweens.” “Don’t Buy It” even has guides for parents and teachers to download.

But I have to wonder: how did this happen? How did we allow our culture to reach a point where we have to spend valuable time — time that could be spent on geography or music — teaching our kids to resist misleading ads? Think of the energy that goes into marketing plans aimed at tweens, and then the media literacy training teaching them to resist them. Wouldn’t all that energy be better spent teaching real literacy? Isn’t it a shame that PBS, which should be focused on creating good content for kids, is forced to spend time just counteracting bad content everywhere else?

There’s a failure of vision in all of this. Even “Don’t Buy It,” working to lessen advertising’s reach, shows a distinct lack of imagination. An online survey asking kids about their family TV rules gives four options: “Not during dinner,” “Not before homework,” “No more than one hour per day,” and “We have no TV rules.” How about “Not at all — we don’t have one?” That’s the rule in our house.

And so, even though I don’t consider myself an especially protective parent, and, like many parents today, I think giving kids information and letting them make the right choices is the best way to protect them from the evils of drugs, cigarettes, and underage drinking, when it comes to the narcotic of marketing, I’m aiming for zero tolerance. There’s a multi-billion dollar advertising cartel out there, and my daughter is a tween now. She’s just what they want.