The Emergence of Marketing Strategies

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

This might be one of the biggest reasons our culture has perpetuated the myth of adolescence…because they are easy to sell to. And so the sixth ingredient in the rise of adolescence was the emergence of age-targeted marketing strategies. Whether it is because companies figured out that peer pressure marketing works or because most teenagers aren’t paying the electric bill, and therefore their income is disposable, adolescence is big business.

There are at least two reasons why it is easy to take this particular cause for granted.

First, defining a person strictly in terms of age feels natural to contemporary Americans (as psychology has taught us well). Objective age distinctions are one of the few remaining discriminations society encourages us to make. Second, it is almost impossible to imagine a world where someone isn’t trying to sell us something!

From the book, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, we read that “(t)eenage consumers help drive such leading industries as popular music, movies, snack foods, casual clothing, and footwear. They spend about $100 billion a year, just on things for themselves” (Hine, p. 23). Many teenagers have part time jobs without the responsibility of paying large bills, so they have the most disposable income. So commercials target the deep well of those teenage, designer blue-jean pockets.

But not only did companies seek to capitalize on this new source of revenue, they also recognized the power of peer groups. By 1942, several clothing manufacturers were making clothes with labels such as “Teentimers.” Magazines, particularly those aimed at women, added features for young girls. In 1944 Seventeen was published, the inaugural magazine aimed specifically at this age group. It defined, for the first time, a distinct teenage market: millions of young people looking for acceptance, popularity, fun, and dates, therefore, the right clothes, makeup, clear skin, great shoes, new music, and all the latest things. Hey, they just want to be cool.

In 1944, a marketing expert named Eugene Gilbert had two ground-breaking insights. One was that teenagers would respond to retailers who cared about what they wanted. The second, and probably the most important, was that the way to find out what young people really wanted was to get other teenagers to ask them. He began to take surveys. This is business by questionnaire. Admittedly, these discoveries may not seem that perceptive to us today, but that is only because the doctrines of marketing have been too well ingrained into our collective thinking.

Hine gives a good summary:

With the rise of the persuasion industries during the twentieth century, large groups of people were increasingly identified by single characteristics. People in their teens became ‘teens,’ or ‘teeners’ or ‘teen-agers.’ They were largely in the same place – high school – sharing a common experience, and they were young and open to new things. They were, in short, easy to sell to. Moreover, the preferences formed when young often endure, which makes selling to teenagers a reasonable long-term investment” (9).

In the end, our culture encourages the creation of a youth culture. We profit from it. We buy stock in it, or perhaps more accurately, we have bought into it.

The Evolving Popularity of Psychology (Part 2)

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The most obvious and direct way that psychology has helped to establish the idea of adolescence is by it’s blatant claim to objective conclusions regarding teenagers. Scientifically “proven” claims about adolescence are sold to us by the truckload. Professional psychologists deliver their findings as facts. Anyone who challenges these “facts” without a PhD in the field is passed off as a simpleton.

Psychology has hijacked our thoughts about the possibility of a mature teenager. Journal article after book after web-site after sitcom after teen movie after college psychology class curriculum conditions us and drills us with assertions of adolescent incompetency and irresponsibility. Counselors annotate their apparent restlessness and reinforce their perpetual identity crisis. Of course this is all just icing on the cake compared to the ever-repressing raging hormones. This is so remarkable that an adolescent might “suffer from symptoms that would be considered mad in an adult, but are just part of the normal mental development for the young person” (Hine, p. 33).

The finishing touch to the psychologist’s argument is that to suppress a teenager’s adolescent mindset is to cause irreparable psychological damage. It is kind of convenient that suppressing adolescence (“suppressing” defined as expecting them to grow up and act their age) is the guaranteed path to creating teenage casualties. Not a bad position for them to take, threatening harm to the teenager proportionate to disagreement with their theory.

Never mind that “while endocrinology is a field where fundamental discoveries are made regularly, there is not yet any biochemical explanation for surliness, self-absorption, or rebelliousness” (Hine, p. 30). Never mind that the Bible explains surliness, self-absorption, and rebelliousness as part of human nature, not just teenage nature. Never mind that Scripture grants no exceptions for hormones, it only offers forgiveness for sins.

The rise of psychology established the adolescent as a special, unstable sort of creature. Again, in claiming to be “science,” it has given professional, medical, scientific credibility to the “I’m only an adolescent, so I’m not responsible for what I do.”

But “[d]espite their claims to universality, the much-watered-down psychoanalytic views that underlie popular discourse on the problems of youth are time-bound and culture-bound” (Hine, p. 39). In other words, that means our culture has invented this myth in the last hundred years or so. We have been indoctrinated by this hypothetical myth. Adolescence is a distorted, biased assumption and not an observable, objective phenomena. If only the truth was more persuasive than fiction.

The Evolving Popularity of Psychology (Part 1)

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The fifth ingredient in the dominant belief in adolescence is the evolution of popular psychology. Of course, psychology is simply “the study of mental life.” It is a field concerned with mental processes and behavior looking at the emotional and behavioral characteristics of an individual or group. It introduces itself as science, attempting to observe, identify, describe, investigate, and make categorical conclusions on human phenomena. It claims objectivity in its examinations and in its judgments (even though we know that the human heart is desperately wicked and not easily nailed down). But it is almost impossible to imagine a modern life without psychology. Psychology continues to have a dramatic impact on the way we think about life.

One way psychology has helped to establish the idea of adolescence is simply by its insistence on categorizing everyone and everything. Psychology could not exist without these divisions of race, gender, age, financial status, and so on. Coming up with conclusions is hard enough when observing only narrow group of persons let alone trying to summarize the whole of humanity. So perhaps as much as any other field of study psychology thrives on pigeonholing. The separation of adolescents into their own class has ironically helped to establish the very same separation.

It isn’t hard to find this fragmentation in our own conversations. It seems like the last quarter of the twentieth century especially has been all about fragmentation. And while once we were enlightened to speak of a youth culture, now there are a whole range of youth subcultures: skaters, geeks, jocks, freaks, druggies, nerds, band geeks, and the list goes on. This terminology comes largely from the world of psychology as it attempts to interpret everyone and get them into a tidy group. There is no doubt that most of us in the church have adopted this worldly way of thinking and talking, and perhaps we are guilty of giving credence to these categories just by the way we communicate about them.

The Establishment of a Juvenile Justice System

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The fourth ingredient to the growth of adolescence is the creation of the juvenile justice system. This was developed to segregate younger lawbreakers from older ones and produced a different system of record keeping, a different standard for the punishment and probation for “juveniles.” Just as teenagers were no longer expected to be responsible to support themselves, they were no longer held responsible for their criminal acts, despite the fact that for thousands of years prior the legal system treated teenagers as adults.

The juvenile court movement began in idealism and outrage. It all started when Benjamin Lindsey, a young lawyer recently arrived in Denver, was assigned to defend a couple of burglars. He was lead down a long corridor to what he called a cage, where he found two boys playing poker with a safe-cracker and a horse thief. He didn’t say whether the boys were teens or younger. But they had been locked up with these “hard-core” criminal companions for more than sixty days. The youths had learned to gamble from the two older men, “upon whom,” Lindsey said, “they had come to look as great heroes.” He protested to the warden who agreed it was a problem, but said there was nothing he could do about it.

“Here were two boys,” Lindsey wrote, “neither of them serious enemies of society, who were about to be convicted of burglary, and have felony records standing against them for the rest of their lives. And pending the decision of their cases…the state was sending them to a school for crime–deliberately teaching them to be horse thieves and safe-crackers. It was outrageous and absurd.”

The juvenile court he founded and presided over in Denver in 1900 was not the first, but it did receive much attention and the movement gained momentum. Lindsey did not propose merely to punish people differently, or separately, for the crimes they committed. While the traditional goal of the legal system was to be detached and impartial, Lindsey’s vision was for officers of the court to become a part of the young peoples’ lives. He argued that determining guilt or innocence shouldn’t be the goal of the court, but rather to encourage or induce (or even coerce) young offenders into changing their conduct so that they would not grow into adult criminals.

In our day there are not only separate procedures and punishments but also “a large roster of offenses that are considered crimes only if young people commit them,” such as youth curfews in various cities (Hine, p. 20).

The widespread failure to hold teenagers legally responsible for their actions is well documented on an almost daily basis in newspapers across the country. Consider just this one account:

It was 6:20AM, July 29, 1995. Starting home from an overnight camping trip with seven friends, the young man lost control of his father’s 1987 Chevy Suburban and sent it tumbling across a barren stretch of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. As the 5,000 pound truck rolled across the desert floor, the lives of four of his friends were snuffed out. “It’s my fault,” he told the survivors, sobbing, “I killed my friends!”

California Highway Patrol officers quickly agreed. The young man’s breath reeked of beer, and a blood test showed that he was legally drunk. Had he been considered an adult, James Virgil Patterson probably would have been sent to prison, perhaps for years. But because he was two months shy of his eighteenth birthday, the law regarded him as an errant youth. Despite the fact that he admitted to killing his four friends and seriously injuring three others, the law exempted him from adult punishment. Instead, the San Bernardino County Juvenile Court sentenced him to 120 days of alcohol rehabilitation. (As a gesture to the parents, the court also barred him from taking part in graduation ceremonies at his high school). (David Alan Black, The Myth of Adolescence).

Even though he admitted his offense, the officers on the scene confirmed his responsibility, and the court acknowledged his guilt, the assigned penalty was not proportionate to the crime committed but to his age.

While I am in favor of taking a person’s maturity and intentions (as much as they can be determined) into consideration, the current system has certain built-in flaws that tend to let younger offenders off the hook. And it is just possible that this “kinder, gentler” approach has not only failed to stunt the growth of adolescent crime while but has also reinforced the myth that young people can’t really help breaking the law anyway. Because everyone knows, teenagers are, by nature, irresponsible for their rebellion.

The Expression of Parental Wishfulness

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The third ingredient in the rise of adolescence is the expression of parental wishfulness. Teenagers are not the only ones who pursue an extension of their immaturity, since they could not pursue it without permission. Many parents themselves are heavily to blame for the current state of adolescent immaturity in our culture whether they intended to promote it or not. Consider the following.

Most parents hope that their kids will have it easier than they did. This is perhaps a natural desire. It is not hard to imagine an immigrant family fifty years ago whose kids had to work long hours just to help the family make ends meet. Almost no one wants their children to “have” to work. But remember that relatively few families in the nineteenth century (and before) were financially able to let their teenagers become a leisured class engaged exclusively in preparation for adulthood that was many years off. Still there was an increasing belief among parents that this goal was ideal, and this belief became an important ingredient in the rise of the idea of the teenager. After all, shouldn’t we just let kids play?

Not only that, but most parents hope that their kids will make a better living than they did. This is really just an extension of the first idea, since “better living” is almost always defined in financial terms. And if the ideal way to spend one’s youthfulness is at play then of course the ideal way to spend one’s adulthood must also be to play…just with more expensive toys.

But even though my description of this pursuit of “play” may be a little extreme, this parental wishfulness will at least express itself in wishing for higher pay with less hours for their young person. And how will their student get this ideal job? The answer, we’re told, is obvious: by attending better high schools, getting superior grades, in order to receive acceptance to a prestigious university, resulting in a higher paying job.

Though this scenario may not be entirely unreasonable, we should at least consider the possibility that deferring responsibility now in hopes of having a higher paying responsibility later is not a guaranteed progression. In many ways just the opposite is true. More schooling does not invariably breed more maturity. As we’ve already seen, our public education system tends toward the dumbing down of youth not the enhancing of their youthful capabilities. The more time a student spends isolated from the “real world,” the more likely their adjustment to real work may be slow if not spurned. And an employer is not likely to hand over a lot of green to those who are still green themselves.

Isn’t that why employers typically prefer job experience over institutional education? Though one’s training in school may be an asset, the diploma itself is rarely the watershed between economic success or financial failure. Please understand that I wholeheartedly agree that everyone needs an education, but how they get that education may be different.

By the way, the above discussion assumes that “better living” is equivalent to making more money. That, of course, is a myth beyond the scope of this blog, and one that John Piper attempts to shred in his book, Don’t Waste Your Life. I heartily recommend that for your reading whether you are a student or a parent.

One additional element of this parental wishfulness seems to be that most parents hope that their kids will be more accepted or popular among their peers than they were. Moms and dads remember their own humiliation of wearing the wrong thing and their own rejection by other kids. And so parents support adolescence with their money. “The largest source of funding for youth culture is parents. Even though they may be appalled by specific manifestations of youth culture, they often accept its validity, or at least its inevitability” (Hine, 226). So youth culture is often funded by parents all for the sake of avoiding their student’s loss of self-esteem.

This wishfulness has drastically changed our environment. The expectations many parents have for their young people have shifted, and instead of anticipating the quick arrival of maturity they assume its indefinite absence. Instead of enabling their young people to develop into grown-ups they have endowed them with permission to put off the pressure of development until some undefined future time. In attempting to protect their young person from the difficulties of life they inadvertently prolong their child’s inability to deal with those difficulties.