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.