Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teenagers have come to feel that consumer goods are their friends

In an effort to save some money I'm trying to read more of the books on my shelves. Now I don't actually have a huge TBR pile* so this means most of these end up being re-reads. Which is actually fine by me. I like re-reading. Sometimes it's like visiting old friends. Sometimes it's seeing if something I originally read stands the test of time. So I was scanning my shelves for something to read that would be very different from Emma. Not that I thought Emma was HORRIBLE, I just struggled through the style and needed something that wouldn't be so much work. Which is how I stumbled on Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers by Alissa Quart.

At some point early in college I went through a "advertising is evil and warping your mind" phase. Actually, it started in high school thanks to a teacher who showed us a PBS documentary called The Merchants of Cool** but it really came to a head in college when I read both Branded and Naomi Klein's No Logos (as well as a number of other titles that I no longer remember).*** Branded is about the advertising techniques used on teenagers and more than that, how advertising is affecting teenagers, not only in spending habits but in general development.

One thing to keep in mind with this book is the age. It's not THAT old BUT because youth culture shifts so quickly, the book did feel dated. By focusing on brands you have to mention those brands. Some brands which aren't a thing anymore, or at least don't have the hold on today's youths that they held in the early 2000s. I know Delia*s and Abercrombie & Fitch are still things (I can't walk by A&F in the mall without a potent odor reminding me I AM HERE AND I DON'T KNOW THE APPROPRIATE AMOUNT OF COLOGNE TO WEAR) but they aren't as front and center in the world of teen fashion as they were when i was in high school. There was no Facebook or Twitter when this was published. Which is too bad because I think the conversation about how social media is affecting teen's perceptions of brands would have been very interesting. But alas, Quart is not a psychic.

The book is split into 3 sections: Branding, Self-Branding and Unbranding.

Branding focuses on how teens are being marketed to and how it's changing them. I especially liked the section on peer-to-peer marketing, which is essentially having teens work for the brand (though not for salary or anything, don't be silly) by giving the brand feedback and telling their friends all about how amazing X brand is. This section plays up the general insecurities teens have, especially the desire to fit in and be heard. In this case teens are being heard by the brand and their opinions are being taken seriously. It makes sense teens think of these brands as friends when the marketing liason is the one that listens to them and treats them like an adult. There's also the pervasiveness of branding in places like video games, such as Tony Hawk Pro Skater. (Remember, the book was published in 2003 and most of the references are from before that...)

Self-Branding is looking at how teens and young adults internalize the marketing messages, through cosmetic surgery, steroid use, anorexia, "Logo U" (the self-branding to get yourself into one of the top colleges), and even the aura of celebrity that has infiltrated markets such as Sweet 16 parties, Quinceaneras and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. This section argues how much further the intense teenage marketing goes. It's not just getting teens to connect with (and buy) certain brands, but actually change their physical and emotional self to fit a predetermined example of what they should be like.

Unbranding is about the reaction to this branding and teens taking a stand against this threat. It's kids who are home schooled instead of going through traditional "branded" schooling, or even teens that stay in the public school system but hold rallies against the advertisements in their school.

For the most part it's a good book. It brings up interesting points about not only teens who view consumer goods and brands as friends but the general commodification of teens.However it does have its faults. When Alissa is stating facts or interviewing teens, the book works nicely. When she puts her opinion in there, it seems heavy handed and awkward. I don't remember this bothering me back when I first read it, but this time around it was obvious.

The other thing is she says mean things about Clueless, which you may have noticed I'm currently having a second love affair with. She talks about the sheer awesomeness of '80s teen movies and how that has been lost in a time of Bring It On, Clueless, and She's All That (again, published in 2003) when the popular kids are the stars and watching them go shopping or getting a make-over is the highlight of the plot. She acknowledges that Clueless is a satire but then says that most tweens and teens don't understand this and they'll just focus on how important it is to be popular, beautiful and have expensive things. LIES madame. Lies.

But my main problem with the book is who she's talking to. This book could be sub-subtitled "First World Problems". Or at least "Rich Kid Problems". The issues faced are real but for the most part every teen she talks to is from the upper class and can afford to drop money on name brand gear like Gucci and Dolce&Gabbana, whose families can spend $50k and up on a party, who go to the cream of the crop private schools and thus have the pressure to continue that trend and get into the most exclusive ivy league schools. It's not the sole focus but it's the majority.

*Not a physical TBR pile anyway. I have a fairly large (and growing) wish list tbr pile
**Which a friend of mine got me on DVD one year for my birthday or Christmas or some gift giving holiday. Which I now have a desire to watch...
***And now I work in PR because I appreciate irony. Or I'm a hypocrite.

Title quote from page 35

Quart, Alissa. Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. Basic Books, 2003.