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Impressionable Minds

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I'm no angel. I'll give you that. But I have a bone to pick with our industry. It's about portraying dishonesty as admirable. It's about the slippery slope we climb.

Why do some marketers feel it's necessary to persuade today's youth that it's OK to lie, steal and cheat? To be deceitful and self-centered? Aren't plenty of other people doing that? Politicians. Priests. A few captains of industry. The press. Don't we have a higher calling?

Let me step back and explain.

We all know that teens are incredibly impressionable. They're at that stage of life where they are defining who they are, what they're going to be and how they're going to act (and for that matter, which brands they'll build a lifelong relationship with). They take cues from the world around them, and we as an industry supply thousands of those cues every day—more than their parents, and arguably more than their teachers and friends. Good or bad, we're in the business of shaping attitudes and behavior.

Here's the disturbing trend: I see some marketers holding up their brands as objects of desire and saying it's worth lying, cheating and stealing to get them. What kind of impression does that send to today's youth and tomorrow's leaders?

Do I sound like some ultra-conservative with my head in the past? I hope not. This trend reinforces something I'm sure none of us would want to teach our kids. I'm also critical because of the shallow, lazy thinking behind it. We all know that the most effective teen brands are ones that connect on some real level. There's got to be something more substantial behind almost any brand than "Go ahead and cheat to get what you want." You wouldn't base your brand strategy on that platform, would you?

Case in point: Coca-Cola's more recent work. The message is: "It's OK to deceive, cheat and steal, all in the pursuit of our brand." Sometimes it's subtle or cute. Sometimes it's blatant. One execution portrays a college student eating the home-cooked empanadas his roommate's mom brings by. Another tells us to take the last Diet Coke and leave your loved one nothing but a glass of ice. Another poses the question, "Should you share a Coke with your bud or use it to cool your pits?" Still another shows Coke strong-arming and threatening judges in order to gain influence. All this from the brand that wanted to teach the world to sing, to smile, to connect, to share, to have magical Coke moments.

I realize that Coca-Cola is trying to find its groove. Executionally, the brand is hoping to project some cool and some edge. And I could agree that the commercials reflect a current ethos that is all part of a youthful "Who cares?" spirit. Fine. But is this the right groove strategically for the Coke brand? Is there anything that rings true about the brand in these values? Or will teens see the campaign for what it is—a phony attempt to link Coke to values that are antithetical to what the brand is all about?

It's not that Coke doesn't have other options. A brand of its stature has many values to associate with. Some that come to mind and that would play well with teens include: belonging, connecting, sharing common ground, freedom and personal expression. Executed deftly, these would be worthier pursuits.

Let's not just pick on Coke. Some other youthful brands are choosing the low road. Mars' Cookies & More is another offender. Its advertising portrays a kid who craves the product so much, he steals and hordes it. To cover it up, he turns on his poor dog and blames him. Is no friendship sacred?

Not to be outdone, Levi's currently thinks the way to sell jeans is to show a young man having to choose between a pair of Levi's and a relationship. You guessed it. He chooses the jeans. Verizon depicts a young guy who has "borrowed" his buddy's blue "hoody" and then lies to him about it—over a Verizon line, of course.

These values used to be the domain of beer advertising. We could write it off as adult humor. But with Coke and others leading the way, we now seem to be aiming younger and younger with negative messages. Sure, you can say advertising simply reflects our culture's values. But can't we do better? Why go out of our way to validate deceit and selfishness? We can think deeper thoughts. We can build brands on positive values.

Do away with bathroom humor, sexual innuendo and jackass fun? Of course not. There are certain devices we will always use to reach young audiences. However, when it comes to core values, we should try harder to leave a good impression. Let's teach our children well.