The Consumer Republic: Teen World

Of the many made-for-teens series we can expect on network TV come fall, my favorite is Roswell. It promises to be another tale of the young trying to find their identity within the hothouse of high school, except-get this-these kids are aliens from another world.
Based on what I’ve read in the wake of the Columbine shootings, they should fit right in.
According to alarmist features in Newsweek on “the secret life of teens,” complete with dour mug shots of adolescents in tribal attire, today’s teens might as well be from another planet.
They’re splattering the virtual walls with virtual blood in virtual game worlds of first-person mayhem. Or, they’re alone in their rooms with their computers, downloading recipes for bombs or chatting with God-knows-who from God-knows-where on the Internet.
One conflicted baby boomer dad agonizes over his son’s refusal to wear a T-shirt that doesn’t sport a logo. Another anxiously wonders what lurks behind his Goth daughter’s kohl-stained eyes. It’s as if half the parents in America woke up one day to find pod people living in their children’s bedrooms. In which case, they ought to be relieved that the nets are larding the schedules with pimply angst and coming-of-age romances. After all, if the kids are watching Dawson’s Creek, at least you know what they’re up to.
The bad news, Mom and Dad, is that there’s less on the networks for you, and the older you get, the less there’s going to be. Never mind that you’re the last network loyalists, that you watch more TV than your kids do and that you’ll soon control 50 percent of the nation’s wealth. This season, the networks, caught in an identity crisis over their traditional role as mass entertainers and their terror over losing the demos that advertisers love, have gone for the fast advertising buck that young eyeballs attract.
The consolation for the growing hordes turning 50 who have fallen off the edge of the ratings world is our many-channeled universe. They can rest their eyes on Biography, The Antiques Road Show, Turner Classic Movies and the like. Just be thankful that Junior has his own TV.
Unfortunately, leaving your kids alone with television is just what teen experts don’t want you to do. Parents, they say, have to realize that the days are long gone when Elvis and the Beatles broke through to mass attention on The Ed Sullivan Show alongside the stars of the Metropolitan Opera. You’ve got to know the secrets behind teen’s browser bookmarks and plumb the media universe that shapes their tastes. We all know that parenthood requires sacrifice. Even so, sentencing an adult to an entire evening of the WB in order to stay in touch with the kids surely tests the limits of parental devotion.
The trouble is, if parents don’t do it, someone else will. In fact, someone already does: marketers. For brands that want to connect with young people, Teen Link, a recent study conducted by Bates USA with Teen Research Unlimited, advises, “Stay in touch with them … listen to their music; watch their movies; read their magazines. Be where they are … Give them a voice … Do not treat them as receivers.”
Teens repeatedly tell researchers in consumer panels that they don’t want to be told what they don’t know, and they won’t listen to anyone who doesn’t know what they do. Little wonder the nets hope to lure these future adults with shows in which grown-ups are invisible and teens solve their problems themselves with magical powers.
Which brings me to a modest proposal. Parents should become brands! I’m surprised no one has thought of this before. After all, everything else is a brand-or aspires to be. Besides, aren’t brands supposed to provide the foundation of our identities, much like
parents used to do? The whole problem with parents is that they’re like a bad ad that “talks down” to the consumer. Imagine a Mom and Dad who spend half as much time as a market researcher does listening, empathizing, relating and accepting their children, someone who speaks their language and never judges.
On second thought, maybe it’s not such a good idea. Even “brand,” our universal metaphor, cannot be stretched that far. The problem is that if you just reflect the people you’re trying to influence, you can never influence them. That is, you can’t teach them something new or introduce a new perspective or alter their point of view. Which is fine by marketers, who only want to influence what people buy. But for parents, it just doesn’t cut it.
But if parents can’t be brands, do they run the risk of being usurped by them? After all, teens want what everyone in the Consumer Republic wants: empowerment, respect and relevance.
Indeed, consumers of all ages are more like teens these days: They don’t want anybody telling them what to do, and they hate the word “no.” So brands always say, “yes.” No wonder that father can’t separate his kid from his logo T-shirts. ƒ