In Search of Outlaws

The sun was red, the sky was purple-gray, and white ash that used to be a three-bedroom with a mountain view in Simi Valley fell like dry snow over the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica late last month.

Inside were 300 executives, gathered together to learn “What Teens Want” in a two-day conference sponsored by a scrum of VNU magazines, including this one. The New Yorkers, being New Yorkers, were cavalier about experiencing a Season in Hell, Southern California style. The locals, being locals, were really, really worried about what the ash was doing to their cars.

No matter. Not even a natural disaster of historic proportions could keep marketers away from anything that might offer the slightest clue about how to reach 12-17-year-olds.

There were music guys. There was an MTV guy. There was an ad gal. There were videogame people. It was all good.

But the last panel before everybody boned out was the best. A group of kids (“Look! We found some!”) took questions from the audience.

“What’s the best thing about being a teen?” they were asked.

“I can’t be tried as an adult,” said one.

Obviously a business major. But a telling insight, because there you have the answer to why marketers can’t find these kids.

Asking what kind of consumers teens are is solipsistic. Advertisers are talking to themselves when they ask that. Because teens are not consumers. They’re outlaws. At least in their own minds.

All this hand-wringing at the TV networks about where all the young boys have gone is, consequently, meaningless. It’s not about programming or ratings methodology. It’s about attitude. Free TV is so last week to a band on the run.

You’re not gonna hook ’em with skateboard sponsorships. Don’t think of them as the new kids on the block.

Think of them as Bonnie and Clyde, only not as well dressed.

Ads on cell phones? Not gonna work.

Street marketing? See above.

Forget about relationship building, lifestyle event marketing, the many and uniformly pitiful attempts to be edgy and/or genuine. (Except for giving away CDs—there is some merit to the “free-shit strategy,” as my 15-year-old calls it.)

You want to know where all the young men have gone? I’ll tell you. They’re on my living room floor every Saturday night—half the kids in the greater L.A. area, invited by my kid to sleep over and watch wrestling DVDs, horror movies and anything with Jack Black in it.

You want a sure-fire medium to reach teens? Put your ad on my carpet, right between the cat fur and the Diet Coke stains that won’t ever come out.

Don’t bother to be street smart. They’re not. They call each other “dawg” mostly because it irritates the hell out of adults, not because they really like the word.

That whole urban thing, in fact, is a nonstarter as a marketing ploy. When the Dr Pepper ad with LL Cool J and Run DMC comes on, my kid sneers. (Sneering, by the way, is a technique that does seem to get their attention. It’s, like, Pavlovian or something.)

Outlaws do watch TV—but only Comedy Central. (The males, anyway.) MTV? That’s ambient noise for them, unless Punk’d is on. If I made sneakers or jeans or music or movies or soda or fast food, I’d spend 80 percent of my budget on The Daily Show (Jon Stewart gives good sneer) and 19 percent on free shit.

The rest I’d use to roadblock my living room floor on Saturday night.