Teen Girls, Sexism, and Marketing
The more time a teen girl spends reading fashion magazines, the worse she feels about herself, according to a study done by Brigham and Women's hospital released earlier this month. And that's just how marketers like it. A girl feeling unattractive, overweight, and in dire need of a boyfriend is more likely to respond favorably to the countless products that promise to correct her flaws, slim her down, and prime her for romance.
Unfortunately, for marketers, however, teen girls are a tough sell. Seventeen Magazine and the MS. Foundation discovered in a 1996 poll of 1000 teenagers that only 5% of the girls measured their self-worth by their appearance. They found that boys were more likely than girls to worry about appearances.
Interestingly, Seventeen continues to offer scores of glossy ads for "beauty" products despite the information they uncovered about their target audience. Why? Partly because Seventeen's goal is to attract advertisers. It is not their goal to reach the largest number of girls with information about the widest possible array of issues that affect them. But their own poll tells them just how hard they'll have to work to make sure their readers are convinced of their flaws and unsure of alternative ways of expressing themselves in the world.
So the beauty and fashion magazines spill gallons of ink to convince girls that life revolves around the minutia of self-care and self-improvement. Between the Glamour "do's and don'ts," the exercise advice column, and the ads focused almost exclusively on clothes and make-up, a girl's universe shrinks to the pinpoint issue of her appearance and ways she can spend money on it. In this universe, girls are powerful when wielding their credit cards and choosing the cut of their jeans. Loyalty is to a brand name and agency is expressed in hair color. The fact that in real life, girls actually have a lot more on their minds is of no consequence. Articles about politics, art, community issues, religion, etc. might actually distract a girl from questions about whether her bare back will look shapely enough in her prom dress.
With the U.S. teen population on the rise (expected to peak in 2010 at 35 million), marketers are experimenting with the best ways to reach this media savvy crew. Raised on Disney (with its endless array of product tie-ins) and TV shows based on toys (is it a show or an ad?), today's teens have been the target of sophisticated advertising their whole lives. So today's marketers are having to come up with even more sophisticated ways of selling to them.
One approach is the anti-ad. Best exemplified in ABC's series of print ads that asked, "What's a few more brains cells, anyway?", anti-ads make a cynical comment about the product they are selling and the fact they're trying to sell it to you. The ad is cynical so you don't have to be. It grabs your attention, positions itself as "one of you," and subtley congratulates you for "getting it" -- for being as savvy as you are. This anti-ad for Arizona Jeans, directed at teens, has a rebellious edge that acknowledges and embraces the mercenary point of it all: "Forget the ultra-skinny models. Don't make us read a lot of copy. Stop telling us what's cool. And Don't try to talk like us. Just show us the jeans."
Another approach is to imbed advertising in articles and web sites, and to blur the lines between content and product promotion. Junior apparel marketer Moxiegirl will send you a free subscription to its "magalog" (aka "catazine") as long as you buy at least "one little thing" from them. Their web site defines what it means to be a "cool chick," all the while blurring the boundaries between "hanging out" and shopping.
"Hey girls, welcome to moXiegirl. There's places to hang, to explore, and to read stuff by and about other kewl chics. We'll feature articles on grrrls who rip, hot boys, and hotlinks to other girlie sites, aaand, while you're here you can also shop for the most rad, luscious and tasty on earth! We're open 24/7 so come on in and poke around."
If you are a teen, or know one, don't despair. In addition to the plethora of print and web zines with non-commercial objectives, there are national publications whose mission is other than marketing. New Moon Magazine (www.newmoon.org) for girls ages 8 to 14, Teen Voices (www.teenvoices.com) for teenage girls, and HUES (Hear Us Emerging Sisters, www.hues.net) for young women ages 17 to 29, are all written and edited by girls, teens and adults in collaboration.
Of these, Teen Voices is most commited to empowering young women and uncovering the roots of social problems in the process. For example, their feminist critique of a Nike ad (Vol. 7, Issue 4) points out the sexist depiction of women in advertising and then goes on to include an interview with a sweatshop worker, an analysis of how companies get you to buy, information about labor laws, and suggestions for how to get involved in anti-sweatshop activism. Teen Voices offers a sophisticated political context that gives teen writers, editors and readers a chance to experience themselves as agents of social change.
The studies show that fashion magazines make girls feel bad about themselves, and that girls don't put that much stock in their appearance anyway. So let's support the magazines that treat teens as if they aren't self-actualized at the shopping mall, and that offer themselves as a catalyst for individual and grassroots empowerment.