good news is: It takes a constant bombardment of advertising, articles, and
advice to convince teens that they ARE their skin-exfoliators, hair de-frizzers,
and lip moisturizers.
bad news is: There IS a constant bombardment of advertising, articles, and
advice to convince teens that they are their skin-exfoliators, hair de-frizzers,
and lip moisturizers.
goal of teen magazines is to provide an advertising platform to marketers.
That's how they make their money and keep stockholders happy: They sell
advertising. Teen magazines thus compete with each other to provide the most
attractive context for advertisers, not, as some might think, to meet the needs
of the most readers. They still must address themselves to readers, though, so
what they do is publish articles – many of which are virtually
indistinguishable from advertising – that find different ways of telling teens
about their flaws and pointing out purchasable remedies.
don't teens have a lot of insecurities about clothes, looks, and sexuality,
and aren't these insecurities a factor in teen magazines' choice to publish
articles on “getting kissed by midnight,” strategies for being “naughty
and nice,” how to “think pink for flirty fun,” and treating “your most
kissable feature to a colorful makeover”? It may be true that being on the
brink of adulthood is a time of uncertainty for many young people, but my hunch
is that teen magazines actually work hard to push teens to feel less confident,
more than they play off already existing insecurities. Teen magazines want a
readership that will be vulnerable to their advertisers' message, so, in every
issue, they pummel readers with the news that they are what they buy.
and over again, human agency is portrayed as the power to purchase, self-worth
is measured in breast dimensions, and happiness is a direct result of hair
volume. One ad in Seventeen Magazine says, “It's who I am,” and then
offers check-boxes next to “eyes,” “lips,” and “face.” Articles
throughout the magazine back up the advertiser's message by reporting on the
beauty regimen required to get ready for a date, the key beauty treatments every
girl must carry in her purse, and the latest in belly- and thigh-exposing
attitudes, free thinking, rebelliousness, and just plain intelligence are roped
in by advertisers and article-writers alike, and put in service of brand names.
An ad for sneakers that change color in daylight tells you to “Get Out for a
Change.” “Question Authority!” screams another ad. “Authority,” in
this case, is the retailer at the point of purchase. The “question” is:
“Do you take plastic?” Articles reinforce the idea that teen agency is best
expressed as a series of superficial consumer choices. “Readers' Choice
Polls” allow fans to choose their favorite stars. The February 2001 “Teen
People” award went to Britney Spears who perfectly sums up the idea that your
true inner self is best expressed in attire: “The moment I feel like I'm
getting held down or someone is telling me what to wear – not that I'll wear
anything crazy, just hot pants and a bra – I'm like, ‘No!' I have to do
my own thing.”
a stunningly cynical marketing ploy, another “Teen People” poll poses as an
investigation of materialism in today's society. In fact, the poll collects
important information that can be used to construct consumer profiles of Teen
People's readership – age, gender, importance of brand name, saving habits,
etc. as well as direct questions such as, “How do you and your friends
shop?” and “If you had all the money in the world, would you…” (The
multiple choice answers to the latter question, by the way, only pertain to
shopping. In other words, shopping is the only conceivable thing you can do with
it really matter, though, that giant media conglomerates mobilize their massive
resources in order to beat teens senseless with the equation: human expression
equals consumer choices? Perhaps the U.S.'s greatest crime against young
people is that almost one-fifth of them live in poverty. (When considering all
races and both genders by age group, the U.S. census bureau (1999) finds that
the age groups “under 18” and “18-24” to have the largest percentages of
people living in poverty.) Or that almost a million children per year in the
U.S. are victims of child “maltreatment” – neglect, abuse or sexual
molestation (according to the Federal publication, “Child Maltreatment,
1998”). Or that public schools repeatedly fail the children who need them the
most. (On January 10, 2001, a State Supreme Court Justice ruled that children
who attend public school in New York City are illegally deprived of a sound
education, according to the New York Times.)
youth do indeed experience all these hardships, an appalling fact in this
resource-rich, wealthy, and powerful country. All the more appalling, then, that
the immense power of the mass media aligns itself against teens. As if kids
didn't have enough to deal with! Consider the fact that Teen People is owned
by Time, Inc., a subsidiary of Time-Warner, which is now (or soon to be) a
subsidiary of AOL-Time-Warner – all of which adds up to powerful print,
television, and online opportunities to reach young people and move them
seamlessly between “news,” advertising, and one-dimensional images of teens
as fashion-conscious rule-followers. Seventeen Magazine is owned by Primedia,
Inc., publishers of all Murdoch magazines (among many others), elementary and
secondary level classroom materials, and Channel One – the news and
advertising source piped “free of charge” into numerous U.S. classrooms.
if teens had a voice? What if corporate ownership and advertising delivery
didn't determine the content in teen magazines? You might get something like
“Teen Voices,” published by the non-profit Teen Express in Boston,
Massachusetts (www.teenvoices.com). Their winter 2000 includes the following:
A special feature about teens dealing with popularity and identity. It includes first-person stories, poetry, and strategies for “being yourself.” There's not a single mention of make-up; taking a stand against injustice emerges as a positive form of expression; and racism is offered as one of the reasons some girls are ostracized. There's a reading list, word puzzle, and line drawings throughout. All the authors, illustrators, and poets are teens.
A “Food Corner” with actual recipes!! (No dieting strategies!!)
An article about how cigarette companies market to teens by playing on ideas that are important to them, like finding “your voice” and getting “connected.”
And, under the heading, “Your activism does make a difference…” a reprint of a letter to Perry Ellis complaining of sexist advertising and a response from Perry Ellis agreeing, and stating that the ad would be withdrawn.
bad news: Corporate media monopolies assault teens with a constant barrage of
messages that reinforce gender stereotypes, promote unattainable images of
beauty, and convince them that shopping is fundamental to human expression.
good news: Teens are not an easy sell. A quick perusal of teen magazines shows
that the media giants understand they have to be relentless in their portrayal
of teens as image-obsessed consumers.
even better news: Teens resist. Given a non-advertising based outlet, they have
plenty to say about what is important to them, the complex ways to create
identity, and the multiple ways to express agency in the world.