But young consumers have been a difficult target for advertisers and agencies, as youth culture is often one step ahead of marketers' abilities to follow, teen-agers are adept at subverting and filtering out ad messages and youngsters' spending, while largely discretionary, is far smaller than that of adults.
Advertising alone did not create the Western preoccupation with youth, but it has greatly influenced its continuation. Pepsi-Cola and its ad agency, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, for example, launched the "Pepsi Generation" in 1964 (although the concept represented a youthful attitude and enthusiasm characteristic of "those who think young," not a specific age group).
In the U.S. in the years following World War II, the mass youth market began to appear as a natural consequence of the baby boom. It came to the fore as a consumer force in the late 1950s and early '60s as pop music led advertisers to youth. Products such as Noxzema's Cover Girl medicated makeup and Pepsi-Cola were at the time specifically marketed as youth brands.
Two innovators stand out in the late 1940s and early '50s as champions of the youth market: the editorial team at Seventeen, launched by Triangle Publications in September 1944, and Eugene Gilbert, who established the first specialist youth-marketing agency the following year.
Seventeen provided a new medium for advertisers. Its editorial content, fashion pages and special features, combined with a rapid circulation growth, created a perfect vehicle for advertisers to reach young consumers.
Mr. Gilbert, a market researcher, provided businesses with data on the spending habits of teen-agers. His main innovation was employing youthful researchers who could "feel the pulse" of America's youth. Mr. Gilbert also publicized the youth market to a wide audience via a weekly column distributed by the Associated Press, "What Young People Think," and his "how-to" guide, "Advertising & Marketing to Young People," published in 1957.
Much of the groundwork establishing the youth-market business was in place before the arrival of Elvis Presley, but the singer's phenomenal success around the world in 1956 opened the eyes of skeptics to the potential of the youth market. At a time when U.S. network radio was losing ad revenue to TV, local radio stations were able to deliver a teen-age audience to advertisers' rotations of top-selling records.
Teen-age magazines and music radio provided the perfect conduits to sell to youngsters: Ad rates were low compared with TV and the delivery mechanism was one sought after by youngsters themselves.
Enthusiasm for the youth market peaked in the 1960s. The cult of youth—from U.S. President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps volunteers to the historic gathering at Woodstock in 1969—gave youngsters a prominent place in American society. Likewise, the British pop explosion of the mid-1960s led to the export of English youth culture to the rest of the Western world, influencing advertising styles and fashions.
The late 1960s and early '70s marked a watershed in youth marketing. Despite the euphoria over the demographic tidal wave of young consumers and the spread of youthful lifestyles into mainstream advertising, it became apparent that advertising was not terribly successful in influencing the buying habits of young people, causing skeptics to wonder if the youth market was all it was claimed to be.
One commentator described the youth market as a "psychedelic maze." Members of the counterculture questioned the "plastic civilization" celebrated by ad agencies, which depicted the youth market as homogeneous, white and suburban. Young people portrayed in ads, however, did not resemble protesting students across the Western world.
In the 1970s, the spending power of adults was rediscovered, along with new segments, such as the "gray" and "gay" markets. In the 1980s, young urban professionals (so-called yuppies) became the next marketing phenomenon. But by the 1990s, a second wave of teen-agers, named after Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel "Generation X," was the new group to excite youth marketers.
Youth marketing has received criticism from social critics and concerned parents, who questioned the morality of putting commercial pressure on youngsters. Groups such as Action for Children's Television, formed in the late 1968, were especially concerned about what they saw as the poor quality of children's broadcasting. More recently, the use of cartoons and movies to generate "spin-off" licensed products raised the ire of parents. Most Western countries, however, have by now accepted that some children's entertainment should have a non-commercial basis.
Virtually all Western nations have put limitations on the marketing of cigarettes and alcohol to youngsters, albeit with limited success. During the 1960s, most Western governments placed strict limits on the use of youthful, attractive images in cigarette ads in an attempt to reduce the number of teen-agers taking up the habit. To circumvent such restrictions, tobacco and liquor advertisers promote sporting events and rock concerts to maintain their presence among younger smokers and drinkers.
The debut of Music Television in 1981 and its subsequent global expansion provided new opportunities for advertisers to reach an ultradefined market. Like rock 'n' roll radio stations of the 1950s and '60s and Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" on broadcast TV, cable-based MTV provided an ad environment that targeted only youth.
Youthful trendsetters tend to define themselves in opposition to the establishment. Therefore, the moment the establishment unravels a code used by youth to communicate, young trendsetters abandoned it.
The ad campaigns of Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite brand are an example of the delicate interplay between youth and marketers. In 1990, Sprite was a minor soft-drink brand, but that year the marketer introduced a tongue-in-cheek TV spot featuring the NBA's Grant Hill. Mr. Hill appeared as many other celebrity presenters had, but the spot used an ironic visual subtext that spoke directly to young viewers' skepticism of young viewers over profit-driven marketing.
As the irony of the spot began to wear thin, Coca-Cola developed relationships within the hip-hop and rap music culture. Using marketing consultancy Cornerstone, Sprite embarked on an "under the radar" marketing strategy to convey its brand message to the youth market through Internet chat rooms, concerts and parties that were underwritten by the company but not identified as such.
In launching the Sprite.com Web site, the marketer staged a dance party with stars from the hip-hop world that was videotaped as if it had been a news event. The videotape, featuring the musical acts, became paid programming on MTV. By 2000, Sprite had become the leading soft-drink brand among youth.
By the 1990s, youth trends, whether rap, rave or rage rock, were being fabricated and marketed by a cultural power structure consisting of five huge U.S. companies: News Corp., which owned the teen-oriented Fox Network; Walt Disney Corp., parent to ABC; Viacom, which owned CBS, MTV, Comedy Central and the Infinity network of radio stations; Vivendi Universal, which owned Universal Pictures, record companies and the Havas advertising network; and AOL Time Warner, which owned vast motion picture, record and media interests, including the youth-oriented WB TV network.
By 2000, the media that reached youth had become highly targeted. They had little incentive to accommodate their offerings to mainstream taste and their content was often intentionally outrageous, antiestablishment, violent, raunchy and purposely offensive.
With the teen population expected to grow by 10% in the U.S. alone during the first decade of the 21st century, there is ample incentive for advertisers to continue to seek new ways to connect with and capitalize on this distinctive market.