Content No Longer King?

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Envision a mediascape in which all content will merely consist of pretty images of pretty people, images that shoppers can click on to purchase whatever the models are wearing or using or posing alongside.

Of all the new terms foisted upon us by the Internet Age, “content� is particularly heinous. Once referred to as editorial, content seems to sterilize the thing it represents as a grudgingly necessary, if ancillary, element to whiz-bang Flash graphics and bold design and the slick glam advertising that still serves as the raison d'etre for the media business in general.

As the push-button era has given way to the point-and-click age, and as sales departments encroach ever deeper into what were previously considered editorial realms, be it in television, print or online media, actual content is coming to reflect the sterility of the term. The exchange of ideas, once the hallmark of a successful medium, have been dumbed down or simply done away with in favor of fashion or new techno-gizmo spreads in magazines, or preprogrammed, PR agency-supplied b-rolls on local TV news. Entertainment “product,� as previously addressed in this space, is increasingly impregnated with “seamless� product placement and ad messages. The hype-wary consumer and the marketing guru alike can envision a mediascape in which all content will merely consist of pretty images of pretty people; images that are little more than product displays that shoppers can click on to purchase whatever the models are wearing or using or posing alongside.

Such visions are taking tangible shape. Techie forecasters have projected that by 2004, 30 million households will have interactive TV set-top boxes — most of them bearing the Microsoft brand or its software and likely offering click-and-buy functions on their remote controls. An e-book by New Age health guru Gary Null, The 7 Steps To Perfect Health (, 2001), offers purchase hyperlinks for every commercially available product mentioned therein (dietary supplements, juices, air purifiers, etc.). And Teen magazine, the traditional repository of makeup tips and publicity shots of dreamy heartthrobs, this month will relaunch in a format that eschews content to help marketers sell stuff. (Teen and American Demographics are expected to share a corporate parent, PRIMEDIA Inc., under the terms of an agreement reached July 2.)

The new Teen will debut as a sort of hybrid shopping guide and catalog. One of its pages might feature, say, a new cosmetic, offering a product shot, application tips, a Web address for the product or perhaps a retailer, online or terrestrial, at which to purchase the cosmetic, all anchored by a celebrity wearing it.

We should be clear here that such concepts don't really qualify as revolutionary, but rather evolutionary. From Esquire to Cosmo to Maxim to Elle, the crème de la mag biz have long devoted numerous pages per month of thinly-veiled advertorial to sling high-end cosmetics, gadgets and clothing, the latter often “as worn� by celebrities. Meanwhile Teen, no stranger to such fashion collusion, has seen its own traditional position eroded by an onslaught of new entries by more sophisticated publishing brands, à la Teen People, Cosmo Girl, Teen Vogue, Elle Girl, ad nauseum. Teen, in dedicating itself to this specialized, yet paramount, component of 8- to 15-year-old girls' lives, is staking out a potential service niche, basically by cutting out the vaguely editorial middleman between it and the common prize: some 15 million teenage girls in the U.S. who wield around $75 billion in discretionary funds.

“I think it's almost a much-needed transformation in what is a very cluttered category,� says Michael Wood, vice president at Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU). “Every quarter it seems there's a new magazine coming out for girls, a lot of big players all following a format used for decades now — fashion, life, beauty tips, celebrities, horoscopes, quizzes. It's a tried and true kind of formula, and it worked with five titles on the market, but I'm not sure it works with eight or nine or 10. My hat goes off to them for shaking it off and trying something different.�

That something different at its crux speaks to the mall-mad youngster. According to TRU research conducted in January and February, 76 percent of American 12- to 19-year-olds had been to the mall in the past week, and 83 percent of girls had done so. On average, girls spend 5.3 hours a week at a mall; the overall teen average is 4.4 hours. And those numbers, Wood qualifies, are not even in peak malling season, summer. Meanwhile, TRU found that 77 percent have read magazines “for pleasure,� in the most recent week, and that segment spends an average of 2.6 hours per week reading magazines.

Of course, per the tech curve, the mall and the magazine will meet online. will be reconfigured as a part of an overall multimedia matrix. The already well-trafficked site (200,000 unique visitors per month, according to Jupiter Media Metrix) will offer supplemental interfaces with Teen's advertisers/featured subject matter. In one example cited by editor Tommi Lewis in the Silicon Alley Daily, a virtual try-on section might offer Web surfers an idea how a piece of clothing featured in the magazine fits on a virtual template of their body-type, then direct them to a buy-and-ship link.

Although Teen did not respond to interview queries for this story, Lewis has stated in the Silicon Alley Daily that advertisers wholly new to Teen have been knocking on the door in anticipation of the updated model. Such click-through consumer response, of course, ideally offers the kind of direct, measurable results that advertisers ache for in an age of increasingly impotent mass media. But for the time being, it may remain an ideal.

Teens don't spend a lot of money through online media, at least relatively speaking. In the last holiday season, shoppers ages 8 to 21 dropped some $2.4 billion in gifts via e-commerce, according to Harris Interactive Youth Pulse. Yet that figure represented only a marginal portion of total spending. In particular, girls ages 10 to 12 did only 6 percent of their shopping online; girls 13 to 15, 2 percent; 16 to 17, 3 percent; and those 18 to 21, 7 percent. By college, young men (18 to 21) were buying gifts at twice the rate of young women and purchased 18 percent of their holiday gifts online.

And that's just the annual shop-fest. On a more regular basis, only 26 percent of teens go online to shop, and only 2 percent list shopping as their primary reason for going online — seventh on a list that includes e-mail (83 percent), informational research (68 percent) and playing games (51 percent), according to a June 2000 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But, according to TRU's Wood, this simply reflects how teens have come to use the Web. Because of credit card limitations, and perhaps a reticence to submit to parental supervision, online purchasing is somewhat problematic for the segment. But, says Wood, teens' online commerce activities are typically geared toward the end of, as it were, “window shopping.� Of those teen girls that go online, 36 percent say they look for stuff to buy, per TRU, though this serves as a catalyst to the pastime of mall-crawling, not merely for purposes of commerce but of social interaction: consumption as experience and camaraderie.

“It's so much more than just the act of buying clothes,� Wood says. “It's trying on things, hanging out at stores, trying on new shades of eye shadow at the cosmetics counters.�

And that makes the mall a hot zone for nurturing the consumption habits of these young citizens, in whichever medium pipes them there. Perhaps we are a few years away from MTV offering, with a mere click, the CD of the latest choreographed pack of lily-white, Motown-wannabe incubi ambling across the screen, or maybe even the clothes vaguely on Britney's back. But Teen has made a bold step in that direction. And so even the medium is no longer the message, but rather the enabler.

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