'Branded' fuels debate: New book attacks marketing to teens

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To some observers, the book "Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers" underscores the dangers to which children are exposed. To marketers, the child demographic is a fact of life.

No greater authority than The New York Times has said "Branded" "deserves to command wide attention among millions of families." The Old Gray Lady maintains the book's author "makes a brilliant case for how and why teenagers' consumption of luxury-brand items and paraphernalia associated with teenage idols has gone too far."

In the book, published by Perseus Publishing, author Alissa Quart says youth marketers aim to make a sale "even if it means playing on kids' fears of being social outcasts or physically unappealing." It portrays victimized teens as hipsters so requisitely swank and taken with lavish brands like Dolce & Gabbana that they judge and are judged for their brands rather than past litmus tests of how pretty or popular one was. She maintains teens are drowning in an ocean of Clinique-branded schoolbook covers, McDonald's Corp. focus group and a General Mills-induced "supposed science experiment."


"It's not about selling per se," Ms. Quart said in an interview. "It's about the extensive and invasive techniques being used."

Few of those singled out were anxious to respond. A McDonald's spokeswoman declined to comment, saying no one at the company had seen the book. Likewise Target, Gap and Estee-Lauder's Clinique did not wish to comment. Pepsi-Cola Co. referred calls to the National Soft Drink Association, which said bottlers provide revenue to cash-strapped schools and comply with the schools' marketing policies.

"Branded" highlights the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog as a tawdry show of "underdressed college jocks, porn stars and trios wearing omnipresent branded underwear" that creates "a greater sense of inadequacy among boys about their bodies than ever before."

Sam Shahid, president-creative director of Shahid & Co., a New York graphic-design firm that does work for Abercrombie, said its advertising does not increase boys' body-consciousness. "These guys have always been that way." He called the book "just one person's opinion."

Paul Caine, publisher of AOL Time Warner's Teen People, said teens "know marketers want them to buy their products, and are savvy. ... Consumerism is a voluntary experience."

Bob Horne, a youth-marketing veteran from Griffin Bacal and now director of strategic integration at Cordiant Communications Group, downplayed the notion that marketing to kids would increase their insecurity any more than it would with adults. "Should you not market upscale automobiles because if one adult can't afford them, they'll feel bad? Should Lexus not advertise to me because I might only be able to afford a Volkswagen?"

Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, said books like "Branded" allow a sense of abhorrence-like "when we talk to our friends and say `can you believe advertisers are going after this market?'-but are not enough to get consumers to change their lifestyles.

He said while books like Ms. Quart's won't immediately influence marketers, such works rein them in slightly. "If no [one complained], we'd be selling sexy underwear to 8-year-olds and using nude kids to do it."

contributing: mercedes m. cardona, alice z. cuneo, tobi elkin, ira teinowitz and stephanie thompson

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