A host of recent research, however, suggests this perception is as outdated as a copy of Tiger Beat bearing the cover likeness of David Cassidy. It turns out that today's teenagers are kind of, well, pleasant. They're also optimistic, ambitious, patriotic, family-oriented and even self-assured.
In short, they have about as much in common with the stereotypical teen image as they do with the aforementioned walrus.
"I don't think everyone in my generation was knocked up and smoking crack, but we were supposedly rather dark and misanthropic," reminisces Samantha Skey, senior VP-strategic marketing at Alloy Media & Marketing. Ms. Skey points to lower suicide and pregnancy rates among today's teens, and she says that in general they're "much more confident and positive in their overall outlook."
The teens agree. According to the 2005 Yankelovich Youth Monitor, 92% of 12-to-17-year-olds describe themselves as "friendly," 86% as "happy," 76% as "smart" and 75% as "responsible."
Their goals in life are comparably upbeat: 90% count "being happy with yourself" and 86% list "being in control of your life" as potential measures of success, easily trumping "having lots of money" (58%) and "having an expensive car" (44%).
Big on diversity
They're also devotees of diversity (94% say people should be free to "look, dress and live the way they want") and, surprisingly, less susceptible to peer pressure (only 46% agree they "like to buy brands that make me feel like I'm in the `in' crowd," down from 54% in 2001).
Forget Generation Y; 2006's teens might be the founding members of Generation Nice.
Which isn't to suggest today's teens are an easy sell for marketers. In fact, given their technological savvy and their growing up in an era of marketing ubiquity, teens may well be the most schizophrenic demographic in today's consumer world.
On one hand, they welcome companies' pitches, especially those encouraging them to interact with products. "That's the way you get your product remembered and, in the best-case scenario, marketed by teens to their peers," Ms. Skey says. "It's hard to achieve mass reach with this, but the depth of perception has become so, so important." They crave in-depth interaction; a simple "vote here" button on a Web site could annoy rather than satisfy.
On the other hand, teens have become quick to turn on companies whose pitches they find unappealing or insulting. Having been marketed to since birth, they boast acute hype detectors and frown upon easy catchphrases.
"Using the word `cool' in any ad for teens can totally kill it," says John Page, Yankelovich youth insights manager. Adds Douglas Zarkin, until late in 2005 VP-marketing for Victoria's Secret's Pink brand, whose target market includes older teens: "They're by far the most intelligent and toughest consumer base that marketers like myself have ever been faced with."
At the same time, most experts stress that teens are psychologically and emotionally about the same as they were 50 years ago, their media and marketing savoir faire notwithstanding. So while 13- and 17-year-olds may be wearing skimpier clothing and playing more technologically advanced games, marketers can't forget that teenagers have only recently made the quantum leap from childhood.
"The danger is to forget that though they're dressing like they're 18, they might still only be 13. You can't be blinded by what might sometimes look like sophistication," warns Jennifer Goodman, managing director of Geppetto Group, New York, the youth-marketing agency of WPP Group.
Complicating the matter further is their ability-and desire-to multitask with aplomb. On any given night, a teen might toggle between instant messages and game play on the PC screen while an iPod blasts the latest single into the deepest reaches of his cranium and the TV flashes idly in the background. They seem immune to sensory overload. "Other audiences may not view the desktop as an audio platform or wireless devices as a video platform, but teens do," Alloy's Ms. Skey says.
And let's not forget the multitude of sub-segments within the teen market-as many marketers do when they adopt a one-size-fits-all approach or, worse, hit teens with general-market messages.
"You can't push things on them anymore," says Marie Lena Tupot, research director at brand-planning consultancy scenarioDNA. She cautions companies against trying to pull the wool over teens' eyes (hello, faux-authentic corporate brand blogs) and warns that marketers that go "cool-hunting" will "only meet teens where they're currently at, not where they're going to be three months from now."
As for advice to brand minions hoping to reach teenagers more effectively, pundits believe affording teens the opportunity for self-expression may be the most important thing for them to keep in mind-not merely offering a range of color choices but instead top-to-bottom customization of the sort offered by Nike iD.
Technology comes into play here as well, marketing executive Mr. Zarkin notes. "What was once making a mix tape for your boyfriend or girlfriend is now creating your own podcast," he says. "Technology has become as much a means of expression as the brand they wear as a badge on their bodies."
Then there are the messages themselves. Despite the self-proclaimed sophistication of the teen audience, observers caution marketers not to push the envelope in ad content.
Sex is scary
"Some people think, `Let's put some sex in, they'll find that intriguing.' But for anyone under the age of 15, and for more than a few teenagers older than that, sex is a very scary topic. Kids don't want advertising that stresses them out," says Geppetto's Ms. Goodman.
Yankelovich's Mr. Page also suggests depicting the relationship between teens and their parents in a positive, non-antagonistic light.
"Parents still play the largest role in where teens get their information, even in areas like personal-care items," he says. "Showing [parents and teens] in conflict about what they're buying doesn't play well anymore. It doesn't gel with their reality."
Among those who can expect to benefit are companies that tie some kind of cause-marketing component into their teen-focused efforts. According to Yankelovich, 77% of teens aged 13-17 say they're influenced by companies that "reward kids for being active community members."
"Because of the Internet, today's teens are very much global citizens," says Stella Grizon, strategic brand planner at WPP's Y&R North America, New York. "They reward those brands that are genuinely involved in the world around them, even if they don't want to take the time to do charity work themselves."
Lifecycle population: 21.5 million
As share of U.S. Population: 7.2%
White (Hispanic) 16.4%
White (non-Hispanic 59.9%
Other races 3.8%
Hispanic origin (Includes non-white hispanics) 18.0%
Top Male Name1: Michael
Top Female Name1: Jessica
More info: census.gov; ssa.gov
Sources: Census Bureau population projections for 2006; Social Security Administration (names)