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Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers by Alissa Quart
When choosing this book for my summer reading I was reminded of my eighth grade speech class. One day, my teacher taught a class on advertising techniques in television, and it was the one time in that class I didn’t feel the desperate desire to escape to La La Land. Using a commercial as an example, she demonstrated how the advertisers ensured that all of the men in a sock commercial wore wedding rings. Details such as these, she explained, sent a subliminal message. I felt it was a bit deceitful of the advertisers, but really, who looked at these details? It wasn’t until I read Branded that I realized how slyly companies marketed their products, and to my surprise, their strategies actually succeed.
Alissa Quart, author of the book, basically contends that company branding has devastatingly affected preteens through teenagers; pushing teenagers to grow up faster and realize their own faults, they bombarded them with magazine covers and ads of digitally enhanced “perfect” girls. I had read similar articles regarding dolls considered too alluring for kids, affecting their psychological development. These articles are usually written by the over-protective mom, who shields her children from the kissing scenes in movies; consequently, I expected Quart to take this tone too. I rolled my eyes and went back to the book, wondering if I had the will power to keep focused. Surprisingly, Quart does not take on this expected tone in her writing. She sounds like a mixture of a cool college cousin and a survivor. Tearing down my mental you-have-no-idea-what-it’s-like wall with her words, Quart makes it clear she does get it. She understands the significance clothes have on a person’s image and how it affects their social status: in other words, Quart understands the foundation of a modern high school social network.
Like the author, I had known about brands from a very young age. I remember being toted around from store to store by my mother and sister, sitting in Limited Too and other stores, gagging at the thought of wearing anything from those places. I too, “considered myself in a style war against the ‘normal’ girls...,” with my “whatever shirt and shorts I grab first” look (Quart 3). I even remember when I was twelve, the first time I discovered “The Store” that miraculously described me in fabric form. Lucky Brand Jeans, a vintage sixties style clothing line, helped me define myself as a rock-and-roll-hippie, not the clean-cut preppy that was my sister. I believed that Lucky represented me because I loved the environment, liked rock music, and wanted to travel the world. The Lucky Brand had successfully illustrated this with an organic t-shirt, a globe on the front, and a peace sign formed with music notes. I reluctantly looked down at my Lucky Brand t-shirt and had to admit that I had been branded like cattle. Figuring out that I was not truly rebellious, but just creating a new label for myself, made my jaw drop to the Earth’s core.
How did this happen? How did I get here? I always thought myself smarter than the advertising suits in their high rise buildings in some city. As I read further, Quart explained that a myriad of companies sell their products, such as cars, cameras, and clothes, to preteens. Many of the products for adults are advertised so the marketers can “get’em while they’re young.” This explained my desire for a Jeep as my first car while playing the “future telling” game called MASH. Most of Jeep’s ads had some sort of board equipment in the picture and I, who wanted to learn how to snowboard, couldn’t help daydreaming; me driving up to the mountain in a Jeep with my snowboard on top would be the coolest thing since cheese. At this point, I hung my head in shame at letting this subtle attack happen, but realized it is the advertising company's job to lure people to buy. With a need for a change of scenery, I climb into my orange Jeep, drive off to Starbucks, and continue reading. This is when I discover teen consulting in the chapter, “From the Mall to Fall: The Teen Consultants.”
Researchers, or “cool hunters,” as Quart describes them, comb through the crowds at the mall to find a small group of teens to work with them. These teens provide their opinion on what is in or out, and will even sometimes receive copies of pre-production ads to critique. Most of these researchers become “friends” with the teens to retain them as valuable sources of information. Some of these teens go as far as to participate in peer–to-peer marketing where they inform their friends or even strangers they should wear this or that.
Hold your horses Ms. Quart. I am a teenager. I would never do this and neither would my friends. As soon as I thought these words, a memory resurfaced where I was wearing my new Lucky Brand shirt to school and a friend asked me where I got it. The next week my friend wore a t-shirt from the same store. I had unwittingly participated in peer-to-peer marketing. The only difference that kept me from putting on my cap of shame was that I had no idea I was participating in a marketing strategy, while the girls in Branded planned out marketing strategies with a representative. It was not until later in the book that I realized what the advertising companies did to persuade a person to buy wasn’t half as bad as the impression they left. Looking up from my book for a brief second, I noticed that most of the women at Starbucks were reading Vogue, Seventeen, or some other magazine of a fashionable nature. These magazines, and the ads in them, in truth always made me self-conscious, but, as it turns out, I’m not the only one.
One of the most devastating effects of ads is that everyone appears picture perfect in them. Quart states in the section, “Body Branding: Cosmetic Surgery,” the mind blowing statistics of eighteen-year-old and younger girls getting breast implants. About 79,500 teenagers under went cosmetic surgery in 2000, and breast implants were the third most popular option. I thought I misread it, but to my dismay my reading abilities are fine. Many of the girls are bombarded by advertisements and start considering plastic surgery operations as young as fifth grade. Some of the statistics given revealed that teens were getting cosmetic surgery on their nose, ears, face, stomach, and breasts.
I really wanted to seek out one of these girls and either have a girl-to-girl talk or just scream at them about their stupidity. I ended the book with my view on TV ads forever changed, as well as a new found sympathy for those girls who feel the need to diet or resort to other extremes in the search for perfection.
A few days later, a man with a clipboard knocked on our door. I opened the door and he announced we have been “selected” to be part of a paid advertising research program; All we have to do is wear a recorder on our hip to record what music, TV, and radio stations are favorites of my family. Yes, I thought this was a big ball of weird, mixed with a dose of strange and wrapped in creepiness paper, too. But it brought me back to Branded, again. Quart argues that marketing to teenagers has dangerous side effects, and it needs to stop now. Initially, I agreed with her, but I realize now that I only partially agree with her.
In my view, Quart is partly right because the advertisements do have an adverse effect on teenagers, but if companies agree to stop selling to teenagers then there would be a great slump in the economy. I believe that advertisement needs to be more realistic in representing life instead of the ideal world it creates. For example, in many shampoo ads they present a “hot” guy sniffing a girl’s hair and being interested in her because her hair smells good. This is just plain ridiculous. In real life if a guy came up and sniffed my hair, I would run away screaming. Although Quart might object that advertisers cannot do this because their first and only priority is selling the product, I maintain that it is possible for the advertising community to market responsibly. A couple of years ago, Dove created an ad where they showed the evolution of a model from wearing no make up, to the preparation required for a photo shoot, to photo-shopping the model’s physical features on the computer to change her looks, then finally showing the finished product on a billboard. This ad was created to display how much change the model undergoes from walking into the photo shoot to the actual billboard. Dove is a true example of a branded company using their advertisements for good and helping change the minds of body conscious teenagers. Even though the Dove company created this public service announcement (PSA), it also succeeded in marketing their general brand. I watched this PSA three years ago in my home, and I still remember it as a Dove commercial. Advertising for teens needs to be more honest and realistic, rather than idealistic.
After reading Branded, I have really become aware of what the advertisers want me to feel about their product. Every time I see a commercial for shampoo, shavers, and other women specific products with a beautiful model, I don’t beat myself down for not looking like them. I understand that advertising companies choose models to best represent their product, not necessarily to represent the average teenage girl in America. I even have internal dialogue in my head when I see these advertisements reminding me: These are not real girls; they only exist in an ideal world.