From Review, Irish Independent, last Saturday, Aug 15...
SOME of the world’s most influential people took to one stage last weekend.
The event generated acres of newsprint, 53 million references on the internet, was watched by nearly 4 million people and represents an industry worth at least e75 billion.
This wasn’t a convention of oil-producing countries, nor was it a meeting of the leaders of the free world. It was the Teen Choice Awards 2009 and it was, like, totally awesome.
A few of the presenters and performers at the LA show would be familiar to people of all age groups – Britney Spears, for example, who received a special award for her contribution to entertainment.
But unless you have a 12-year-old girl in your household it is possible that the juggernaut of Robert Pattison’s fame has passed you by. Or that of Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, David Archuleta, Chace Crawford, Leighton Meester and Kristen Stewart. Yet to the tween and teen market, these are A-list idols in music, movies and TV.
The Teen Choice Awards are a public recognition of what any marketing exec already knows: teenagers and their taste in clothes, gadgets, food and entertainment is very big business. Teenagers and their likes and dislikes didn’t exist 100 years ago when the end of childhood was signalled by the moment a young person was capable of earning their keep.
But by 1959, Life magazine was soberly identifying the emergence of the New Teen-age Market. American teenage girls were spending $20m on lipstick and both sexes were “gobbling” 145 million gallons of ice-cream a year. Elvis Presley, Life noted, was their “musical idol”, selling 25 million singles in four years.
Fast forward 50 years and Miley Cyrus, whose alter-ego Hannah Montana is the darling of Disney’s kiddie TV, is flogging millions of records and has written an autobiography at the age of 16. When she charged e85 a ticket for her upcoming gigs in the O2 venue in Dublin, they sold out in minutes.
Cyrus therefore caused a bit of an uproar therefore when she slipped out of her sweet persona to perform a pole dance during her performance at the Teen Choice Awards last Sunday night. Fox television, who was broadcasting the show, cut away so that viewers (or more like, their parents) would not be offended.
She was probably well aware of the implications of her raunchy moves, which reflect the steps away she has taken in her singing career from the cutesie child star vehicle of Hannah Montana. We saw this before with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera marking their maturity by kissing Madonna on stage at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards.
Teen idols are meant to appeal to their target audience’s burgeoning sexuality – but remain unthreatening and almost attainable. This is why boyband and girlband members have traditionally been coy about their private romances. Teens, the wisdom goes, like to think that they might one day marry their crush. (Well Katie Holmes did it with Tom Cruise, right?)
The problem with being a teen idol is that your fanbase tends to grow out of your music or your films, or you grow out of your baby-faced good looks. For every Elvis and Frank Sinatra, there is a David Cassidy or Hanson whose star waned as their audience grew up and away from them. That’s why marketing to teens has become so aggressive – their obsessive devotion is shortlived, be it to High School Musical or Hello Kitty merchandise.
What’s hot and what’s not has been hugely influenced by teen TV. Where there were once a handful of TV programmes aimed at teens – from American Bandstand to Top of The Pops – now there are entire channels and networks. Cyrus built global fame on her TV show, as did cast members of The OC and Gossip Girl.
MTV’s biggest hit of recent years, the quasi-reality show The Hills, has made a bunch of rich Beverley Hills teenagers cultural icons. In the show, they don’t sing, they don’t make dance, they just pout their way through minor dating crises. Yet when Lauren Conrad, one of the show’s stars, sported black Chanel nail polish in one episode, the product instantly sold out worldwide.
That’s the kind of selling power every big brand would love to harness, if only they knew how. The teen sector is notorious for being a ‘stubborn’ one. Things get old real quick. This generation has grown up with 24-hour television and internet access and are a lot more savvy about being given the hard sell.
So marketers have to be seen to be authentic. Red Bull energy drinks for example became a phenomenon among teens thanks to a clever marketing campaign that initially limited supply of the product to make it seem more exclusive and used cryptic, fun ads like ‘Red Bull gives you wings!’
In some ways, far from being exploited, teens are dictating the market. The huge sales of Stephanie Meyer’s teenage vampire books were unforeseen – but it prompted film bosses to quickly snap up their film incarnation, the Twilight movie, which took 11 of the Teen Choice awards last weekend.
It is so difficult for a 40-year-old marketing exec to get into the fickle mind of a 16-year-old that teenagers find themselves being solicited for feedback. Online sites pay cash for teens to fill out their surveys; teen trendspotters keep major companies informed about what’s popular with kids on the streets. When 15-year-old intern Matthew Robson wrote a report for investment bank Morgan Stanley last month that argued social networking website Twitter was “not for teens”, it made the front page of the Financial Times.
Robson outlined the crux in the battle to understand what teens want: no-one knows better than teens themselves. They are the only generation to fully communicate through the internet, which is why the most popular websites were founded for the most part by kids barely in their 20s. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in his college dorm at the age of 20 and became the world’s youngest billionaire. Teens don’t buy CDs anymore, they download tunes – so every band in the world has samples of their music on MySpace.
Apple, a coveted teen brand, has set up ‘Genius Bars’ in cities across the State and beyond where kids can exchange tips and info on the latest tecchie sensations. Geeks are chic – as with most teen trends, it’s just one more thing we adults didn’t see coming.
So-called ‘coolhunters’ are employed by marketers to give them the heads-up on the next big thing in youth culture. This is a selection of the latest trends as identified by pioneering coolhunting firms such as Youth Intelligence, Label Networks and Look-Look…
DJ HERO: Just as the guitar simulator Guitar Hero became the biggest gaming sensation in years, this Christmas, teens will be adding DJ Hero to their wishlist. The simulated record turntable is not for sale until the end of autumn but gaming bosses know it’s going to be big – there is already another competitor making its way to the market called Scratch: The Ultimate DJ.
PRE-PAID CREDIT CARDS: Pre-paid cards have existed for some time but financial institutions are cottoning onto the fact that teens are major online shoppers. Parents will be targeted to sign up for cards that they can preload with pocket money, rather than be pestered for the use of their own.
SUMMER START-UPS: With the casual summer jobs market drying up, teens are turning to entrepreneurship. Start-up business courses in the US reported a 30 per cent increase in enquiries from under-18s this summer, which suggests a flash of bedroom-based businesses is on the way. Expect to be offered web services from internet-savvy teens, or products based on hobbies – cupcake-baking; jewellery-making; musical prodigies for hire.
DECLINE IN TV WATCHING: Trend-obsessed youths in Japan are worth watching for their trickle-down influence. The time Japanese teens spend watching TV declined by one hour per day in 2007, but their viewing of MTV shows and streaming of programmes onto their PCs increased – a similar situation is now developing in the west.
GIRLS IN EXTREME SPORTS: Forget tennis babe Maria Sharapova – female teen interest in adrenaline-pumped minority sports is on the rise. Surfing brands like Quiksilver and Roxy are on top, as are those linked to women’s motorcross, like Rockstar Energy drinks. Iconic skateboarder Tony Hawk’s foundation says that young women are the future of that sport.
I WAS A TEEN IDOL
Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron didn’t invent the phenomenon of the teen idol. Rudolph Valentino kicked it off with his heart-throb film roles in the early 20th century and each subsequent generation has had its own crushes…..
FRANK SINATRA: Sinatra was idolised by the “bobbysoxers” of the 1940s. While his career stalled in the early ’50s, he reignited it to appeal to an older fanbase as a member of the Rat Pack and actor.
ELVIS PRESLEY: Elvis was famously filmed from the waist up only on his performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956 to protect impressionable female viewers from his hip gyrations. On the flipside, Presley was so hated by jealous boys that his car was firebombed by a teen gang during a concert in Texas.
JAMES DEAN: Like Holden Caulfield, the teen narrator of cult novel Catcher in The Rye, James Dean remains a powerful icon for teenage outsiders. His portrayal of the misunderstood Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) was a watershed portrayal of the generation gap.
FRANKIE AVALON: Singer and star of beach-based movie comedies of the 1960s, Avalon was one of the first idols whose image was tailored to appeal to the teen market, first on 1950s show American Bandstand and later with simple pop songs like Venus and Why.
THE BEATLES: Before the Fab Four grew out their mop tops, Beatlemania gripped the screaming masses in the early ’60s. Elvis Presley (maybe a bit put out by their success) asked President Nixon in 1966 to ban them from entering the States. Ironically, John Lennon said that his most formative musical influence was Elvis.
THE BAY CITY ROLLERS: The Rollers dominated the charts in the 1970s with peppy hits like Bye Bye Baby. While not a record label creation, their youthful appeal resembled that of The Monkees, the world’s cleanest-cut rock band from the 1960s TV show.
DAVID CASSIDY: The eldest ‘son’ of singing TV clan The Partridge Family was the bedroom poster boy of the ’70s although he has since said he hated the bubblegum pop he was contracted to sing. A 14-year-old girl died and 650 fans were injured in a hysterical stampede at one of his concerts in London in 1974.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Boybands never really went away - Motown mass marketed Jackson 5 youth-targeted merchandise like colouring books, posters and sew-on clothes badges in the ’70s. NKOTB sparked a new targeted assault on the market in the late ’80s that continued from Take That to Boyzone, through to N’Sync , The Backstreet Boys and Westlife.
BRITNEY SPEARS: Now all grown up, not entirely happily, Britney is nonetheless the big sister of the current crop of female teen idols. She and Christina Aguilera brought their child fans from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Show to their debuts as teen solo acts. The Forbes Rich List 2009 had her earning $35m in one year and she was won the Ultimate Choice Award at last week’s Teen Choice Awards.