Toronto Zoo

Sucking in our teenagers

We parents can't avoid it and, you can be sure, we're not half as vulnerable as our kids are to the process. The branding of everything from clothes to coffee to beer pervades just about every minute of our lives these days. If you're even remotely worried about how the world of marketing and branding is affecting your children, you will find Alissa Quart's book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers a fascinating read.
Some of the stats Quart provides in the book are simply frightening.
“One hundred per cent of tweens watch TV, 87 per cent listen to the radio, 85 per cent play video games. The median age for a first purchase is eight-years old. The average 10-year-old has memorized from 300 to 400 brands. Ninety-two per cent of kids request brand specific products … It's adidas or bust for the under-fourteens, accompanying an increase of 17 per cent in brand awareness of sneakers among that age group between 1998 and 2001,” she quotes at one point.
That means our children are suckers for the marketing folks. The kids respond in kind and  pester us parents for the all the latest stuff that will make them one of the cool kids. “Everyone at school has a cel phone,” I hear on a daily basis. “Everyone at school has an Ipod,” comes nearly as often.
Having “stuff” is one thing, but Quart points to some much more dangerous trends all this branding creates. This desperation to look just like some of the Hollywood stars our kids see on television has created a boom in teenage cosmetic surgery. Almost 600 per cent more breast augmentations and liposuction treatments were done teenagers in 2000 compared to 1992. While Quart's statistics are all from the US, I fear that the trend hasn't missed us here in Canada. The bottom line is that what was rare when we were growing up has become more commonplace now.
Boys have become equally obsessed with appearance. The multi-million dollar supplement industry is making a killing on teenagers who are desperate to bulk up and look just like the guys they see in ads. Numbers in the US in 2001 showed that one in five teenagers were using supplements and four per cent had used steroids – those statistics have definitely risen since then both in the US and Canada.
Quart's well-researched book is full of interesting interviews and statistics that will open your eyes to the branding process that our children are subjected to. She covers a lot in the book, including a very interesting section on teen consultants, a scary look at teenage girls who embrace anorexia and bulemia, the “Unbranded” kids who are desperately trying to fight the whole process and much more. Once you've read this, you'll even rethink which university you've been pushing your child to attend.

• Quart, Alissa, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, Basic Books, New York, 2004