Maybe it's the bright red and blue circles dotting the hardwood floor or the blue-jeaned 30-something exec greeting me at the door, but I feel like I've stepped into a modern-day version of the 80s film Big. But this Richmond Street big-kids' loft is actually the office of one of a growing crop of agencies honing a controversial post-TV teen marketing strategy. Earlier this summer, a slew of these companies convened in Toronto at U. of T. to plot ways to get into the pockets of the most media-saturated generation in history - a generation that has been referred to in marketing circles as the "unreachables."
Savvy Gen-Y teens - the original Gap babies, raised from the cradle on a steady diet of TV and Game Boys - have now tuned out TV spots and billboards en masse. And with $19 billion to burn in their collective wallets, getting to them is a major big brand challenge.
Enter buzz marketing, a selling technique abhorred by consumer advocates for its tendency to invade teen psyches and friendships and strip mine their culture.
The premise of one important strand of buzz, called trend-seeding, is simple: give one product away to the coolest kid around, and hope her less cool classmates, friends and foes feel pressured to run out and buy one of their own.
"You're hitching your wagon behind the fact that these people are leaders of their generation. If people look up to them and see them interacting with your product or brand, then they might have the same idea about it," says Max Lenderman, VP of Gearwerx, a Montreal-based youth marketing agency. When a "hip peer" is seen talking about or using your product, explains a Gearwerx document, it effectively overrides that "inherent youthful mistrust" of marketing schemes.
That hip peer, or "key influencer" in marketer-speak, might be a student prez, high school basketball star, techno whiz or budding fashionista. In the case of Hasbro's product launch for its electronic game Pox, the key influencers of choice were the coolest fourth and fifth grade tweens recruited from the Chicago burbs. As long as they're the envy of their peers and have wide social networks, they're being discreetly hunted down.
That's where recruiters step in, often young pseudo-hipsters with an eye for edge. They prowl the streets and schools to find the kings and queens of whatever scenes they may rule. Just last summer, Procter & Gamble recruited 200,000 "exclusive" teens in the U.S. to get sneak peeks at products, hoping chatty boys and girls would tell their friends how cool Cover Girl, Pringles and Old Spice products really are.
And while many major brands have used cool-hunters to "discover" the next big thing, a lot of younger marketing agencies are finding it more efficient to tap into the teen web through teens themselves.
"I still feel awkward walking up to people and saying, 'You look like you're sort of (cool),'" says 30-year-old Max Valiquette, president of Youthography, a Toronto-based youth marketing agency. "We've got all these kids we've worked with before. We'll ask them, 'Do you know someone who is interested in blank area? We want to talk to them, and we'll pay you for referring them. '"
But even without being sought out, more and more teens are offering themselves up as consultants, filling out weekly product surveys, lining up to be "ideators" or advisers for their favourite or not-so-favourite brands. Despite a deep disdain for bad ads, Gen Ys seem eager to offer their natural marketing know-how.
Nicole Fawcett was hired by Youthography at 19 to sit on a youth advisory panel for Bell's Solo brand cellphones. Fawcett says she liked being an insider and sharing her opinions with Bell execs. "They wanted to know all about what youth did, like what we read to what we watch on TV. It was really neat to be in that position, where everybody wants to know about you."
It's that sense of importance that marketers carefully cultivate, says Alissa Quart, author of Branded: The Buying And Selling Of Teenagers. "In a loose sense it's true. It's the only form of public speech that's elicited from kids." ***
As more and more teens turn off their TVs (between 1996 and 2000 TV watching dropped by three hours a week among 12-to-17-year-olds) and get online, some marketers have been lurking in chat rooms behind fake user names or hiring Web community in-siders to plug a product in casual dialogue. "The problem is, most chat room communities know their members," says Lenderman. "So the real good chat-room intervention people spend days just ingratiating themselves." It doesn't work for every product, he says, but his firm has logged onto weight-conscious Web sites to discreetly chat up all-natural diet pills.
But whether methods are covert or not, Quart argues that there's still something deceitful about a process that commodifies otherwise normal everyday relationships. "Adults interceding in minors' relationships, I think that's sort of dark. Anything that turns relationships into unwitting business ventures is a problem, whether people are underage or not. But if they're underage it's even worse."
Cathy Wing, Ottawa-based Internet and media education specialist with the non-profit Media Awareness Network, worries about the impact these selling strategies have on kids. "Teens are very insecure and vulnerable to these kinds of messages," says Wing.
Precisely, says Lenderman. "It totally leverages peer pressure. I think that's why (buzz) works so much for the youth demographic, because we may forget, but a lot of our decisions back in those days were strictly peer pressure, from trying to fit in. Without peer pressure there would be no buzz (marketing).'
And if you don't buy into it, says Debbie Gordon, a former marketer turned media literacy trainer, you're taking a huge risk. "Kids become very aware of brand hierarchies," says Gordon, who now spends her time helping kids decode the notions of cool crafted by the ad world. "By middle school they're all buying into it, because you're socially ostracized if you don't."
But Gen Y teens themselves don't always see it that way. They're happy to get freebies, voice their opinions and have a say in shaping the ubiquitous ad world that surrounds them. Some aren't aware, though, that their favourite online girly mag sites like Verve. com or funky quiz sites like E-Mode were created by marketers to make detailed note of the likes and dislikes of teens and tweens.
"The down side is that (marketers) are collecting intellectual property," says Quart, "and the kids don't really know what it is that's being solicited from them."