Saturday, June 04, 2005
The Disturbing World of Tween Commerce
coming to malls everwhere: 'tween palace outfitters Dry Ice
The emergence of a "'Tween" market is old news, but for some reason it still took us awhile to really investigate how marketers were pitching to this demographic. Sure, we noticed all the new products coming out of manufaturers like Duff Stuff, PB Tween, and the empire known as American Girl. And we've always been interested in the way teen girls are represented in media, so we've perused a few issues of CosmoGirl and TeenVogue. But we've never really delved into this "tween" area of commerce -- the merchandise for 8-12 year old girls. Of course the demographic has always existed, but it wasn't until the late 9os that corporations began a serious campaign to court these consumers and attempt to brand this particular stage of development.
So yesterday the sad billionaire and I made our first trip inside a store called Dry Ice. We've looked in the windows of said store for many moons, but had always been too -- afraid? intimidated? discouraged? -- to enter. The store is an explosion of color and fluff, and every conceivable item the could be covered in faux fur is available within: furry phone? Got it. Furry clock? yes. Furry furniture?: check. They also had fun school supplies like bendy pencils and puppy-shaped erasers, desks and bookshelves in vibrant colors and patterns, imaginative lighting, and all types of colorful knick-knacks. Overall impression: thumbs up!! We're all for young girls personalizing their space. But there's more to this industry than rainbows and glitter and kittens; there's a dark side to all this too.
The 'tween market is undeniably gender-specific. While it seems perfectly reasonable for companies to market women's jewelry, make-up, clothing, and home decor to young girls, the trend seems to be in reverse for boys, with "kid" items (video games, animated cartoons) being marketed to male teens and men.
And while lots of products for tweens have a very positive message (games like Go Goddess!) and are designed to inspire creativity (poetry beads), we can't help but be a little concerned with the way so many of these items reinforce potentially negative notions about gender and sexuality. This is most obvious in attire: as clothing for younger girls becomes more provocative, boys' clothing remains virtually unchanged.
And we are by far most concerned for the youngest members of this market. You'd think memories of Jon Benet would make parents think twice before dropping 100 dollars on a half shirt, mini skirt, and high heels at Libby Lou. After Dry Ice, we visited one of these stores and let me tell you, these places are trully frightening. They are also colorful, but intsead of creativity-inspiring home decor, they're filled with trashtastic "beauty products," plastic tiaras, and outfits that seem to draw their inspiration from magazines like Barely Legal and Britney Spears' "Slave" video. There were also a handful of scantily clad girls prancing around the store when we were there, and we could only guess that the security guard at the front of the establishment was there to keep out potential predators. This could be Little Red Riding Hood come to life -- and the forests are the malls.
But the branding of the "tween experience" isn't going anywhere, and the term "tween" has come to embody its own set of meanings (see article "e-commerce's "tween years").
And though marketing for adults is undoubtedly manipulative, advertising for children in doubly potent. Children, unlike adults, do not have the same abilities to discern the difference between marketing spin and the "facts," and this essentially lays the groundwork for a whole new pedagogy of desire. As parents give their children more and more spending power, they essentially finance their children's training as life-long consumers of junk.
** check out Yahoo's group "Queens of Tween"message boards. We have a hard time believing that many of these messages are actually posted by tweens; it seems more likely that they are written by pernicious marketers hoping to drum up business for their latest drivel. I mean, what 12 year old writes posts with titles like, "Jasmine Trias: Hot New Artist!!!"