Fourth Estate: Girl Power

Conventional wisdom held that the film version of the titanic would sink as surely as its namesake. It cost $200 million to make and another $50 million to market. It would require $450 million in global sales just to break even. But as ticket sales gained momentum, a funny thing happened. Teenage girls not only flocked to the film-seeing it two, three, even four times-they rushed out to buy the CD and the licensed T-shirts.
Suddenly, director James Cameron seemed like a visionary for contriving a teen romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. For advertisers and the business community, Titanic was a watershed event, proving that girl power is a force to reckon with.
Scream, another surprise screen hit, enticed teenagers, too. Its budget was $14 million, and the Courteney Cox-Neve Campbell film has grossed $103 million domestically to date. Some dismiss it as a fluke, but coupled with Titanic and such TV teen hits as Dawson’s Creek, Seventh Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the conclusion is clear.
Unlike those rebellious, headline-grabbing, grungy Gen Xers who hated consumerism, this demographic embraces it as passionately as Leonardo kisses Kate. “When we were teenagers, we wore the same pair of frayed jeans and flannel shirt,” observes Tom DeCabria, senior vice president of New York-based Paul Schulman Co., which places ads for The Gap. “This generation is very brand conscious and loves to shop.”
According to Fortune magazine, the baby boomers’ teenagers make nearly 40 percent more trips to the mall than other shoppers, and while only 55 percent of Americans aged 21 to 62 like shopping, 88 percent of girls between 13 and 17 are running to the malls in record numbers. Garbed in Steve Madden shoes and a Delia catalog-inspired wardrobe, these Hard Candy, toenail-tapping teens are spending an estimated $85 billion a year.
This generation, much like their baby-boomer parents, expects to be catered to. How else can you explain Time for Kids, Nickelodeon and Sports Illustrated for Kids? Teens are so brand-friendly that many have wallpapered their bedrooms with milk-mustached celebrity ads. Oh, and let’s not forget the other advantage of advertising to the teen market. Impressionable, with an ingrained pack mentality, they don’t want to champion individualism. Teens slavishly follow any trend deemed hip.
Yet as Steve Sternberg, a senior partner at BJK&E Media, notes, most teens have been swept unfairly into demographic bins with other groups. “It’s often the 12-34 demo,” he says. “Isn’t it time they have their own demographic and their own research?” he asks.
Still, advertisers know where to find them. Nickelodeon no longer has a vicelike hold on the teen market. “WB has found a young adult audience with Seventh Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now Dawson’s Creek, NBC safeguards its morning teen lineup with Saved by the Bell and Fox protects Sunday nights with The Simpsons and King of the Hill, says Sternberg.
Shows such as NBC’s Friends, which attracts the beloved 18-49 demographic, has become a Must-See TV event for teens, especially girls. It’s even spawned teen trends-from midriff-baring shirts and Y necklaces to the much-copied Jennifer Aniston haircut.
This year, the number of shows aimed at teens is expected to swell-in record numbers. UPN has already announced it has acquired the rights to writer Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High, which will complement its highly rated Moesha, starring the label-loving singer Brandy. In the same way Fox distinguished itself from the Big Three networks by focusing on young people, WB and UPN are focusing on teens.
There’s an additional incentive for programmers, besides economics. The Federal Communications Commission requires stations to air three hours of programming aimed at kids. Since programmers successfully argued that The Flintstones was educational, WB may claim steamy Dawson’s Creek is teaching sex education!
An added bonus for producers and advertisers of teen shows is the cross-gender appeal. Sabrina nabs more than 1.3 million girls each week and 920,000 boys. NBC’s high-school sitcom Saved by the Bell attracts an average of 770,000 teenagers, Moesha gets 900,000 viewers a week, while Friends draws 1.8 million.
“For a long time this market was the bottom of desirability,” says David Bianculli, the TV critic for The New York Daily News. “But kids are now the heaviest-watching viewers. Starting at age 12, they turn into loyal fans. Look at Melissa Joan Hart. She was watched on Nickelodeon’s Clarissa. When she launched Sabrina on ABC, her fans followed. It’s the only big hit that came from ABC’s Friday night lineup for teens. Once you hook them, they’re hooked.”
Advertisers are taking his words to heart. Bianculli points out that car advertisers have long targeted young teen boys with success. “Corvette Stingray starts getting this audience early by developing the image of being the cool car. By the time they are 17, guess what car is ingrained in their heads when they can afford it? The strategy is very effective.”
That same strategy is now being applied to girls. They are dream candidates for food, apparel and computer items. Delia’s catalog and Steve Madden shoes advertise in teen magazines-such as recent arrival Teen People-as well as on television. DeCabria is blanketing Gap ads on all teen shows. Sternberg is doing the same for Pepsi. Gwen Lipsy, senior vice president for research and planning at MTV, says that since many Internet surfers are teens, they are the hot market for computer-related products.
Ah, but there is a cloud hanging over these sunny skies. “They have to believe they’re finding what they like for themselves,” says Karen Ellis, vice president of media planing for The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. “Strategically, you must link your product with people associated with what they like.”
For Pulsar watches, Ellis first started advertising in Heckler, a magazine for skateboarders, in order to build product demand. “This is especially effective if you don’t have a large TV budget to blanket programs,” she says. “It’s image-building and works over time. It takes work to discover what trend will be on their radar.”
In short, teens are just as discriminating about TV programs as they are about their mini-T’s and baggy bells. If the show’s not good, they won’t watch. CBS’ Meego was a clunker and, like ABC’s Teen Angel, was bounced from the schedule.
By the year 2010, there will be more teenagers than baby boomers. It’s a pop culture dƒjˆ vu. Elvis and The Beatles knew the importance of teen girls. So did Frank Sinatra. Some 30,000 bobby-soxers rioted outside the Paramount Theater in New York City when they couldn’t get tickets to his show.
Today, the teenagers of baby boomers are every bit as materialistic as their demanding parents. And they’re determined to be the center of everyone’s universe-including advertisers.