Because marketing is so pervasive and powerful in today’s culture, youthworkers need to be aware of the many advertising strategies marketers employ in an effort to influence children and teens’ spending decisions. Of course, the main goal of marketing is to sell product. But marketing is actually even more effective at shaping the worldviews, beliefs, and behaviors of our kids. By knowing how advertising works and the beliefs/behaviors that marketing sells, we are better equipped to help kids understand marketing and how they are manipulated and influenced. Then, we can equip them to think Christianly about marketing in a manner that allows them to resist messages that steer them away from God’s will and way for their lives. I believe that one of the most important steps we can take in leading our kids to a deep and life-shaping faith is to train them in skills that will put them on the road to being discipled and shaped by Christ and His Word, rather than being discipled and shaped by advertising and its “word.”
Every advertisement we see is carefully calculated regarding message, method, and placement. There is nothing haphazard. Rather, everything is deliberate. Behind every minute or page of advertising lie hundreds of hours of market research and strategizing. One very effective strategy that marketers employ to reach, influence, and shape children and teens is called “age aspiration.”
Adolescence is the bridge between childhood and adulthood and our kids want to get there fast. Marketers are well aware of the fact that children and teens want to feel, look, be perceived, and be treated as older than they really are. As a result, market research has been done to discover what ages different-aged children and teens aspire to be. Market researcher Peter Zollo says that “the gap between how old teens are and how old they would like to be narrows steadily as they age.” Research shows that 12 and 13-year-olds aspire to be is 17, 14 and 15-year-olds aspire to be 18, 16-year-olds aspire to be 19, and 17 to 19-year-olds aspire to be 20. Marketers consider age aspiration as they create ads which reach the targeted age by catering to the aspired age. In effect, marketers exploit a young person’s desire to grow up, thereby thrusting things that are increasingly seen as acceptable adult-like beliefs and behaviors (whether those beliefs and behaviors are seen as right or wrong) onto kids at younger and younger ages.
The formula holds true for children under twelve as well. Because young children look up to older children, ads for products targeting younger children will often feature older children using and enjoying the product. Consequently, young children see the product as sophisticated and grown up.
Cigarrette and alcohol companies have employed this strategy for years. By picturing young adults in situations where they are smoking, drinking, and having fun, youthful viewers are led to believe that smoking and drinking are signs of being grown-up. Marketing critic Susan Linn says that “many of the models I’ve seen in beer commercials look young enough to be under twenty-one. The themes or stories portrayed in some alcohol commercials seem more relevant to underage drinkers than anyone else.”
Magazines, particularly those targeting teenaged girls, employ the strategy as well. Seventeen magazine might be read by a few 17-year-olds, but you can be sure that younger teens are drawn to the magazine because of age aspiration. The magazine’s editors and advertisers are fully aware of this fact and are actually targeting an audience of middle-school aged girls. Seventeen-year-olds are typically drawn to magazines like Cosmopolitan that target young women.
What does the reality and presence and age aspiration mean for youth workers?
First, we need to recognize and follow the particular ways that marketers employ the strategy. I’ve often said that marketers know more about youth culture than any other group. They not only study youth culture as a part of their market research, they actually create and shape youth culture as a strategy to sell product and make money. Consequently, we should first find out where our kids are spending their media time so that we can take a “field trip” into their media in order to examine the marketing messages placed in that media. Then, while there, we should carefully work to discern what beliefs and behaviors these ads are selling.
Second, we should share our findings with parents. Since parents are the ones called by God to be primarily responsible for the spiritual nurture of their children, we must pass on to them what we discover so that they are then able to bring the corrective light of the Gospel to bear on the beliefs and behaviors propagated by marketing. In effect, we are helping parents teach their children the truth, while exposing the lies.
Finally, we need to take active steps to bring marketing’s messages into our teaching. When you discover an ad that promotes worldview elements contrary to the Gospel, watch/look at the ad with your students. Think with them about the ad, helping them to see how the ad skews God’s order and design. Help them to see that to grow up in Christ we must aspire to be Christ-like. True maturity is a target that looks very different than the “grown-up” image that marketing sells. (To go a step further, teach students to filter ads through our “Simple Seven Ad Filtering Questions”).
Because of where they’re at developmentally, all kids aspire to move quickly from the childhood of their past into an adulthood that is, for them, something they want to experience in the now father than in the future. As youth workers, we are uniquely positioned to steer them away from aspirations that will only lead to emptiness, while leading them to aspire to the completeness in Christ for which they’ve been made.