Posting from Hamburg

Hey all. I’m posting from Hamburg, with jetlag and a German keyboard layout. Pardon the mess.

Just delivered a talk to around 500 people – mostly marketers. I was supposed to talk about youth culture. I told them to stop thinking about youth culture so much and to grow up. The problem is that adults – and particularly adults in the marketing industry – are obsessed with creating brands that ‘reflect’ teens’ ‘values’ back at them. They do focus groups and other reductive research, then spit back pictures of teens – fantasies of teens – without actually contriubting anything to the process. (Other than reducing teens to an unthinking demographic.) The weird thing is that these adults then get hypnotized by their own fantasy creations. They all want to walk into the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue universe they’ve created. They are so obsessed with youth that they leave nothing for young peole to aspire to. Like the still-sick dad in American Beauty, lusting after his daughter’s classmate. Yech!

I tried to expalin to them that adults role is not to be cool, but, in a sense, to be uncool. Kids are the ones who need to create that sense of difference and distance from the culture in which they are growing up. And adults, rather than aspiring to be teenagers, should be enjoying the freedom and automony of life as an adult!

Instead, they create brands and brand icons based on the research they did with kids – and they justify the results with the idea that these brands and icons are simply ‘reflections’ of youth culture. ‘We give the kids what they want.’ That’s incorrect and even disingenuous. First, they don’t simply reflect. They reflect back only the aspects of kids’ aspirations that they can sell back to them. So it’s not an accurate reflection at all.

True enough, kids will use this iconography with great intelligence – combining and contrasting the brands they wear and own in order to communicate something about who they are. For a twelve year old, the difference between owning Nike and Simple really does mean something – I can accept this. I even marvel at how kids will use whatever ‘alphabet’ that is at their disposal to communicate who they are.

But this alphabet of brand iconography is devoid of real content. I’d actually prefer for the adults to stop worrying so much about ‘what kids want’ and instead take a moment to think about what they really want to share with kids. Initiate a real communication between one generation and another. Invest their brands and products and media with values they mean to share. That’s what stories were created for in the first place: to transmit values across generations. Now, most stories serve the ‘bottom line’ and little else.

There was a teacher at the talk who wanted to know how to ‘brand’ education to appeal to kids. That upset me a bit. The value of education should be inherent. We shouldn’t brand it, as if it had some temporary value. It’s like branding Love or Sex.(oops, I guess people do brand the most basic human values).

In any case, it was an interesting talk and conversation. And I think some of those marketers will realize just how foolish, cruel, and short-sighted there strategy is. And how much more fun it would be to share who they are with young people, rather than simply chasing a teen fantasy along with them.

As far as marketing and designing brands and objects for young people (beyond the stuff teens now make for themselves through tools like those of casio, tascam, and blogger) the adults and their designers should use all the wisdom and knoweldge they’ve developed during their lives to share the best they have to offer. Amazingly, a thirty-something clothing designer might have some ideas about style that can’t be gleaned by ‘spying’ on teenagers and taking polaroid pictures of them. Adults can have good ideas, too.

What makes adults like the people I spoke with feel dirty is not their adulthood. It’s their sick obsession with trying to get inside kids.