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Saturday, November 20, 2004 - Page updated at 05:57 P.M.
Teen recruits create word-of-mouth "buzz" to hook peers on products
By Stephanie Dunnewind
Parents wondering where their teen's holiday wish list is coming from shouldn't just turn to their TV sets. Instead, look to their friends and recommendations popping up in instant and text messages, e-mail, chat rooms and blogs.
Parents and many teens probably don't realize all these types of advertising might originate with corporations. Rather than wait for cool teens to pick the next "hot" T-shirt (or shoes or new musician or even deodorant) companies are increasingly targeting gregarious teens as underground spokespeople, paid in free products, discounts and cutting-edge cachet.
"Conventional media TV and print are not good enough on their own to reach this [teen] audience," said Peter Boyd, vice president of promotions for Virgin Mobile, a pay-as-you-go cellphone service catering to the youth market. "Word of mouth as a marketing tool is absolutely essential for Virgin Mobile.
"This generation, more so than previous ones, gets lots and lots of their brand preferences through peers. ... We need our customers to be our marketers."
Real-life product placement (that is, getting a popular teen or kid to use or wear a certain product, so others will follow) and buzz marketing campaigns (also known as "viral" marketing or "roach-baiting" for their attempts to spread information peer-to-peer) are becoming standard advertising techniques, especially to teens and even elementary-school children.
Word of mouth has always been a popular way to share consumer opinion, but critics contend some companies are blurring the line between true buzz and what's really a paid advertisement (even if the "pay" is free stuff).
In other words, is it right for kids to market to friends if it's not clear there's a payoff for their recommendation?
And should companies be encouraging and exploiting it?
Viral marketing "violates the basic principle that a person should know when they're being advertised to," said Juliet Schor, author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture" (Scribner, 2004).
Kids aren't required to disclose that "I get free stuff if I say this." And that's the point: "It's more effective if people don't know they're a target of a viral marketing effort," Schor noted. "Advertisers prefer that. The premise is that it's natural buzz, not orchestrated by the company. That's the basic deception at the heart of it."
Companies recruit popular teens dubbed "connectors," "thought leaders" or "influencers" through the Internet, either through their own sites (such as Procter & Gamble's Tremor.com, which boasts 200,000 "of the most influential teens in the U.S.") or by monitoring teen-heavy sites for visitors who post attention-getting messages.
"The thing about stealth advertising is it's invading the very fabric of children's lives," said Susan Linn, author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood" (The New Press, 2004). "It's hard to understand if you can really trust your friends if your friends are here to sell you something."
Agrees Schor: "It's teaching kids that their friends are economic assets to exploit."
For corporations, there's a lot of cash at stake. In 2003, teens spent $115 billion of their own money and $60 billion from their parents, according to Teenage Research Unlimited.
"As kids' environment is more saturated with ads, companies are looking for more powerful ways to reach them," said Schor. "One kid saying something is cool is more powerful than an advertiser saying it."
Since the advertiser isn't the mouthpiece, the message penetrates barriers set up to protect kids and consumers, including the requirement for clear identification of broadcast radio and TV ads; anticommercialism rules in schools; and parental knowledge.
An American Psychological Association report on advertising and children this year notes that young children are "uniquely vulnerable" to ads because they don't understand the persuasive intent or the advertiser's motive to exaggerate and embellish.
Even for adults, TV ads must be identified as such because it's "unfair and deceptive for commercials to bypass the cognitive defenses against persuasion," the report concluded.
Savvy yet vulnerable
Companies "downplay the marketing aspect because they know if they come on too strong as a sales thing, kids won't buy in," said psychologist David Walsh, author of "WHY Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen" (Free Press, 2004). "They keep it hip and cool. 'You're the in crowd' is what they play up."
Teens are savvy and cynical on the surface but they're still vulnerable to marketing messages, especially those that play on insecurities, said Marilyn Cohen, director of the Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy at the University of Washington.
"They're convinced they're personally immune to the influences of advertising, yet when they really get talking, they realize what they are doing and the way they think about themselves are a result of marketing."
Marketers bypass ethical issues by saying they don't control what kids actually say to friends.
The Girl's Intelligence Agency, which provides boxes of promotional materials to organized slumber parties, promises that its girl agents are "dedicated to spreading the word on GIA-endorsed projects."
However, "we've also had clients suffer," said president Laura Groppe. "Word of mouth is word of mouth. It is its own power. We can say, 'Here is this movie, check it out,' but if they go and don't like it, believe me, they're text messaging their friends when they walk out of the theater and it can kill a movie.
"We have absolutely no control over who she tells or what she tells them. It's up to them if something has legs or not."
Likewise, "companies really have to stand for something teens care about," Boyd said. "Teens can spot fake from a mile away. Then word of mouth acts to the company's detriment."
If teens "find out later that someone recommended a product because they were getting paid, we'd think less not just of the product but the whole company," warned Jake Ferrigno, 18, an advanced marketing student at Lake Washington High School. "And maybe less of the person too. It's not good business ethics. It undermines the relationship between people."
To up their chances for positive chatter, marketers try to make teens feel special and personally attached to a product.
At the Girls Intelligence Agency, members get free stuff by earning points for completing surveys and referring friends. "Winning a chance to be a GIA slumber party host is a very exclusive experience," the site notes.
Groppe says moms and daughters "get totally into it," decorating bedrooms and creating snacks to fit the theme. "They take what we give them and put it on steroids," she said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm and deciding which friends make the cut. It's a pretty great party. Seeing a product before it launches is pretty special."
The promotional movie or TV trailers are exclusive cuts, often with a greeting from the leading actress. The Web site explains that "GIAheadquarters.com maintains a 'big sis' relationship" with agents, who "look to GIA for support and guidance as well as insights into the 'next big thing' for their demo."
The agency shares the girls' feedback with clients, which use it to "improve their communication with girls" (read: sell them more stuff). The Web site tells girls they're "ruthless spies saving the world from making more lame stuff for girls. You talk, IM, e-mail ... we listen and decode and translate ... to help companies go from LAME to SWEET."
Teen girls share their positive brand experiences with an average seven people and negative experiences with about nine people, according to a Harris Interactive poll of more than 2,000 young women age 13 to 29 in June.
Teens aren't going to talk (or e-mail or IM or text message) about payment features so Virgin Mobile provides them with "tangible benefits so they have something to talk about on the playground," Boyd said.
For example: the ability to vote on MTV movie awards directly from the phone or a text message inviting teens to show their phones at a concert to get into a VIP viewing area. "The phone becomes an ultra-cool badge to wear with pride," he said.
If viral campaigns seem far-fetched to some parents, local teens say they already participate in peer-to-peer efforts for local companies.
At Lake Washington High School, girls get free tanning sessions for recruiting their friends, and guys don formalwear for school to get $10 off their homecoming tuxedoes for funneling friends to a local shop. Young coffee-chain employees hand out free coupon books to friends at church.
"If it's not bothering anyone, it's OK, because we like to get free stuff," said Sarah Chan, 17, a student in Ron Cooper's marketing class at Lake Washington.
For Justin Pratt, 17, it was a win-win situation to steer friends to a tux shop, where he got a discount for each one who mentioned his name. He didn't tell them he'd get credit but "I'm sure they figured it out," he said. "If they needed a place to go, I just helped them out."
Madeline Stewart, 16, "didn't really get it" the first time a girl gave her a card for a tanning salon, but now she's keen to spread the word. At a recent visit, she picked up a stack of cards to pass out to friends. She recruited four girls and received three free tanning sessions for each. As she says, "We tell each other where to go anyway."
Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091 or email@example.com
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