The teen market refers to a representative group of the population made up of girls and boys aged 14 to 18 years. Tradition has it that the teenager was born of the 1950s rockers and beatniks. However, increasingly America began referring to adolescent youth aged 14 to 18 as teenagers. From its inception, the term teenager has been a marketing buzzword embraced by advertisers and manufacturers to reflect a group of newly economically viable adolescents.
The concept of teenagers can be traced back to the late 19th century. The difference between adulthood and childhood was made notable during the 1890s with the rise in legislation surrounding youth, such as the Illinois Juvenile Court Act and other government policies designed to contain delinquent youth. The idea was that those now defined as teenagers were more mature than children, but not as mature as adults.
The 1910s saw a growth in cross-media promotion of movie stars and musicians. Those same celebrities were found to influence the styles of the time. Commercial media has represented and influenced the lives of American women since the late 1870s, when the housewife was found to be the model consumer. Young women, or teenagers, were found to be brand loyal and influenced by advertisements and peers. Advertisers and manufacturers were finding new ways to influence the purchase of goods, not just in the short term, but in creating a lifelong symbiotic relationship between the teen and the brand.
Hollywood movies and popular music profoundly shaped the American beauty industry. Hollywood producers offered young women exactly what they wanted. The visuals exposed were premarital sexual encounters, drinking, and a handful of other nontraditional female activities such as nude swimming.
Movie and musical stars influenced purchasing decisions. For example, studies showed that high school and college students attended the movies at least once per week. Therefore, media consumption was highest among teenagers who were free from the full-time workforce and of social and economic responsibilities.
Post–World War I
World War I saw the shipment of young men overseas to the front lines. Young girls were no longer enthralled by the idea of finding a husband and making a life for themselves within the home. Young women entered the workforce to help with the war effort. After World War I, life changed considerably—women had entered the workforce and a new democratic American family was being built. Teenagers started to venture out into the world chaperon-free. As a result of this freedom, teens developed social networks, peer groups, and their own flavor of popular culture different from younger siblings and adults. It was during the post–World War I years that music, movies, and advertising campaigns were directed at youth groups.
By the 1920s, a separate youth culture had emerged with its own fashion, language, and behavior. Youth was extended through government policies and the acceptance into college. Attending high school became the rule rather than the exception. With more time spent outside the home with like-minded peers, female youth were positioned as a special group in society and, as such, were entitled to their own forms of media and activities. The Roaring Twenties produced the first teenage fashion styles pronounced through music and movies: the flapper, a gal about town known for her bobbed hair, short skirts, makeup, and svelte look. The 1920s flapper trend became associated with the selling of soft drinks (mainly Coca-Cola), perfumes, movies, music, and dancing. It was also associated with a particular nonchalant behavior and an uninhibited sexuality. By 1923, female teen styles were being observed, recreated, and displayed in media forms—movies, magazines, radio, advertising, and the music industry. Teens received money from part-time jobs and indulgent parents to support their new teen consumerism (and materialism), and were different from the rest of the adult or child population. They were able to drape themselves in trendy clothing and enjoy extravagant social activities.
The Great Depression brought the idea of a teenage lifestyle to a halt. With the focus on financial crisis, teenagers found themselves without income from part-time jobs or parents. Government policies requiring children to stay in school until the age of 16 helped further a teen culture outside the home. While major changes in the teen lifestyle occurred, the term teenager was itself coined.
World War II And The 1940s
World War II saw a mass exodus of teenage boys to the front lines. Female teens and their mothers were left to pick up the financial burden and enter the workforce yet again. The government policies in place requiring youth to remain in school became relaxed to accommodate their entrance into positions previously held by their older male counterparts. By the 1940s, the teenager had arrived as a new stage in life; teens were still dependent on parents, but were yet a part of a teen market that situated them as special and different.
In September 1944, Seventeen magazine was launched as a publication marketed to the teenage girl. This service magazine was designed to offer the teenage girl a place to find her own style and identity and most importantly to spend her share of the $750 million in teen spending capacity. Teenage girls were virtually an untapped market. Seventeen launched the ad campaign about Teena, a girl with an allowance, a self-conscious personality, a trendsetter and a trend follower. Teena was savvy. Teena was the average girl who needed to be catered to through magazine advertisements and informed of where to find the latest teenage girl trends within her budget.
The 1940s also represented a period of character-building novels that advised teenage girls on how to act, how to set and achieve their long-term goals, and how to keep a healthy, open family atmosphere to earn more leisure and dating time. The high school girl was more independent and interested in finding her own way to adulthood. She relied on the teen market as a place of inspiration and of friendship, taking all she could from magazines such as Seventeen.
The teen market of the 1920s and 1930s focused on upper-class young women, while the 1940s expanded the definition of the teen marketplace to be more inclusive. Items designed for the upper class were becoming basic essentials for the 1940s teenage girl. Seventeen, for example, capitalized on white middle-class youth, but by the late 1940s the teen market started shifting to represent working-class teenagers with little intention to follow the character stories and complacent middle-class young women of the early 1940s.
The 1950s continue to represent the quintessential teenage era. The symbols that identify the teen market are the 1950s generation: American Bandstand, poodle skirts, letter sweaters. Rock ’n’ roll dominated record players, radio stations, and concert stages. Elvis Presley’s hip thrusts sent female teens into a frenzied state of buying Elvis paraphernalia, including concert tickets and posters. Their teen magazines were focused on pop idols like Elvis and Frank Sinatra, offering pinup posters for their bedrooms. The magazines wrote on how to get a boyfriend like Elvis, the characteristics that Elvis sought from his girlfriends and alongside these pages on Elvis’s life were the products that could assist girls in meeting Elvis’s expectations.
In addition, television became dominant in the family home. With teen programs such as American Bandstand and The Mickey Mouse Club dominating the set, advertisers consistently aimed products to the teenage girl. Bobby-soxers, as they were often called, often associated the new teen market with white, middleclass ideals, but the new rock ’n’ roll music also broadened the definition of the teen market to include advertising to both black and white working-class teens.
1960s to Today
Not much has changed in the teen market since the 1960s—white, middle-class youth still dominate the teen market. The magazines have become more focused on beauty and advertising and on the possibility of finding a heterosexual partner through the purchase of the right products. Teenagers today are younger than ever. Their entrance into a teen society has been dropped to the age of 9. This new generation of youth aged 8 to 12 makes up a new marketing segment called tweens. Research has found that the money afforded to teenage and tween girls is spent on the beauty industry—cosmetics, hair dye, fashion, perfumes and fragrances, skin care, and hygiene products. The majority of the pages of teen magazines focus on beauty; television shows for teenage girls create dialogue about shopping and the commercials within television programs distinctly focus on beauty efforts for girls.
Critiques of Emphasis on Beautification
Throughout history, the teen market has been met with criticism and a host of media effects research has focused on its negative aspects. While some researchers believe the teen market is a place where girls build their individuality and create an identity for themselves, others have studied the effects of media consumption on body satisfaction and self-esteem. Media effects research assumes that exposure to the American beauty industry through popular culture has the ability to mentally and physically morph one’s ideals, beliefs, behavior, and language, ultimately leading to a homogeneous group of female teens. The teen market is dominated by high-gloss images of fashion trends and thin young models. Researchers believe these images reinforce the traditional tropes of a patriarchal society.