Gen Y has the cash, the cool—and a burgeoning consumer culture

ANDREW CLARK March 22 1999


Gen Y has the cash, the cool—and a burgeoning consumer culture

ANDREW CLARK March 22 1999



Gen Y has the cash, the cool—and a burgeoning consumer culture


Adozen teens sit in a fashionable Toronto office loft taking part in a focus group organized by Youth Culture Inc., a company that tracks trends. YCI's creative director Gary Butler and Sean Saraq, a demographer with Environics Research Group, want to know what exactly prompts kids to spend their money on CDs, movies, video games and fashion. Their esponses? Annie Grainger, 16, says she is rary of commercials and marketing, yet spends $50 apop for body-piercing. Eighteen Tear-old Mike Landon proudly wears hip-hop ilothes with the Phat Farm label and says:

“Show me a commercial that says 50-per-cent off—that’s a good commercial to me.” Chi Nguyen, 18, says she would “like a world that didn’t respond to advertising.” So much for gaining insight into the mind-set of the “average” teen. The message: there is no such thing as an average teen. “The deeper people dig,” says the 34-year-old Saraq, “the more they realize that teens are all over the map.”

Why do companies want to pin kids down?

Call it a Youthquake. Call it Teen Power.

Whatever, for the first time since the baby boom, kid culture is king. Teens have more money in their pockets than ever before, and their influence is everywhere—in music stores with CDs by bands ranging from The Moffatts and Britney Spears to Korn and The Offspring; in clothing stores with labels such as JNCO and Snug; on TV with programs such as Dawson’s Creek and Felicity, and in movies such as Cruel Intentions and Varsity Blues. MuchMusic’s teen audience has grown 80 per cent since 1996. “It’s all about pop culture,” says Grainger, an eleventh-grader from Toronto. “And pop culture is all about buying.” Fact: never before has so much been pitched to so many who are so young. Advertisers are pursuing kids on TV, in print and even in schools. Their quarry comprise the so-called Echo or Y Generation (born between 1980 and 1995), the largest demographic in Canada next to their baby boomer parents (those born between 1947 and 1966). University of Toronto economics professor David Foot, author of the best-selling Boom, Bust & Echo 2000, says the Echo Generation is a nationwide phenomenon with its highest concentrations in On-

tario and the West. Statistics Canada predicts that by July, there will be 4.1 million Canadians between 10 and 19 years of age. By the year 2004, that number will swell to 4.4 million. And don’t doubt their clout: last year, nineto 19-year-olds spent an astonishing $13.5 billion in Canada. “That number is going to do nothing but go up,” says Lindsay Meredith, a professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. “This is the gold rush.”

Not that kids are doing nothing but shopping: more teens than ever are volunteering in hospitals and community centres; they are upbeat, socially aware and confident in their ability to make a difference. Nor are all teens part of the buying boom; many, obviously, don’t have the means. But there is no doubting kids’ overall economic power, and they

are wielding it across the country, through TV and the Internet—a generation eminently connected to its shared (if diverse) culture. Rebecca Bruser lives in Yellowknife, thousands of kilometres from the fashion centres, but still keeps current: the 17-year-old Grade 12 student buys much of her wardrobe from Delia’s (at about $200 per order), a New York-based online clothing catalogue. “It’s better to have something no one else has,” she says. “It shows you’re an individual rather than just having the Gap.” Her baby boomer mother, Deborah Bruser, is puzzled by Rebecca’s spending. “In the ’60s, I had little odd lusts, like wanting a mohair sweater, but it wasn’t this ongoing Tve-got-to-have-it’ like I see today.” In North Vancouver, Maseioud Khandashti, 16, earns $300 a month working as a mechanic in the family automotive shop, and he rushes out to buy the latest hip-hop CD. “I just have to be there when it is released.” When 16-year-old Vatice Wright shops in her home town of Halifax, her purchases “have to be a brand name, a label. It’s just my taste.” Her cousin, Shawn Wright, 16, spends his money on food, music and clothes, but “not brand names—I don’t care what people think.”

Advertisers and marketers divide the demographic into two distinct groups—nine-to 14-year-old “tweens” and 15to 19-year-old teens. In Canada, there are 2.4 mil-

lion tweens with $1.5 billion to spend, according to a Creative Research International Inc. survey commissioned by the cable channel YTV. Seventeen per cent of tweens have ATM bank cards, and each tween spends roughly $137 per year on back-to-school gear. Seventy-six per cent have Internet access either at home or at school. Susan Mandryk, vice-president of marketing with YTV, says the key to reaching tweens lies in understanding their “age aspirations—we never tell a tween that they are a tween.” Tweens want to be teens; they buy products that make them feel sophisticated. Environics Research findings show that on average 12-to-14-year-olds want to be 18, while 15-to-19-year-olds want to be 20.

So while tweens spend to feel like teens, teens buy to cultivate their stature as “young adults.” There are 2.5 million teens between 12 and 17 years old, according to Statistics Canada. And unlike Generation X, the 1980s teens who were maligned as “slackers” after running into the reality of inflation and unemployment, the current crop has high expectations. “They are totally optimistic,” says Victor Thiessen, a sociology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. ‘Teens have not had an experience where the world kept them back. They take for granted that they are going to work.” Meanwhile, they are going to spend: Youth Culture Inc.’s Butler estimates the average teen has a disposable income of $500 a month.

They also consider themselves immune to the tricks of the advertising trade. Bombarded from birth, they know they are being pitched and are suspicious. They recognize their own power. At the Youth Culture focus group, there are nods of agreement when 18-year-old Liane Balaban remarks: “I like the idea of a bunch of advertising executives sitting in a room sweating and pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to sell to us.”

The resounding power of the Echo Generation seems to be a North American phenomenon. Europe did not have the same baby boom that North America experienced, so there is not the accompanying “boomlet.” In the United States, however, the Echo market is staggering; teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill.-based demographics firm, says there are 26 million teens who last year spent $141 billion (U.S.)—almost twice as much as a decade ago. That has U.S. companies battling for a slice of that pie, and their products spill over into Canada. Teen People boasts 10 million readers each issue. Launched in 1998, its circulation has grown from 500,000 to 1.2 million, making it one of the fastest-growing magazines in American publishing history. “It wasn’t cool to be a teen in the ’70s or ’80s,” says managing editor Christina Ferrari. “The teenage population hasn’t taken centre stage like this since the ’50s and ’60s.” Where does all their money come from? Studies show that while the popularity of after-school jobs is important, it is not the source of the vast majority of kids’ cash. A recent report by the Canadian Council on Social Development showed the youth labour market is actually at its lowest point in 25 years—fewer than half of 15-to-19year-old students worked in 1997, down from two-thirds in 1989. The big money instead comes from family sources. Foot calls teens “six-pocket kids” who get money from mom, dad, grandparents and

Never before have advertisers pitched so much to so many who are so young

often step-parents. Family money gets divided up into bigger chunks by fewer siblings, since Canadians are having smaller families (on average 1.7 children each).

To get at that potential windfall, advertisers are aiming their commercials straight at teens. Whatever the reasons—clued-in kids who grow up quicker and more assertive, indulgent parents who sometimes trade cash for calm—teens now exert what experts call “pester power” or “kidfluence.” “I ask for money from my parents and sometimes bug them,” says 15-year-old Chanta Carvery of Halifax. “If they give me a lot of money the day before, then I ask them the next day again.” Now, more teens than ever make their own purchases—and even apply pressure on family acquisitions, such as advising their less-sawy parents on buying computers.

Marketers tap teen power with such tactics as “cross-referencing,” in which companies unite to promote products. This month, Hostess Frito-Lay and the cable channel Teletoon launched the Cinetoon Trivia Challenge, a promotion with prizes such as Sony PlayStations and Cheetos snack foods. “There is an interlocking of movies with sports, TV and toys that previous generations never experienced,” observes Meredith. “The movie sells the toy and the toy sells the movie. That means it’s not as easy for a parent to say no. So you have the kid who screams his head off to a single mom who’s barely getting by and she has to join the race.” This concentrated selling technique fosters an acute awareness of brands and quality among teens. No other group cares more about what their purchases say about who they are. An Environics survey found that 66 per cent of 15to 19-year-olds care “a lot” about whether their “clothes are in style.” Seventy-four per cent say they always choose clothes “with great care.”

There are striking divisions in the youth market. Tween buying habits, for instance, break down according to gender. Although 90 per cent of all tweens play video games, YTV’s survey found that 20 per cent of boys spend their allowance on such games, compared with three per cent of girls. The Japanese video game Pokémon, introduced 2T2 years ago, has sold 11 million copies worldwide and Pokémon products and spinoffs have earned $6 billion in sales. It is a roleplaying game in which kids train and collect Pokémon characters and then pit them against each other. Ron Bertram, spokesman for Vancouver-based Nintendo of Canada Ltd., likens Pokémon to hockey-card trading. “It’s social,”

Bertram says. ‘To complete the game, you hook up your game to a friend’s and trade Pokémons back and forth.”

Female tweens spend more on CDs and bestow their adulation on pop bands. These teenyboppers made the Spice Girls a global phenomenon and devour one teen idol after another. The Backstreet Boys drew an audience of 1.3 million in Canada when they appeared on the 1997 YTV Achievement Awards; now, though, they are old cheese. Replacing them are such new groups as 98 Degrees,

British Columbian foursome The Moffatts, and Take 5, a quintet formed in 1997 by Orlando,

Fla.-based Trans Continental Records, the same outfit that created the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. Take 5’s CD debuted in February and the teens have accrued a legion of die-hard fans. Sixteen-year-old singer Tilky Jones recalls being at a video arcade, and when they left, “this girl ran up and licked the seat.”

The teeniest bopper of them all is Aaron Carter, an 11year-old who squeaks out pop ditties like Crazy Little Party Girl. The brother of a Backstreet Boy, the mop-topped Carter played Toronto in February, drawing a seething mass of tweenage music lovers laden with cash. How devoted are his fans? Well, Georgia Pournaras, an 11-year-old Torontonian, has wallpapered her bedroom with 40 Aaron Carter posters, including one placed on the ceiling above her bed. She often sports a Carter T-shirt and talks about him “every day.” Jennifer Sparacino, a 15-year-old from Oshawa, Ont., to date claims to have spent $5,000 on Backstreet Boys and Carter merchandise. She was teary-eyed after his recent concert, but said: “I saw him and I saw his mom. I am so happy.”

n the 1970s and 1980s, adolescents could pretty much be divided into jocks, rockers and preps. Now, says Environics’ Saraq, there are at least a dozen teen “tribes” defined by their fashion, music and magazines. “Ravers,” for example, listen to techno groups (Fatboy Slim, Portishead), read magazines such as Vice and Tribe, wear plastic pants, beads and neon shirts with such labels as Snug and Fiction. “Boarders,” by contrast, tune into Offspring and Korn, wear punk-band T-shirts and Vans sneakers, and read the magazine Transworld. The result is a teen culture without a single overriding identity. As Chris Staples, creative director of the Vancouver-based advertising firm Palmer Jarvis DDB, puts it: “The Pepsi Generation has splintered into 100 subsets.” One of the most significant traits tweens and teens share is their multiculturalism. They are, by far, the most racially diverse generation in Canada’s history. And they are getting more so: a 1996 Statistics Canada survey found that 45,000 of the 200,000 immigrants who enter the country each year are school-age children and teens.

Kids are constantly balancing parental pressure with the mores of their Canadian peer group. “My parents are always trying to get me to hang out with friends in my


own through the decades, teens have worn, watched and listened to pretty much what they pleased. Some of their fads and favourites, like punk and MTV, were theirs alone, with the added benefit of aggravating their parents; others, like designer jeans and The Beatles, were embraced by their elders as well. The picks (endlessly debatable) of Maclean’s editors:

MUSIC Elvis Buddy Presley Holly Paul Anka Leave It to Beaver TELEVISION The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis American Bandstand Rebel Without a Cause MOVIES Blackboard Jungle Jailhouse Rock Poodle skirts and saddle shoes STYLE Crow cuts or greased-back hair Jeans: cuffed

own religion,” says Nazim Berjee, 18, who lives in North Vancouver but is originally from Kenya. “I don’t see the difference. I have friends that are Muslim and friends that aren’t. I judge people not because of their skin colour or religion but on whether they are good people.” Berjee spends his money on food, movies, CDs and track suits—and is about to buy a dress suit he can wear for a Muslim holiday and his high-school graduation.

If baby boomers were the TV generation, then their children are the Web generation who commune by the light of their computer monitors. Echo kids are accustomed to gathering information and communicating online—and tweens are even more wired than their teen elders. They grew up with the Web, and they have more time to spend online. “The teens that have Web access want to go out—why sit in front of a computer?” says Youth Culture’s Butler. ‘Tweens have curfews.

They’re not old enough to go out late, so they surf.” Stores are trying to cut through the entrenched wariness of teens with ad campaigns that focus less on the product than on the lifestyle of the target market. In 1998, Montreal-based chain Le Château introduced Le Château Junior Girl, a tween clothing line, and opened youth-oriented Chateauworks stores in Toronto and Montreal. Quebec teens favour European styles and turn to Québécois magazines such as Adorable for tips. œ “They take their cues from Quebec pop stars and ; media,” says Franco Rocchi, Le Château’s vice| president of sales. “A Quebec teen will wear a grey § blazer, where a teen from Edmonton is more like| ly to wear LA-inspired fashions like cargo pants.” I Nationwide, Eaton’s has launched a teen-orient§ ed clothing department called Diversity that sells | popular brands (Mud and Roxy among them). The “ departments are exuberantly decorated, and the TV ads are understated and built around the ubiquitous expression “Whatever.” Each spot shows a teen recounting a personal anecdote, sometimes in a foreign language with no translation, and there is no mention of the store until the very end. The commercials are designed to stand as pieces of pop art. “There is so much opportunity for teens to avoid your message,” says Andrew Macaulay of Roche Macaulay and Partners, which created the spots. “You have to reward them with something. The Diversity ads offer a teen talking honestly to you and you’re hearing something interesting.” Whatever.

any case, independent stores without big marketing budgets pursue teens in other ways—including personal service. “They’re like their parents, they like independent shops,” says 26-year-old Shafin Devji, who, along with his father and two brothers, owns Soular, a teen store in the West Edmonton Mall. “If I see a kid come in three or four times, I’ll say, ‘I’m going to knock the tax off.’ ” Soular sells a range of

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones David Bowie Michael Jackson Pearl Jam rhe Temptations, The Suprêmes The Bee Gees and Donna Summer Madonna Sloan Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell The Sex Pistols Duran Duran Brandy 77 Sunset Strip The Brady Bunch MTV and MuchMusic The Simpsons The Mod Squad Happy Days Family Ties Friends The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Saturday Night Live Beverly Hills, 90210 Dawson’s Creek Beach Blanket Bingo American Graffiti Fast Times at Ridgemont High Clueless Easy Rider Halloween The Breakfast Club Scream Splendor in the Grass Carrie Risky Business Titanic Long hair Farrah Fawcett hair Punk Grunge Miniskirts Painter pants Preppy look Hip-hop Jeans: bell-bottom and patched Designer jeans Jeans: ripped, tight Jeans: baggy or flared and acid-washed

suitably wild styles, everything from rave label Porn Star to Fubu-a New York based company that sold $304 million worth of hip-hop gear in 1998. Customers pay $85 for a Fubu T-shirt. Devji says the new line of Fubu suits will cost up to $1,000 and he expects they will pay it-"they have to have it to fit in."

Lunatic Fringe in Toronto, where the target shopper is 15 and female, is located near five high schools. Teens are encouraged to hang out after school, and each weekday at 4:30 p.m., owner Allison Iiss holds a basketball competition on the store’s indoor mini-court The winner gets a free pair of jeans. And instead of seasonal sales, Liss holds “parties” complete with pizza and prizes. Iiss says teens want specific, hot labels such as Roxy, a California line of surf clothing. “It’s almost like selling fish—it has to be fresh,” she says. Her customers can be fickle. “These kids will drop you in a second.”

That said, itis difficult to find a teen anywhere in North America who is not wear ing a label of some kind. Even those who choose secondhand clothes are quick to

point it out-they, too, are frying to make a statement. `They are trying to be different just like everyone else," Saraq says. And when they laugh at consumerism and advertising, says Sarah Craw ford, director of media education for CHUM Television in Toronto, teens are, in effect, poking fun at themselves. "Some say, `I know I'm a shallow consumer, but so what,'" she says. - - -

Ironically, teens’ cynicism may be the most direct route to their wallets. Case in point: The Offspring, an Orange County, Calif.based pop/punk group whose single Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) and accompanying video satirizes affluent white teens who mimic inner-city black culture. (Hip-hop fashions are a $7.6-billion-a-year business in North America—and

they are selling not just in inner cities but also in suburban malls.) The video shows a geeky kid sporting gold chains, baggy pants and a powder-blue Fubu football jersey. The lyrics rhyme off a series of caustic observations: “So if you don’t rate, just overcompensate/at least you’ll know you can always go on Ricki Lake/The world needs wanna-bes.” And the wanna-bes are buying: according to an Environics survey, the song was No. 1 with 14to 19-year-olds in Canada in recent weeks, and the album has sold more than four million copies in North America.

Once sown, the seeds of consumerism will continue to flourish. Rich, informed and populous, the current generation of teens and tweens will wield economic clout even as it grows older. Still, experts say that, at some point, there will be a backlash against wanton materialism. “There is not a well-expressed oppositional culture among today’s youth,” says Saraq. “But anti-consumerism is growing and it will find a voice.” If so, then Echo kids may follow in the footsteps of their parents, the baby boomers who in the late-1960s and early ’70s loudly questioned conventional morality, materialism, government and, closer to home, their parents. Foot says intergenerational conflict may arise again as the years pass. ‘You’ll have the 52-year-old parent who wants to relax at the cottage,” he says, “and the 23-year-old son or daughter who wants to shoot around the lake on a Jet Ski.”

The kids themselves predict a backlash, if for no other reason than they are suffering from advertising fatigue. They are being pitched 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and most say they are vehemently opposed to the increasing corporate presence in schools. Back at the focus group, the majority is against schoolyard basketball courts sponsored by a shoe company if it means their classrooms will then be festooned with logos. “I don’t want my life to revolve around buying and selling,” Grainger says emphatically. “There should be some safe haven from advertising. You have to sometimes see the sky between the billboards.”