What Is “Teen Culture” Now? What Do We Do About It?

How do you reach a teenager as a marketer?

The above and titular questions surfaced more prominently in my mind after recently watching YouTube clips from the seminal television programs Beavis and Butt-head and Daria, which originally aired on MTV twenty years ago.  During that time, MTV had pretty much a monopoly over teen culture.  It specialized in edgy music videos from artists of all genres (yes, that’s right, MTV showed mostly music at one time), raucous partying and nightlife in programs such as The Real World, and animation that was clearly geared toward adolescent male and female viewers, with its humor that was at some times dry, some times weird, and some times only suitable for a middle school boys’ bathroom.

No one doubted for a second, though, that this was programming for teens and only teens, which made it easier for companies to market to them since they knew predominantly where they “lived” in the media.  This cultural paradigm maintained its place through the next decade, as well.  When I was in high school not too long ago, there was a clear separation between what teenagers liked and what young adults with a college degree liked, and they both had distinct behavioral patterns.  MTV also still had its place among youth culture, although it was seemingly in a transitional period between its heyday of the 80’s and 90’s and the post-millennial boom it would experience circa 2009 with the introduction of programming such as 16 and Pregnant, the American version of Skins, and Jersey Shore.  In the 2010’s, however, MTV reestablished its reputation with those programs and also maintained bragging rights over broadcasting the VMA’s, which has always included moments that have begrudgingly found their way into our national memory (I’m looking at you, Miley).

Today, I’m not sure there’s a clear distinction between teenage culture and the beginning of adult culture.  Especially as a member of Generation Y, I’ve come to recognize that young people such as myself are depicted in the media as being insecure, perpetually uncertain, and perhaps even immature and negligent as they make their way through early adulthood.  On top of that, many of them are still dependent on their parents for financial and residential support.  An example of this can be found in HBO’s Girls, in which Lena Dunham and her friends try to navigate the road to maturity when they don’t really have the financial, spiritual, and emotional resources to do so.  To me, there are many times in which they don’t appear to have matured much past high school, and that can also be said about the gang on Jersey Shore, and, most importantly, among a lot of people my age I see on Facebook.

Mind you, I’m not criticizing members of my generation as being completely immature and irresponsible.  We’re all trying to find our ways in this world plagued by a steadily-improving-yet-still-poor economy, and I’m no exception to that.  All I’m suggesting is that the line between what appeals to teens and what is clearly young-adult suited content is becoming blurred.  As more and more people older than 20 are still singing along to Top 40 songs and living a lifestyle laden with insecurity, instability and frequent bacchanalian escapades, the idea of “teen culture” might be becoming obsolete.  From a business standpoint, marketers may be facing a challenge in the coming years since they won’t be able to target teenagers like they used to in the past.  The February 18 program of PBS’ Frontline, entitled “Generation Like”, speaks to this somewhat, as it showed companies looking to teens to become ambassadors for their brand, thereby contributing to the company’s marketing effort.  While companies obviously looked to teens as the main gurus of social media interaction, and the program portrayed them as such, I’m not sure that’s entirely true.  I read something a while back that predicted Generation Z will be the most tech-savvy generation in history, which I can see a little bit already, but the Y’s depend on technology just as much.  Z has progressed as Y seems to have regressed, which apparently puts us at a generational convergence.  

Intensive psychographic research would obviously differentiate the two generations by outlining specifics such as location, vocation (if applicable), gender, ethnicity, and personality.  This does not negate the fact, however, that both age groups still partake in the same types of cultural hobbies and viewpoints.  If I was a company looking to market a product to teenage consumers, I would obviously use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter because that’s where kids are nowadays.  But the thing is, I’m there, too.  And as I’ve just completed a course in social media management in which I explored the ways that companies integrate these platforms into marketing communications efforts, I can say that adults are there, too, in full force.

So, what do you think?  Is teen culture a thing of the past?  Do you think it’s spilled over into early adulthood?  How do you think you could market a product to teens without seeing some infiltration into the 20-35 demographic?  Leave me a comment below.  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @HeyNickNappo.  I’ve been getting a lot of attention lately, and I appreciate that.  Thanks for reading!

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