Hormones on Overdrive

Tina
Wells is CEO of Buzz Marketing and managing director of the Blue Fusion
advertising agency in Manhattan. Buzz Marketing produces research for
Blue Fusion’s clients, through constant communication with network of
some 9,000 “spotters” in the field: kids ages seven to twenty-four who
are paid to report on what’s hot and what’s not. Buzz is most keyed in
on “tweens”: the seven- to twelve-year-old group that “as a market, is
really hot and really growing,” Wells told me over the phone, sounding
positively electrified. “This is a very sophisticated group with a huge
disposable income. These kids are very savvy, very smart, very plugged
in. They get their money from their parents, and they don’t have the
same expenses older teens do, like cell phones, senior prom, spring
break. They’re not only spending their own money, but they’re
influencing their parents’ purchases to a huge extent, as well.
Eighty-eight percent of tweens are putting something onto the family
grocery list.” Yet another survey for the new millennium showed that
U.S. kids twelve and under spent nearly $30 billion of their own money
and influenced spending of $248.7 billion by their parents. Some
thirty-three million teenagers in the U.S. spent about $20 billion on
beauty and health products alone in 2002.

Retailers are eager to profit from the fact that kids these days are
growing up faster than ever. “In marketing, we have a nickname for it,”
said Wells. “We call it KGOY: Kids Growing Older Younger.” The industry
also refers to this as “age compression,” the idea being that today’s
eight-year-old is being treated like the twelve-year-old of five years
ago.

Fashion, in particular, offers a powerful look at the way the trappings
of later adolescence and young adulthood have pushed their way into
younger age groups. Today, Britney Spears gets credit for championing
the trend of hooker fashion for kids, although a generation ago we
pointed to Madonna. Regardless of who’s to blame, what’s worth noticing
is the change over that generation: While it used to be high school
students copying the latest pop star’s racy wardrobe and accessories,
today fourth-graders are doing it, and it’s not uncommon to see even
younger kids in provocative adult clothes. The marketing of sexy,
grown-up looks to seven- to fourteen-year-olds is a growing national
trend.

The future of our society is emerging in tween culture, and it’s hard
to tell where exactly it’s headed, or what it will ultimately look
like. But there’s a good chance it will be wearing a thong. A couple of
years ago, Ambercrombie & Fitch got the attention of everyone from
Rush Limbaugh to the ladies at NOW when it came out with a line of
kiddie thong underwear. The bottomless undies, sized for girls ten to
sixteen, were decorated with phrases like “eye candy” and “wink wink.”
A&F was inundated with letters and emails from various consumer
advocacy groups, and on May 24, 2002, the corporate office issued the
following statement: “The underwear for young girls was created with
the intention to be lighthearted and cute. Any misinterpretation of
that is purely in the eye of the beholder.”

Meanwhile, thong sales to children have never been better. In 2000,
they generated $400,000 from seven- to twelve-year-olds; in 2002, that
figure quadrupled to $1.6 million. Include girls thirteen to seventeen
in 2002’s thong revenue, and the figure skyrockets to $156 million. And
in order to look all the better in all those thongs, forty percent of
girls nine and ten years old are trying to lose weight.

So when is fashion just wrong, and whose responsibility is it to draw
the line? “I think in some ways it is oversexualized,” Tina Wells
admitted freely. “But the companies that are doing it are making
gazillions of dollars.

“Are they satisfying a consumer want, or are they creating it?” she
asked. “Are they satisfying the consumer, really? I mean, take Bratz
dolls, which are really the symbol of all things KGOY, very grown-up,
glamorous dolls. It’s quite a sophisticated doll for a girl of five or
six to be playing with. I don’t think there is a right answer. Everyone
who is experiencing it is trying to figure out the borders between
right or wrong.”

Bratz dolls aren’t the only toys to show the effects of KGOY. When
Barbie was first introduced in this country in 1959, she was aimed at
six- to ten-year-olds. Now, she’s big mainly with three- to
five-year-olds. In the past decade alone, the average age of Barbie
lovers has fallen by two years. Other toys show the effects of this
downward push as well. While kids used to want new toys until they were
at least twelve years old, nowadays the top-end age of a toy user is
hovering closer to eight. After all, toys are for kids, and kids today
don’t see themselves as kids. Focus groups conducted by Nickelodeon
have confirmed that indeed, by eleven years old, children no longer
think of themselves as children. They’re just teens waiting to happen.
If tweens don’t want traditional toys, what do they want? They want, as
one writer for The Age put it, “toys that recognize their financial
enfranchisement.”

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