Adolescence and the Marketplace Influence

When children enter adolescence they increasingly become of commercial interest

Posted Mar 15, 2013

What started this train of thought was an unhappy theme in comments by parents of Early Adolescents (ages 9 – 13.)

In so many words, these adult expressed helpless statements like these. “Society has taken over raising our teenager.” “How can we compete with media that preach against what we believe?” “The Popular Culture is leading our kid astray!” What’s going on? To a degree, these parents were not misperceiving. Think of it this way.

When the separation from childhood gets underway and adolescence begins (usually around ages 9 – 13), three important changes take place in the young person’s life. First, the early adolescent’s interest starts to shift away from the sheltered confines of the family circle and focuses outward, onto the great social arena of life. Second, impatience with household rules and requirements that restrain personal freedom build as parental authority become more discredited (“unfair”) in the young person’s eyes. And third, at this significant juncture, a new adult player, which has been hovering in the background up to now, arrives on the scene to take more aggressive charge of exposing the young adolescent to the vast array of material wonders to be experienced in the larger world.

I call this new adult influence the Public Parent because it has formative affect that competes with the Private Parent in the home. Who is this Public Parent? To me, it is the Marketplace, that huge hive of creative commercial activity that works to support this country’s economic health. As childhood winds down and adolescence opens up, this Public Parent, although non-loving, increasingly commands the young person’s attention. And now the battle between the Private Parent's personal convictions against the Public Parent's commercial offerings seriously begins. 

Although the Private Parent and the Public Parent are both extremely invested in developing the adolescent, they have contrasting goals and motivations, and they see that young person in very different terms. Consider a few comparisons.

The Private Parent’s goal is to raise a healthy individual, while the Public Parent’s goal is create a good consumer.

The Private Parent sees the young adolescent as a person of human value whose growth to adult independence needs to be nurtured through a combination of direction and restraint. The Public Parent sees the young adolescent as a young person with spending value whose buying preferences need to be cultivated early if they are to be profitably exploited later on.

The Private Parent is intent on helping their adolescent build self-discipline and character, the Public Parent is trying to shape the young person’s material interests, tastes, beliefs, and habits.

The Private Parent strives to instill family values, while the Public Parent promotes buying ones.

The Private Parent is in control of family functioning and involvement in the home, but the Public Parent is more in charge of exposure to the vast array of tempting pleasures, products, and possibilities that are commercially offered in the more grown up world.

The Private Parent can have a hard time getting the adolescent to listen to what they say and do what they ask, but the Public Parent is virtually impossible to ignore and extremely persuasive because that voice is Commercial Advertising in its omnipresent, carefully crafted, and convincing multi-media forms of striking images, pleasing sounds, appealing packaging, attractive sales people, and promising pitches.

Adolescence is a very impressionable age, and urgings of the Public Parent can be very hard for the adolescent to resist (“I must have it!” “I must see it!” “I must do it!” "I must try it!".) Such offerings are particularly enticing when glamorized experiences and products are linked to how young people want to style their selves and their peer group by what they eat, drink, watch, listen to, wear, play, use, and own.

A case in point is the recent report sent to me from The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (2/7/13) that surveyed and identified dominant alcohol brand preferences already established in a sample of over 1,000 underage drinkers (ages 13 – 20.) How could young adolescents have been lead to voice a pronounced brand preference for an alcoholic drink at the age of thirteen? No wonder the Private Parent who has been in the thankless business of discouraging substance use feels their message has a hard time competing with that of the Public Parent who is already at work cultivating youthful taste and capturing consumer loyalty.

Of course, today there are two realities in which adolescents grow – the offline and the online. In addition to being a workplace, communication center, social networking site, encyclopedia of information, and shopping mall, the Internet is a vast multimedia entertainment center providing endless amusement and opportunity for distraction. It’s hard for the Private Parent who supports work and engagement with boring offline responsibilities to compete with the Public Parent who offers so much opportunity for electronic escape and diverting play. The Public Parent rules the Internet.

Now the battle for influence can get painfully intense when the adolescent (with social support from like-minded peers) sides with the Public Parent, accusing the Private Parent of being out of touch, overprotective, behind the times, and hopelessly old fashioned. Although adolescents still love the Private Parent, they may like the Public Parent better. The Private Parent can be so dull, while the Public Parent is so exciting.

From what I have seen, the Private Parent starts to give up contesting Public Parent influence when their son or daughter enters mid-adolescence (ages 13 - 15), still speaking up about major areas of concerns like sexual behavior and substance use, but letting lesser issues of conduct and consumption go. For example, now R-rated movies may be considered OK. However, the Private Parent does control the purse strings and so may still supervise and set conditions on such technological marvels as cell phone, smart phone, social networking, gaming, and other Internet use.

Feeling more helpless in this contest for influence with the Public Parent, is there anything the Private Parent can effectively do or convincingly say? Yes. Parents can still voice their opinions and share their perspective. So when their teenager describes a scene in a film that makes an adult acting drunk seem laughable, a common Public Parent source of entertaining humor, the Private Parent might decide to weigh in. “I know you found it funny in the movie to see an adult falling down drunk, saying and doing outrageous things, but if that had been me acting that way in front of your friends, would you have found that amusing too?”

Occasionally, the private parent can even directly take the public parent on. For example, consider the saga of Joe Camel as recounted on Wikipedia. "In 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association  published a study showing that by age six nearly as many children could correctly respond that 'Joe Camel' was associated with cigarettes as could respond that the Disney Channel logo was associated with Mickey Mouse, and alleged that the 'Joe Camel' campaign was targeting chldren." After years of legal proceedings, "in July 1997, under pressure from the impending trial, Congress and various public interest groups, RJR (R. J. Reynolds Tobaco Company) announced it would settle out of court and voluntarily ended its Joe Camel campaign." Obviously, this encounter and its outcome is the exception to the rule which is that in the market place the public parent is generally unchallenged.  

However, parents can still vote with their money, deciding what they will pay for, and what they won’t, and within the home what adolescents will get to consume. They can insist on sufficient family involvement to support continuity of values and practices that they believe truly matter. And they can model careful selection and moderation when it comes to enjoying marketplace delights.

Lest parents despair, there is this to keep in mind. Come the young person’s adulthood, when the adolescent tasks of individuality and independence having been accomplished, many of the root influences that marked the early years of childhood life now reassert themselves as the young person re-attaches to the values, teachings, and practices that were taught before adolescence began. Although the Public Parent does assert a lot of consumer influence during adolescence, and cetrainly opens up the larger world of older experience, the contest for character influence is mostly won by the Private Parent at the last. How the young person humanly turns out as an adult is markedly similar to how they were trained as a child.

Personally, there is this when it comes to considering the power of the Public Parent’s advertising voice. One such message had life-changing and lasting impact on me. It was this. When I was much younger and unemployed, I interviewed several advertising firms for a position on the company’s creative side. I received one very small offer. About that same time, I happened upon a slogan that the Advertising Council had crafted for the United Negro College Fund: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Wow! These few words from the Public Parent definitely caught my attention at a time when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And this simple, eloquent message crystalized something for me. Whatever I wanted to do, it was definitely not to “waste” my mind. So advertising worked, although perhaps not exactly as intended.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2103.)

I welcome questions and suggestion for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: How Adolescence Takes Everyone out of their Comfort Zone