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In the summer of 2003, three studios released hot tween movies onto home video with one thing in mind: Ride the wave. Featuring young stars Hilary Duff (The Lizzie McGuire Movie), Frankie Muniz (Agent Cody Banks) and Amanda Bynes (What a Girl Wants), those PG-rated hits represent a marketing blitz as exhaustive and calculated as the war in Iraq but with more immediate implications for the average family. And tweens are in the crosshairs.

Before proceeding, it would help to define what a tween is. No easy task. Some researchers define this coveted demographic as preteens ages 10 to 12. Others include 9- and 13-year-olds. Even more expand the range from 8 to 14. Regardless, several characteristics seem consistent. Tweens are fickle, globally sensitive consumers who identify strongly with styles, labels, gadgets and brands. They have more disposable income than ever before and influence household purchases ranging from colas to cars. But that consumer clout bears a price. Once merely targeted with toys and sugar-coated cereals, tweens now face a barrage of product pitches, many of which sell lifestyles and attitudes that are forcing them to grow up too fast.

Thank Heaven for Little Girls
Retailers including Club Libby Lu, Claire, Gadzooks, Hollister, Abercrombie, Limited Too and Zutopia now market specifically to tweens—girls in particular. Since they know the average 12-year-old fantasy is to be 17, many stock their racks with what's popular at junior stores: low-slung jeans, microminis, sheer tops and thongs.

A store in the U.K. caught flak recently for marketing Little Miss Naughty padded bras to girls under 10. Lori Vincent, fashion director for Limited Too, says, "Little girls don't want to dress like little girls; they always aspire up." That also may be why teen magazines such as Teen People, Elle Girl, Teen Vogue and CosmoGirl! enjoy heavy tween readership.

Suzin Boddiford, fashion editor for Girl's Life (aimed at 10- to 15-year-olds) says, "The young girls want to look like their favorite models, singers and movie stars, and therefore are borrowing ideas from what they see on MTV videos and in movies and magazines." Among the many celebs encouraging young girls to "aspire up" are tween pioneers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The twins have lent their personas to videos, clothing, computer games and other licensed merchandise. In 2002, sales of the Olsen twins "brand" neared $1 billion.

Branding Can Leave Scars
America should be wary of turning its children into rabid, brand-obsessed consumers. For one thing, they may develop spending habits that will burn them later in adolescence. The average college student has three credit cards and carries a debt of $2,500 above student loans. With adults under 25 constituting the fastest-growing bankruptcy rate in the nation, it's even more important that parents teach tweens the value of saving money and delaying gratification. Too many young people are caving in to cultural pressure and emptying their piggy banks to keep up with the Jones kids.

In addition to fiscal responsibility, there's a spiritual dimension to tweens' consumerism.

"They are looking for something they can believe in," says Martin Lindstrom, author of the secular book Brandchild. He claims traditional religion can't deliver that, but brands can. A brand can be as benign as a Nike swoosh or as controversial as a hostile rapper. Both give young people a label or subculture with which to identify.

Lindstrom explains, "They buy into a whole attitude and community. They're saying, 'We believe in something.' Brands are becoming religious with a whole philosophy behind them. More than half of all kids feel a huge pressure about wearing the right brands." According to one study, 90 percent of all tween purchase requests involved a brand name.

Businesses Keep the Tween Machine Well-Oiled
Marketing to tweens has doubled in the past decade, fueled by the immense popularity of bubble-gum pop acts such as 'N Sync and Britney Spears. They sparked a modern-day gold rush. Hollywood and Madison Avenue awoke to the possibility of mining that market and hitting the mother lode.

Still, tweens are more sensitive to sales pitches than their parents were at that age. "Kids have built up a filter much more advanced than yours or mine," Lindstrom says. "When they watch Die Another Day they can tell you every brand that was mentioned in it and where there was product placement."

To circumvent that cynicism, some marketers try to infiltrate the world of tweens by co-opting their peers. Alissa Quart, author of Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, explains, "They are wise to conventional advertising so the aim of companies wanting to get to them is to make it what they call 'viral.' Record companies recruit 'street teams,' kids who volunteer to try out new music then talk it up to their friends in exchange for T-shirts or posters. It is true that this generation of tweens is more sophisticated than kids used to be, but they are not as sophisticated as they think they are."

Experts say that, although young people may be more cynical about advertising, simply knowing they're being manipulated doesn't affect their buying habits.

Enlisting Celebrity Escorts
Tween marketing is all about finding friendly faces who can escort children out of naïveté and into a certain adolescent lifestyle. Often, actors and musicians who have built a following on children's cable outlets lead young fans to more grown-up programming. For example, Viacom owns Nickelodeon and MTV. It's no surprise to see tweens "graduating" from one to the other. The Disney Channel has a vested interest in sending Lizzie McGuire devotees to ABC's prime-time sitcoms, since both are Disney properties.

During what may be a brief window of opportunity, young stars market themselves to the max. Lizzie McGuire's Hilary Duff has two films in the works, a CD on its way and a product line (Stuff by Hilary Duff) scheduled to hit stores in 2004. Amanda Bynes is starring in the sitcom What I Like About You, and Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz is already working on the junior-spy sequel Agent Cody Banks 2.

According to Quart, such diversions can force children to mature too quickly. She explains, "They play on kids' desire to be older. Kids are getting older younger because they're being bracketed as a market … promoting a very commercialized childhood."

As parents seek to protect children from being exploited by the churning pistons and grinding gears of the tween machine, they can take heart in the fact that 90 percent of 9- to 14-year-olds polled by the Center for a New American Dream claim that their families and friends are "way more important than things that money can buy." More than half said they would rather spend fun time with a parent than shop at the mall. But if mom and dad aren't there, the mall and the media will be, promising to fill every possible emotional, social or spiritual void with the brand du jour.

Published September 2003

Plugged In Plus
Although the tween idols continue to change, this article is as true now as when it first appeared as a cover story in Plugged In magazine. In fact, technologies such as texting, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube provide additional forums for stealth marketing to preteens in hopes that friends will contact friends, and a campaign might go viral (a term now fully understood). All the more reason for parents to educate their children about consumerism and the nature of product placement.

In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission encouraged children ages 8 to 12 to play a new video game—one designed to teach them how to think about advertising. The game, called Admongo, confronts players with myriad advertisements and asks them to consider the ad's purpose: What are these ads saying? Who pays for them? What are they encouraging me to do? The FCC calls the game "ad-ucation" that indirectly emphasizes how ubiquitous advertising is: Players must deal with everything from virtual billboards and 30-second television spots to advertising text messages and product placement. Find it at

In March 2011, controversial clothier Abercrombie & Fitch stirred up controversy once again with a new line of bathing suits for young girls. The swimsuits were originally marketed on A&F's website with the term "push up" to describe the suits' padded, triangular bikini tops. After a storm of criticism, A&F removed those words from its online marketing copy. The products themselves, however, are still available. In an interview with Fox News, parenting expert Janet Rose said, "The sexualization of teens is bad enough and now this trend is trickling down to our babies. If we continue to try to make our children value 'sexy' I shudder to think what damage we are doing to their future self-concepts and adult values." Psychologist Nancy Irwin added, "Wearing a padded bra at that age when unnecessary is encouraging sexual precociousness, a dangerous muscle to flex for the girl as well as for peers and predators."