Selling to youth in the digital age: advertising, branding, and social influencers

The growing role of market researchers in consumer industries geared to the young is constituent in broader business trends since the late twentieth century. As British cultural theorist Sean Nixon argues, the 1980s and 1990s saw an increased ‘aestheticization’ of consumer industries as advertising, design, and marketing became more central to the selling of goods and services. In their attempts to zero-in on their desired markets, Nixon argues, businesses relied more heavily on ‘cultural intermediaries’ — design, marketing, and advertising practitioners — to ‘articulate production with consumption’, imbuing products with values and meanings that would prompt consumers to identify more closely with a particular product or brand (Nixon, 1997: 181). Market analysts emerged as especially important cultural intermediaries. As businesses sought economic advantage by ‘getting close to the customer’, market researchers and forecasting agencies were increasingly relied upon to monitor subtle shifts in consumers’ attitudes. Justin Wyatt, for example, has shown that while market research always had a place in Hollywood’s economic strategies, from the late 1970s studios’ marketing departments wielded greater power and prestige (Wyatt, 1994: 155). Parallel changes have been identified by Keith Negus in the recording industry, with a move away from ‘inspired guess work, hunches and intuition’ towards the wide-ranging use of advanced quantitative and qualitative methods of market research (Negus, 1999: 53). And, in the youth market, the trend was especially prominent, as ever-more sophisticated methods of analysis were deployed in attempts to monitor the attitudes of young consumers.

The techniques of marketing pioneered by Eugene Gilbert in the 1950s (see Chapter 2) were an early move in this direction. With his army of young market researchers reporting on their peers’ tastes, Gilbert’s attention to consumers’ feelings was a foretaste of the attitudinal research that became commonplace during the 1960s and 1970s.14 Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s such approaches were still central to the work of ‘coolhunting’ analysts such as Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU). Founded in 1982, TRU emerged as one of America’s foremost research agencies specialising in the youth market. With a client base of more than 150 major companies, TRU boasted that its combination of quantitative and qualitative research cut to ‘the essence of what being teen means. From the meaning of “cool” to the truths about brand loyalty and age aspiration, it shows ... the world of teens — in vivid color and exciting detail’ (TRU, 2002).

During the early twenty-first century, however, market research was transformed by the new opportunities for gathering consumer data made available via the explosive growth of digital media. The huge amount of information users input to social media platforms, along with the general proliferation of ‘online chatter’, made it possible for businesses to tap into a vast repository of information chronicling consumers’ habits, attitudes, and lifestyles. ‘Web scraping’ (sometimes called ‘Web harvesting’, or ‘Web data extraction’), for example, sees automated software used to extract colossal quantities of online data which can then be used to scrutinise consumers’ behaviour. And, perhaps more significantly, the economic model of social networking platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter relies on the storage and analysis of data about users and their online activity, which can then be sold to advertisers. As media theorist Christian Fuchs explains, with online networks becoming an increasing part of people’s everyday lives, ‘more and more precise user data and aggregated data can be sold to advertising clients who, armed with information about potential consumption choices, provide users with personalized advertising that targets them in all of these everyday situations’ (Fuchs, 2011: 291). As a consequence, audiences are no longer simply consumers of media products. Instead, through the collection of their online data, audiences have become commodities in their own right. This can be seen as a trend towards ‘surveillance capitalism’ (a term popularised by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff (2019)), a commercial practice in which digital technologies are used to collect, collate, and monetise personal data.

Clearly, this is an advantage to advertisers, who are able to zero-in on target markets, sometimes with considerable accuracy. But, for critics, the practice raises concerns about the acquisition and distribution of users’ data - especially when websites’ privacy policies and terms of service can be less than transparent. Indeed, such issues were thrown into the spotlight in 2018 when it was revealed that the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users had been acquired by a British political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, without the users’ consent, and was subsequently used in political advertising campaigns {New York Times, 2018). As a consequence, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by politicians in the US and UK and, in 2019, the company was fined around $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission {Guardian, 2019).

Techniques for analysing the youth market, then, have undergone significant development. So, too, have strategies for advertising to young consumers. During the 1990s, for example, a vogue for ‘guerrilla marketing’ saw businesses eschew high gloss, hard-sell promotion strategies in favour of ‘hip and edgy’ campaigns that relied on stencilling, stickering, and flyposting, as well as engineering outrageous PR stunts aimed at causing a stir.15 In 2005, for instance, Sony launched its new PlayStation Portable game by hiring graffiti artists to spray-paint walls around major US cities with images of kids playing with the new gadget. Increasingly, however, business turned to the Internet and social media as avenues to access the youth market. The shift was manifest in the rise of promotional tools such as ‘adver-gaming’ (which blends advertising with video games), branded applications (that build a brand through a digital app that offers users entertainment or information) and viral marketing (that prompts consumers to promote products through their social media contacts). Social network sites have become particularly important in these strategies. As Tracy Tuten explains, such sites are especially attractive to advertisers because they ‘encourage interaction between consumers and brands’, and can ‘enhance perceptions of the “brand as a person”, thereby strengthening a brand’s personality, differing a brand from its competitors, and setting the stage for a perceived relationship’ (Tuten, 2008: 19-20). This attention to the development of a brand’s ‘personality’ was indicative of the more general focus on ‘branding’ — developing a brand’s identity and symbolic associations - a practice increasingly seen as vital in the operation of media and consumer industries.

During the 1980s and 1990s corporations increasingly viewed a brand’s ‘identity’ as a strategic economic asset. In the youth market, especially, a brand’s image came to be seen as a key commercial resource, with the symbolic associations of a brand name or logo — for example, the Nike ‘swoosh’ or the Stiissy ‘signature’ — allowing products to be linked with distinct values and lifestyles. Fashion companies were in the forefront of trends towards a more systematic exploitation of brand image, Paul Smith (1997) showing how the clothing company Tommy Hilfiger developed a particularly vigorous approach in the licensing of its brand name. And in 2011 the importance of‘branding’ and ‘brand identity’ was underscored when US leisurewear firm Abercrombie & Fitch offered a ‘substantial payment’ to Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino - an irrepressible star of Jersey Shore, MTV’s reality-TV show — if the celebrity would agree to stop wearing their clothes. ‘We are deeply concerned’, an Abercrombie & Fitch spokesman explained, ‘that Mr Sorrentino’s association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image’ (Guardian, 2011).16 In itself, the episode was insignificant, but it drew attention to the crucial importance credited to ‘brand identity’ in the contemporary market.

This close attention to ‘branding’ was also key to the increasing importance of social media influencers (SMIs) as a form of marketing. SMIs are online ‘opinion leaders’ who use social media platforms — for example, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and, especially, Instagram — to share posts with their followers about their personal lives and preferences for particular products and services. And, for businesses, SMI’s became an important means of accessing markets. As Allison Hearn and Stephanie Schoenhoff explain:

The SMI works to generate a form of‘celebrity brand’ via social networks, which can subsequently be used by companies and advertisers for consumer outreach.

(Hearn and Schoenhoff) 2016: 194)

The attraction of SMIs for businesses is that they are seen as an especially direct and ‘organic’ way of connecting with consumers. Influencers are people regarded as carrying significant credibility with their followers, and their endorsements are perceived as candid and ‘authentic’. For businesses, then, SMIs are seen as an ideal way of investing a brand with an engaging and trustworthy ‘identity’. First flourishing in the fashion and beauty markets, they became increasingly common in the food, travel and entertainment industries; and by 2012 most major brands were incorporating SMIs into their promotional strategies (Kumar and Mirchandani, 2012).

Some SMI’s endeavours are small-scale, reaching relatively few followers. But others have tremendous reach. For instance, in 2019 Huda Kattan — a Dubai-based beauty blogger - boasted over 32 million followers on Instagram (Izea, 2019), while in the gaming world PewDiePie was facing hot competition from gaming influencers such as Mark Fischbach who (as ‘Markiplier’) had attracted over 6 million Instagram followers and more than 19 million subscribers to his YouTube channel (InfluencerDB, 2018). And, whereas ‘low-level’ influencers are usually incentivised by receiving free products or a token payment for their endorsements, Instagram influencers with around a million followers could, by 2018, command around £10,000 ($13,000) for a one-off post (cited in Mackay, 2018). SMIs, and online marketing more generally, have become especially valued for the ability to reach ‘niche’ markets. Traditional marketing strategies mostly targeted undifferentiated ‘mass’ audiences; but the new, digitally-based advertising techniques are regarded as better able to target more specific market segments. This was seen as a critical capability given the increased ‘fragmentation’ of the modem media audience, a trend that was constituent in broader economic shifts.

For many theorists, capitalist economies have undergone a fundamental transformation since the late 1960s - moving from a ‘Fordist’ era of mass production for mass consumer markets, into a new, ‘post-Fordist’ epoch of flexible production for a profusion of differentiated market segments.1' In contrast to the mass production of standardised goods characteristic of Fordist enterprise (a term derived from the mass production processes pioneered by the Ford motor company), post-Fordist business practice is characterised by the deployment of sophisticated technology in the production of smaller batches of goods geared to a plurality of market segments. Style, image, and marketing are also seen as playing a more important role in post-Fordist economic life, as businesses strive to invest their products with values and meanings that appeal to buyers associated with specific market niches and ‘lifestyles’. For the media, these trends are also manifest in the splintering of mass audiences into a plethora of different segments. The rise of digital technology was central to these processes since it multiplied the number and variety of media channels available to consumers, who could increasingly choose between an abundance of digital TV, radio, websites, streaming services, and social media. As a consequence, audiences have become more fragmented and diverse. The age of mass media and mass audiences has not entirely disappeared, but trends are towards formats that eschew a general market in favour of smaller, more nuanced targets.

According to Stanley Hollander and Richard Germain (1993), such developments have been evidenced especially clearly in the field of youth marketing. For Hollander and Germain, contemporary appeals to an array of

‘niche’ groups of young consumers are a marked contrast to the approach taken during the 1950s, when products were pitched to a more homogeneous youth market:

True, the products, services, and marketing appeals that were being aimed at youth [during the 1950s] were differentiated from those designed for younger and older groups. But whether we look at apparel or popular music or some other youth-oriented category of offerings, we see things that were intended for masses of youths.

(Hollander and Germain, 1993: 107)

In some ways, however, the production of ‘teenage’ media and consumer goods during the 1950s could, itself, be seen as a pioneering move away from concepts of a monolithic ‘mass’ market. Indeed, the very practice of appealing to youth as a discrete consumer group, associated with particular tastes and interests, could be seen as an early form of ‘post-Fordist’ marketing strategy. Increasingly, however, the boundaries demarcating the ‘youth’ market have extended into a wider range of age groups.

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