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Branded for Life

Teenagers: They’ve got cell phones, credit cards, and brand identities. A review of Alissa Quart’s Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers finds a shared past not too dissimilar, and a terrifying prospect that may lie ahead of us all.


In the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) famously declares that ‘greed is good.’ Gekko, as we can tell by his oily coif and lizardine moniker, is a villain, but his signature quote defined the dominant ethos of the Reagan era. Under Reagan the traditional values of the American dream, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness trickled down into a single shorthand word—‘prosperity’—as the corporate jet and penthouse apartment supplanted the family sedan and white picket fence. Greed of the kind Gekko or Michael Milken may have embraced was bad because they were criminals and got caught, but their wealth and the things it bought was offered as a good thing.

Famously, Generation X responded to this ethos by ‘slacking.’ While this is of course a gross overgeneralization, there was for sure a segment of my generation that simply checked out. On the one had, we loved our media, the rise of video games and cable television, and the ever expanding list of ‘things’ that our parents’ money could buy for us. On the other hand, as we aged into early adulthood, the pursuit of these images seemed increasingly empty and above all, hard.

Having stuff was great, but the appearance of wanting it was not cool. We were born consumers who could not quite jump into the consumerism pool with both feet because we recognized the essential futility of the pursuit in that no matter how much we managed to amass, we could never have all that we wanted. Perhaps more importantly, our half of a foot in the counter-culture ‘60s made us feel guilty for wanting (or in many cases having) more stuff . As the white, upper-middle-class majority, we felt uncomfortable with our already privileged status. If mom and dad wanted to pay for four weeks in Europe, great, that’s their business, but otherwise forget it, I’m going to go be a bike messenger. The result: a collective generational psyche badgered into a kind of grumpy stasis.

Fortunately, the Clinton-era Internet boom removed one of the obstacles to the pursuit of wealth: the difficulty. For a time, making money wasn’t at all hard. All you needed was an idea (in retrospect not even a good one) and a convincing pitch for a venture capital firm and poof! Money. Failing that, a computer and an E*Trade account would do just as well. Even though the boom has busted, the power of those giddy times remains. We just have to wait for it to happen again, and this time, we’ll make sure to grab some cash instead of those now-worthless stock options.

Thanks to the neo-Bush administration, the other obstacle—guilt—has been removed as well. Previous wars asked that we scrimp and sacrifice, but now, according to our government, shopping is now the most patriotic act an individual can do as our country prosecutes the war on terror. To beat al-Qaeda, we must spend money and purchase goods and, above all, raise that consumer confidence.

Phew, what a relief! That beats scavenging rubber or rationing sugar any day!

With her extremely interesting and provocative book, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, Alissa Quart illuminates the darker side of this phenomenon and its effect on Gen X’s followers, the ‘millennial’ generation. Quart goes looking for signs of the inexorable creeping of consumerism, and finds them everywhere: movies, video games, malls, magazines, and even our public schools. Cracked open for years, the Pandora’s box of consumerist craving (now having been wrapped in the Stars and Stripes) has had the top blown off its hinges, inundating us with the shorthand identity of corporate America: the brand.

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, DFW gets comedic and thematic mileage over the ‘subsidizing’ of each year (‘Year of Glad,’ ‘Year of The Depends Adult Undergarment’), but this now hardly seems subversive or satirical, as our college football bowl games have become paeans to tortilla chips (Tostitos Fiesta Bowl), or cell phones (Nokia Sugar Bowl), and arenas and stadiums are named after either airlines (the United Center in Chicago, America West Arena in Phoenix) or big-box retailers (Staples Center in Los Angeles). Even novels, as seen with Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection—commissioned and underwritten by the high-end jeweler—can embrace corporate sponsorship.

While we may sigh and kvetch every time brands encroach into new areas of our lives, we don’t grumble too much, lest the golden goose lay a rotten egg. (Boy, that’s a little shady to let Coke have the exclusive contract to our high school, but lordy, look at that money!) Given the skyrocketing government budget deficit, I doubt we’d bat an eye at the decision to turn the year 2004 over to say, Gatorade, in return for a few hundred-million bucks.

But the devil is (perhaps literally) in the details, and Quart is expert at mining the dirtiest particulars of the brand invasion from her young subjects.

Quart shows us third-graders who know which beer comes in green bottles and which comes in brown bottles and thirteen-year-olds who drool over Manolo Blahniks. Quart takes us inside $30,000 shopping-themed bat mitzvahs featuring centerpieces fashioned from Tiffany, Gucci, and Gap shopping bags, and even a ‘secret’ Internet society of ‘pro-anorexia’ teen girls who find virtue in being able to count the ribs of the ultra-thin models and actresses they emulate.

By identifying the brand as the lifeboat teens reach for most often in their great quest for identity and belonging, Quart presents a convincing case for the corrosiveness of our current relationship with consumerism. The primary consequence, Quart argues, is a loss of childhood, as more and more teens work nearly full time outside of school in order to afford the ‘right’ clothes, or to save up for cosmetic surgery that they desperately ‘need.’ Quart interviews girls as young as eleven who shave and wax their bodies in order to adhere to fashion; she shows us children even younger who express a desire to be viewed as ‘sexy.’

And as early as eighth grade, anxious parents begin shelling out thousands of dollars on college-application tutors who drill their charges on everything from SAT prep to interview etiquette in order to enhance their chances of admission to a name-brand college: a necessary precursor to landing the high paying job that will enable the continuation of the purchasing cycle for the next generation.

While Quart also identifies and explores segments of the teen population that reject the corporate encroachment on their lives by wearing thrift-store clothes, or that protest the presence of sponsors inside their high schools, the overall picture is pretty grim. For the occasional iconoclast who chooses ‘unschooling’ (a kind of self-directed home schooling), there’s tens of thousands of others who are too scared for their future prospects (read: wealth and comfort) to opt out of the race. Much of the behavior is enabled by parents assuaging guilt over their absences by offering anything their children want them to buy. The result is a constant cycle of anxiety as both children and parent worry about how the kids stack up against their peers.

The villains of the story are the corporations and the marketers who come off as slimy and either unaware or uncaring to the damage they wreak as they refine their approaches to exploiting the weaknesses in ‘tween’ and teen psyches for commercial gain. Like the Borg of Star Trek fame, however, corporations exist to assimilate, thus to go after them as a potential solution is like attacking a cell for dividing or Clay Aiken for making that cheesy singing face.

And as Quart acknowledges repeatedly, targeting children and teens and the pervasiveness of brands as signifiers of identity is nothing new. She starts the book by recounting her own teen anxiety (circa-1983) over buying jeans at Macy’s, wondering if the ‘Jordache look’ will help her overcome her own typical teenage ‘self-loathing.’ Similarly, I recall kids at my grade school (circa-1982) who had their mothers replace JC Penney’s fox with Izod’s alligator on their shirts lest they be tagged as down-market shoppers.

Yet the change in attitude from generation to generation is undeniable. Because Quart takes her young subjects seriously, she is able to illustrate the off-putting intensity and anxiety over brands that is manifested among so much of today’s youth. Much of Quart’s research and observations is limited to the east coast, and heavily focuses on the predominantly white members of the upper-middle and even upper classes, which makes one wonder how pervasive the phenomenon is in other areas of the country, like the Bible belt, that supposedly embrace different values. (My hunch is that the differences are only a matter of degree, and not many degrees at that.) The somewhat narrow focus, however, does not undercut the power of Quart’s investigation, because in truth she is examining the future ruling class and she reveals how consumerism is now the accepted ideology and dogma of America and its government and we have our first generation entering into adulthood that accepts it unquestioningly. Gekko would be happy to know that greed is now, quite officially, good.

Ironically, the rise in consumerism embraced by the contemporary right has had a corrosive effect on the ‘family values’ and issues of morality that conservatives claim to embrace. Wal-Mart recently moved to stop distributing consumerist bibles like Maxim and FHM in their stores because they may improperly expose youngsters to sexual images, but they aren’t thinking twice about selling lipstick and blush to a ten-year-old.

The Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom scandals were fueled entirely by greed enabled by both the government and a willing public. While the key figures of the scandals were roundly spanked, it’s important to note that this happened only after the stock prices began to plummet and they were no longer useful sources for the rest of us to effortlessly generate wealth.

And as the pressure on families to up their incomes increases, parents are more often absent from the home, serving to nudge their emotionally developing offspring into the bosoms of the corporations that appear to care about them. Quart illuminates the phenomenon of unpaid teen consultants who observe their friends’ spending predilections and report back to their masters while simultaneously shilling for the brand. The marketing professionals ‘act like friends and chit-chat with them’ or send them emails. The teens are bolstered because adults are paying attention to and valuing what they have to say. Brands, literally, become a source of affirmation, and in return receive love and devotion.

The Gen X malaise stemmed from angst over the choice between effort and desire for material goods, but under the new paradigm choice is unnecessary in the face of desire. Just as the Bush administration can have both its war and its tax cut by exploding the deficit, so too can we have TiVo, HDTV, and an Xbox by charging it to our credit cards. As Quart and many others note, the amount of teen credit-card debt has been rising exponentially over the last decade, but the current administration has done nothing to address this problem.

Ultimately, though, the balance comes due, which should be, but apparently isn’t, a frightening prospect for us at all.
 

biopic

TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner