Monday, December 31, 2007

Pay $2,500 to meet that mysterious species... teenagers

The LA Times yesterday published what I think must officially be the one millionth story on one of those idiotic "trend guru's," marketing mavens who get paid thousands of dollars by corporations to tell them what mysterious Gen Y'ers and X'ers think.

It's all the typical blather categorizing millions of diverse people born in the same 12 year chunk with some snazzy buzzwords. But I was particularly fascinated by this bit at the end of the article:

Yet the high point of the afternoon was a carefully culled panel of -- yes! -- authentic teenagers. There were largely kids from high schools and colleges across Los Angeles, guys like Jack, a gregarious 18-year-old who works at the clothing company Hollister, attends Beverly Hills High and owns 35 pairs of shoes. They were paid $100.

Almost all of them seemed at ease in their skins, as if they'd been asked 1,000 times before about the minutiae of their lives. And the audience members fired questions at them. What would they most like to do with their cellphones? What video games do they play?

These racially and economically diverse teenagers seem more assured than your average teenager lolling around the mall or MySpace. "Kids who agree to do panels are more poised than normal," allows Buckingham, though she does point out that kids today are more "poised than kids 10 years ago. Kids are more savvy, and more sophisticated, and grow up more quickly. I'm always amazed even if you go to Indiana or Wisconsin you hear a lot of the same things you do in Beverly Hills."

Still, the kids jazz the audience; it's like each marketer is finally able to hook up directly with the power source. One can begin to see how Buckingham gets some of her ideas about a whole generation with the attention span of gnats and the vulnerability of children who've been handed most everything by their doting parents.

Is anyone else as amazed as me that corporations pay $2,500 to attend a conference where they get to speak to real honest to goodness teenagers? Is it REALLY that hard to find a bunch of teenagers willing to talk about the stuff they like to buy? Don't most companies have a few employees with teenagers of their own? Or is that hard to go to a mall or high school sports game or whatever and just ask some kids questions? The idea of a few teenagers in the front of a room being barraged with questions by a bunch of marketing VPs would be beyond laughable... if I hadn't actually seen it myself at a conference once and almost lost my lunch.

Beyond the absurdity of paying thousands of dollars for the chance to hear some kids talk when, in my experience, they never seem to stop talking at every movie theater in America, there are two obvious problems here:

-Teenagers aren't idiots. They know what kind of stuff marketing folks want to hear and they know how to perform for that audience. Is there any chance at all that in front of this audience, a kid is going to say "actually, my cell phone isn't that important to me" or "I don't really care what brand of shoes I wear"?

-When the panel of teenagers is organized by a woman who makes her living by telling the world what teenagers want, what are the odds that any of the panelists she picks will disagree with her about anything?

Honestly, the more I learn about how the business world works, the less plausible I find the idea that capitalism is remotely rational.

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