it or not, modern American culture is permeated with sex: from the
steamy billboards foresting Times Square to the proliferation of
"porn studies" on college campuses; from pop song lyrics to R-rated
movies to the wild popularity of Internet porn sites.
That sex sells is nothing new. What is new, claim some
academics and family advocacy groups, is the sexual targeting of an
ever-younger audience by corporate America.
Teens and, increasingly, pre-teens are bombarded not just with
sexualized marketing, but with what many experts construe to be
sexualized products — items that just a decade ago would have been
considered "for adults only."
Eye Candy or
A case in point is the recent brouhaha over Abercrombie &
Fitch's peddling of sexually suggestive thong underwear to young
The rear-less underwear, decorated with pictures of cherries and
catchphrases like "kiss me," "wink wink" and "eye candy," sparked an
outcry from conservative groups when it hit store shelves earlier
Bill Johnson, president of the Michigan-based, family advocacy
group American Decency Association, which is boycotting the
retailer, calls the underwear "pornographic" and says they would fit
a child as young as seven. He adds: "There is an ongoing trend to
sexualize youth. … There are clearly a core of marketers who will go
as low as they are permitted to go."
Abercrombie disagrees, saying in a written statement that the
underwear was meant to be "lighthearted and cute." The firm
maintains the product is aimed at girls aged 10 or over, even though
the Abercrombie Kids line, under which the thongs are marketed, is
aimed at girls aged 7-14.
Me and My Calvins
To be sure, sex in teen-targeted marketing has sparked
controversy for years.
Remember the outcry in the 1980s over then-15-year-old Brooke
Shield's saucy claim that "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins?"
Or the uproar triggered by Calvin Klein's 1995 so-called "teen porn"
ad campaign, which elicited a Justice Department investigation into
whether or not Klein had violated child pornography laws?
Yet a number of experts on both sides of the cultural wars feel
that something new is afoot.
However sexualized Calvin Klein's marketing campaigns have been
in the past, the products touted were age neutral. But now thongs or
racy bras that were once unequivocally for adults only are being
peddled to pre-teenage girls.
"The phenomenon is real," remarks Stephen Greyser, professor at
the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., who specializes in
consumer marketing and advertising. "There is a broader acceptance
today of a looser standard than what was acceptable 10 or 15 years
The broadening of what is acceptable in terms of sexual
marketing, described by Columbia Business School Professor Michelle
Greenwald as "gradual creep," can be discerned in the traditionally
"mature" products that are today peddled to an immature audience.
A recent example comes from Victoria's Secret, known for its
sultry television ads and its racy live lingerie shows. The firm is
now entering the teen market with its Design Your Own Bra line.
Targeted at teens who enjoy do-it-yourself fashion and who eschew
the staid training-bras of yesteryear, Victoria's Secret's lingerie
can be personalized with a panoply of charms, baubles, pins, and
other decorative items.
Then there is the recent spate of women-cum-teen magazines.
Elle, Vogue and Cosmopolitan have all launched
teen publications. And while the teasers on the covers of teen
magazines are tamer than those of their adult counterparts — "Look
Hot for Under $20" and "The Best Ways to Flirt" versus "Advanced
Pleasure Peaking" — the underlying themes are the same.
The line between what is appropriate for youth versus women's
magazines can be blurry. A full-page ad for Bloussant's Breast
Enhancement Pills appeared in a recent issue of Teen Vogue
touting "increased breast size and firmness" and heightened
self-confidence. The magazine's target age: girls aged 12 to 19.
Economy, Family Changes at
The acceleration of sexualized marketing into realms once
considered taboo is rooted in a number of dynamics, according to
Joan Jacobs Brumberg, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality
studies at Cornell University and author of The Body Project.
"It's a complex interaction of changes within the family,
economic factors … and niche marketing," says Brumberg. She cites
factors such as a "less authoritarian" family structure due to
changes in the typical family unit (single parents, dual-working
households) and the growing importance of youth as consumers — both
because of children's greater purchasing power and their larger role
in family buying decisions.
"I'd say consumer capitalism is the problem," remarks Judith
Levine, author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting
Children from Sex. "The way that capitalism works is that you
have to keep on increasing your market … and there are only so many
adult women. And if growing is the most important thing, which it is
in our culture, you need new markets."
Indeed, if companies are in need of new markets, the teen niche
is one place to look. According to Teen Research Unlimited, teen
spending (defined as spending by those aged 12 to 19) hit $172
billion last year. And the demographic is on the rise. Value
Investing Partners reports that since 1992, and for the first time
in nearly two decades, the number of American teens has been
And these teens are mad about spending money: The average teen
shops 54 times per year and buys 8-12 pairs of jeans. Amazingly,
these eye-popping figures exclude spending by Britney
Erotica Is Everywhere
Cultural factors, as well as dollars, also come into play. The
ubiquity of sexual messages in modern American culture affects both
the threshold of acceptability of sexualized marketing, as well as
teenagers' receptivity to and demand for these products, experts
Erotica has gone "mainstream," argues Jane Buckingham of Youth
Intelligence, a New York-based consulting firm focused on teen
trends. Young people are subjected to sexual messages even when they
are not the explicit targets of such content, agrees Harvard's
Greyser. As an example, she pointed to the sexual imagery in
television promotions for R-rated movies or sexy billboard ads aimed
at adults but viewed by children.
"Being in the media audience has an impact on the minds of
younger people," says Greyser, adding, "If it's on the air and in
the air," then children will be impacted.
Further influencing society's tolerance for sexualized marketing
and products is what Greenwald calls a "convergence of personal role
models." Greenwald observes, "Young girls want to look more
grown-up, synonymous with looking sexy. And mothers want to look
younger and sexy, too."
But a backlash of sorts can be detected, at least in the
entertainment sector. A December 2001 Federal Trade Commission
report found that progress has been made by the entertainment and
music industries in curbing the "inappropriate" marketing to younger
audiences of violent and sexually explicit entertainment.
The Bottom Line
Still, these moves appear to have limited impact against a trend
so intertwined with the current cultural zeitgeist.
And some experts believe that the importance of this trend has
been over-stated. "I don't think companies … are hugely
irresponsible," says Buckingham. "They will push the envelope, of
course but…for the most part, I think they are responsible."
As far as what the future holds for this trend, it seems that the
bottom line may be…well, the bottom line.
"There's always something that is going to cause controversy…teen
marketing tries to push the edge," notes Buckingham.
Greenwald agrees. "If it didn't sell, no one would do it."