Editor’s Note: The New Literate Teen

I grew up loving books....
September 1, 1996

I grew up loving books.

From my earliest days with Beatrix Potter, through a boyhood spent dreaming of the adventures of Jack London and Mark Twain, to the eclectic mix of literary subjects that accompanied a university degree in English, books had represented, for me, the purest source of intellectual nourishment.

I was shaken out of this narrow thinking about 10 years ago when I was introduced to a young boy through the Big Brothers organization. He represented my first meaningful contact with youth, really, since my own adolescence. As I came to know him and realized, as I did, that books had played a lesser role in his early intellectual development than in mine, I expected to find in him a view of life that would be somehow lacking.

Of course, precisely the opposite is true. His clear-eyed comprehension of the way things are, his ability to distinguish between the false and the genuine, and the sophisticated manner in which he approaches so many life experiences, never cease to amaze me. I have learned that while, if I reach back into my own boyhood, I can find many common emotions to share, he and I are extremely different kids.

This point comes through time and again in our special report on the teen market that begins on page 29 of this issue.

Today’s teenagers are like a new species, so much different from teenagers past. They are discerning, independent-minded and, not surprisingly, given the media environment in which they’ve grown up, they do not miss a trick. If literacy is defined not just as the ability to read and write, but also as the scope of one’s knowledge and understanding of the world in which one lives, today’s children have given the word new meaning.

Ad agency Leo Burnett found in research groups conducted on behalf of its client Nintendo that in just four seconds of commercial air time, a teen can detect the tiniest detail, from a change in a 3-D character to a new package color. ‘It’s mind-boggling what they’re able to pick up,’ says Burnett’s senior vice president and group director of research and planning Jana O’Brien. ‘They’re incredibly literate.’

And they are a powerful force in the marketplace. U.S. News & World Report has reported that U.S. kids aged 12 to 19 years spent $109 billion last year, and $63 billion of that came out of their own pockets. According to a joint study from Scholastic and ad agency Grey Advertising, kids are spending their money on everything from snacks and fast food to their own clothes and footwear.

The other issue of how much these precocious teens are affecting the big-ticket purchases that their parents make-such as cars or computers-has yet to be determined, though many marketers believe the influence is significant and, if anything, underestimated. At the very least, the dynamic between teen and parent has changed dramatically, as our ‘KidThink’ column in this issue indicates (see page 11).

Any way you look at it, the kids market is an important, but elusive consumer block that these days requires a lot more than book-learning to fully understand.

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