Target: Young girls

By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune

September 21, 2004

Selling products through advertising is like what George Burns said about acting: "The most important thing is sincerity. Once you learn how to fake that, you have it made."

Ads try to speak to us in the voice of friendship, urging us to buy products because of what they will do for us -- making us younger, thinner, more fragrant, more confident, more popular. Very often they show us a person with a problem being counseled by a wiser friend who explains that new and improved Yummy-Yums are just what we need. But even kids are skeptical, learning very young that commercials are made by people who want to sell us things and, unlike friends, they may not always have our best interests at heart.

That's why business is doing its best to eliminate the middleman. If we are less susceptible to the advice of the pretend friends in ads, they reason, maybe we will listen to the advice of real friends. That sums up the latest tactic for selling products: "viral marketing," encouraging people to spread the word to their friends, who then spread the word to more friends.

Ads on television and in print are clearly identified as such, but viral marketing is a form of stealth advertising in which one party knows that there is a commercial purpose to the conversation but the other does not.

This is particularly useful -- and particularly unconscionable -- when it comes to those much-valued consumers, older children and teenagers. Teens spent $175 billion in 2003, an average of $103 per week, according to a January 2004 report by Northbrook-based Teenage Research Unlimited. They like to express their developing sense of individuality with their purchases and are resistant to any efforts to sell to them that appear to be too corporate. So, to get some of that $175 billion, companies take a lower-key approach.

Procter & Gamble's in-house "Tremor" program has identified a quarter of a million "influential" teens, the ones who are likely to be perceived as trendsetters, and gives them free samples, CDs and movie passes. Tremor asks for feedback, but more important to them is the cool factor their products gain thanks to the "influential" teens.

Similarly, Girl's Intelligence Agency is a marketing and research firm specializing in selling to girls and women ages 8-29.

"In today's market where teens and tweens are using so much media, it's really hard to get through the clutter. We understand how these kids communicate with each other, what messaging turns them off, and we make recommendations to our client about the best way to position products so you get strong word of mouth," Laura Groppe, the company's CEO, said in an interview.

Slumber parties

"Our main way of providing marketing services is through slumber parties hosted by tween and teen girls," Groppe explained. GIA has 40,000 "secret agents," each pre-qualified to fit specific marketing-related criteria, sorted by age, interests and "body care ritual" preferences.

"They check in with us every week, and we do surveys and polls and personality quizzes and introduce them to new products, concepts and ideas," she said. "We do a minimum of 500 parties, with each girl inviting 10 or 11 girlfriends. We send them a `slumber-party in a box' so there are branded pieces with games and activities built around, for example, the theme of a movie or free samples of various beauty or skin care products."

`An exclusive trailer'

To make the girls feel special and important, GIA will send them "an exclusive [movie] trailer or something personal from the talent [celebrity], to make a strong emotional connection," Groppe said. "We work with them online to plan snack and game ideas" for the party to help promote the product. "If 6,000 girlfriends are partying on the same night, they can potentially spread the word of mouth to 300,000 girls."

This market is a hot one. Companies that previously focused only on adults are eager to expand their markets to younger customers with buying power. "For the beauty-care industry, the teen and tween demographic is a new category for them -- low-hanging fruit," Groppe said.

For example, hair-coloring products traditionally have been pitched to adult women with slogans such as "Because I'm worth it," or "Hate that gray? Wash it away!" For young women to whom hair coloring is a fashion accessory, the pitch has to change.

"These girls are making purchases based on a friend's recommendation, not a TV ad," Groppe said. So instead of creating commercials for that age group, a company might rely on girls signed up as "secret agents" (to clients, GIA refers to them as "agent influencers") to get the word out.

On its Web site, GIA tells prospective clients it will take you "behind enemy lines -- GIA takes you into girls' bedrooms."

"Thousands of party attendees are unleashed into the field armed with a voice and a personal connection to you and your product," the Web site says.

In an interview, psychologist Dr. Susan Linn used words such as "insinuate" and "infiltrate" to describe such marketing tactics.

"Ad agencies are feeling threatened by commercials because of TiVo and remote controls, and they want to insinuate their brands into every aspect of children's lives any way they can," said Linn, who is associate director of the Media Center for Children at the Harvard University-affiliated Judge Baker Center. "Even what used to be a purely social experience becomes infected with marketing that exploits children's friendships. They are exploiting young girls' need to belong and their need to be popular."

Groppe resisted the suggestion that it is unfair to blur the line between friend and hired sales representative, noting GIA does not sign up girls under ages 8, and in every case it gets permission from the girl's parents.

GIA has turned down inappropriate products, she said, but declined to give an example.

Before movie finished

However, the company accepts movie promotion business before the movie is completed, Groppe said, so GIA does not necessarily know the content of a film its "agent influencers" talk about to their friends.

Indeed, the movie "Just Married" got GIA's slumber-party-in-a-box treatment. That film included very raunchy and explicit humor about having sex in an airplane lavatory and about an electronic sex toy -- the kind of content that earned it a PG-13 rating. Some parents might be dismayed to learn their daughter attended a slumber party aimed at creating buzz about a movie they prefer she not see.

Groppe disputes the idea that GIA's marketing approach is unfair or exploitive. "We're not endorsing a product or telling them to tell their friends this is good -- the power is in their hands," she said.

No one can make them endorse a product or a movie they don't like, she continued. "They're smart enough. They're watching Nickelodeon; they know what ads are."

But the whole point is that these viral marketing strategies don't involve ads. The Web site inviting girls to become "secret agents" does not mention GIA is a marketing company hired by corporations that want to sell products to girls. It appears to be a special club for girls with "the right stuff," complete with quizzes, polls, contests to win slumber-parties-in-a-box -- and promotions for GIA clients. "Secret agents" also get to share their thoughts and problems on public message boards. Current messages include "Am I fat?" from an 8-year-old. The reply from "Agent Kiki," whose "administrator" designation suggests she is a GIA employee, is fine -- she tells the child not to worry about her weight, to eat healthy food and exercise, and she signs off with kisses and hugs.

`Big sis'

The company describes it this way to potential clients: "GIA maintains a `big sis' relationship with over 40,000 Agents, ages 8-29, nationwide. These young women look to GIA for support and guidance as well as insights into the `next big thing' for their [demographic]."

Though they are unlikely to realize it, kids who are chosen by marketing companies as "secret agents," "influential" teens and the like are giving up their own credibility as honest and candid evaluators of consumer goods for a box of giveaways and some positive reinforcement.

An online "big sis" who is getting paid to make them feel important, grown-up and part of an exclusive club might give responsible, appropriate advice to children and teens. But when Big Sis creates and maintains the relationship for marketing purposes, she is a fake friend who is just selling something.

The dilemma for parents is clear. It's difficult enough to resist the nagging of a child eager to have something she saw on TV. Now it requires teaching her to be mistrustful of commercial messages from friends. Unfortunately, the current advertising climate makes it even harder for a parent to remind children it's not what you buy, but who you are that is important.


Nell Minow reviews movies for radio stations across the U.S. every week and on

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