Image Is Everything

Was shopping for school with your teenage daughter a challenge this year? If it was, you're not alone. The skimpy clothing popular among young girls has led some public schools to move to uniforms. Not a bad idea. What's behind the push to dress provocatively? One fact that clues us in, observes Alissa Quart in her new book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, is that "youth is nothing less than a metaphor for change." That is, kids are trying to establish their identities. Marketers cash in on this search for self by selling "image" to youth -- and increasingly, that image is sexual. We've seen this in Abercrombie and Fitch's thong underwear for 7-year-olds, as well as the company's depictions of bare-chested young males with provocative expressions in its advertising. And now Playboy sells clothing for teenagers. But it's not just the sexual image that many of these companies push on teens; the idea that they can acquire an identity through brands is the real threat to impressionable youth. Quart quotes Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who decries the increase in materialism in bar and bat mitzvahs: "Conspicuous consumption with these events teaches the children that spending and having [are] more important than being." For many young people today, spending and having are synonymous with being. And having brand names, in their minds, is what makes them become "cool." "Cool is essential in establishing a brand identity," notes Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio, "especially with teenagers, whose purchases tend to be more desperately linked with the establishment of an identity than are those of adults." "The term brand," says Quart, "suggests both the ubiquity of logos in today's teen dreams and the extreme way these brands define teen identities." It's true -- it's hard to turn your head in public without seeing brand names on posters, billboards, or the sides of buses. And this affects young people profoundly. "One thing that's so compelling and strange about the uptick in marketing to kids," says Quart, "is how much these practices have taken advantage of organic things that already exist in childhood and adolescence: the desire to communicate [opinions] . . . the sense of lack of identity, changing bodies and burgeoning sexuality, a desire to emulate adult culture." Manufacturers and advertisers are participating in the phenomenon of "kids getting older younger." And in the process, imagination has been lost. Kids used to play with stuffed animals and other toys; now they take fashion cues from Britney Spears and play brand-name-laden video games. "The kind of imaginary world kids make up with their toys," said Myers, "is a zone in which they're really defining themselves." Now, they're being defined by marketers. "As Lionel Trilling wrote thirty years ago, authenticity is an even more 'strenuous moral experience' than sincerity. [Brand-name products] aim to harness teens' desire for an ideal . . . world and give them a branded one instead," writes Quart. Our job, of course, is to teach our kids and grandkids to find their identity in themselves as God made them, rather than being swayed by brands and commercialized images -- because in allowing themselves to be "branded," they not only lose money, they lose their true identity.
For Further Reading and Information
Alissa Quart, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (Perseus, 2003). The "Marketing and Consumerism" page of the Media Awareness Network includes links to resources for parents to teach children and teens about marketing and advertising. The May/June 2003 Mars Hill Audio Journal includes an interview with Alissa Quart. Call 1-877-3-CALLBP to receive the fact sheet "How to Keep Your Kids Unbranded," which includes facts and tips to help your kids become market savvy. Sally Beatty, "Too Cool for School," Wall Street Journal, 15 August 2003. Laura Sessions Stepp, "Playboy's Bunny Hops into Teens' Closets," Washington Post, 17 June 2003, C01. Deborah Roffman, "Way Too Much Fantasy with That Dream House," Washington Post, 22 December 2002, B01. Bethany Patchin, "The Eye of the Beholder," Boundless, 2 August 2000. BreakPoint Commentary No. 020916, "Multiplying like Rabbits: Fashion's Assault on Our Children." BreakPoint Commentary No. 020617, "From Diapers to Thongs: Abercrombie and 'Outrageous Times'." BreakPoint commentary no.010315, "Mooks and Midriffs: Bypassing Parental Authority." Michael and Diane Medved, Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence (HarperCollins, 1999). Call 1-877-322-5527 to order a copy from BreakPoint for a donation of $15. Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty (Scribner, 2000).


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary