Every time I read something about the latest Lolita scandal in Hollywood I wonder: "What the heck are they thinking?"
No, not the girls themselves. Not the Vanessa Hudgenses and Miley Cyruses of this world. They're just kids. I mean the adults who run their lives.
I mean their parents, managers and the people behind the Hollywood publicity machines that feed on the sexualized, objectified images of these teens and tweens.
When Billy Ray Cyrus keeps opening his mouth and bringing up the subject of his daughter's Vanity Fair photo shoot, he knows darn well he's keeping the story alive and the image of Miley's racy nymphette pose out there in the media. It's no accident when those pictures are broadcast into the homes of young Hannah Montana fans during the dinnertime news hour. (And I'll bet my last dollar Cyrus Senior knew what he was doing at the time of the photo shoot, because as legal guardian of a minor he would have been required to sign off on the proofs. Don't tell me that a veteran showbiz guy could have been duped in that situation.)
The bottom line is that these people think they are extending the brand. Hot young things get talked about. The more buzz, the more product they move.
But they couldn't be more wrong. The questionable ethics notwithstanding, it's short-sighted and invariably leads to brand burnout with everyone but the tabloids.
Don't take my word for it. This is the straight dope from the consumers of these brands, and their parents. Buzz Marketing Group, a firm I founded that conducts market research about what youth really want, has an army of about 9,000 teens, tweens, and young adults in 20 countries available online. We call them buzzSpotters®. If we want to know what their mood is, we can find out with the click of a mouse. These youth report back to us about what the latest trends are long before they get picked up by the media. They tell us what they like, and what they don't like. When we want to know what kids want, we ask them and they tell us the unfiltered truth. Our clients are Fortune 500 companies and leading consumer brands, and they pay handsomely for the information we provide them.
The audience for the latest tween sensations — the young girls who go insane for the latest Hannah Montana CD — love their idols because they can relate to them. They love the latest slate of Disney stars because their storyline is something 11-year old girls, and boys, can identify with. Miley Cyrus has been the phenomenon that she is because she personifies the plucky, girl-next door who seems just like the millions of kids she plays to.
I don't doubt Ms. Cyrus has still got some shelf life left in her. My five-year old cousin Zoey is only just discovering her. She saw the movie, and the other day I had to buy her a Hannah Montana lunch box. She knows nothing about the controversy, and my buzzSpotters® are like, "Whatev." They don't understand it and they don't really care. It doesn't enhance sales. It washes over the kids who buy the products all this scandal is ultimately supposed to push.
But let's not forget mom and dad. I know the parents who hold the purse strings are freaking out. For now I don't mind shelling out for Zoey's lunch box, or the movie tickets. But the minute that I, or Zoey's mom, sense that something inappropriate is getting on her radar, it's over.
Hannah did so well because until now, she's been one of the few alternatives to that Mean Girl/Gossip Girl culture. She was a breath of fresh air compared with Britney Spears, et al. At a time when Britney's little sister Jamie Lynn is making headlines for her teenage pregnancy,
Hannah Montana is the safest of the safe brands. But look what's happened to her!
That's why I created Mackenzie Blue. Earlier this year I signed a multi-book deal with HarperCollins children's book division that's unprecedented. They saw the potential of a character who has character. The heroine of the series, nicknamed "Zee," is the antidote to all the negative images for young girls that proliferate in the marketplace.
From studying the trends I knew tweens were going to be over the mean girl stuff. My buzzSpotters say they like Zee because she's a smart girl who's an individual struggling to fit in without compromising who she is. Instead of getting into cat fights with the popular girl who doesn't like her, Zee tries to figure out a way they can be in the same classroom together and get along. That's what makes her so much cooler than the popular girl.
She's not some designer-clad sex pot who sneaks into Bungalow 8 and orders Appletini's with a fake ID. She's a good girl who cares about the world and the environment. Her social circle is ethnically, nationally and socially diverse. She texts her friends and lives for the next technology gadget, but she and her girlfriends vow to never wear makeup that's tested on animals.
It's true Zee is a bright girl who is privileged enough to go to a private school in Brookdale, a nice neighborhood just outside of Los Angeles. Some aspects of her story had to be aspirational. But the characters in the book never talk about money or social status. And Zee herself, her goals and her dreams, are 100% attainable. I sampled the book among some tweens and they loved it. They appreciated Zee for her uniqueness, but also because, in so many ways, she is just like them.
I'm already seeing signs in the popular culture that the zeitgeist is beginning to shift. Take Sophia Bush, the beautiful young actress who has forsworn all the narcissistic, unhealthy behavior of her peers. Sophia's friend Brittany Snow, another lovely young woman and a budding tween icon, has banned diets from her life.
For further proof that grit trumps glamour, check out the new American Girl movie, Kit Kittridge, set in the Great Depression. I saw it the other night and I was so surprised and impressed by how responsible it was. It couldn't be farther removed from the usual tween fare, but it opened to raves from critics and finished in the top 10 at the box office this weekend.
Real or fictional, these girls are healthy examples and that's Zee all over. She would never attempt to be a size zero. Real girls are also taking the pressure off themselves to be all slick and sexy. They know that it's their little imperfections that make them human and set them apart from the trend slaves.
Thousands of tweens are getting it. They know that life has to be about more than starving themselves into glamorous clothes and clubbing with cute boys. I get why that's not a big story on the media's radar. Lindsay Lohan's latest hot mess sells far more magazines than a clean cut tween idol raising money for charity. But marketers should know better. They need to cut through all the hype that does a disservice to the average girl and boy. Our kids have had enough. In a nutshell, this is what they're telling us:
Mean girls and Lolitas are bad for business.
Tina Wells, 28, founded Buzz Marketing Group when she was just 17. A leading consulting company that specializes in the latest youth trends, Buzz clients include St. Martin's Press, SonyBMG, Sesame Workshop and Time Inc., to name a few. A trailblazer in her field, her list of honors include Essence Magazine's 40 Under 40 Award, Billboard's 30 Under 30 Award, and AOL's Black Voices Female Entrepreneur's Award.