Sex, violence and spiralling debt. The roll call reads like a guide to misspent youth, and marketers should not be surprised to hear they are being blamed for encouraging such a lifestyle. Marketers are targeting children with inappropriate advertising more than ever, and a growing volume of protest from parents and authorities threatens the industry with shunned brands and unprecedented legislation if they fail to change their ways.
Supermarket Asda incurred the wrath of outraged parents last month for targeting girls as young as nine with see-through black lingerie. It later withdrew the range, blaming an ordering error. Homelessness charity Centrepoint recently branded the credit card industry 'unconscionable' when it revealed that marketers were urging young homeless people to apply for credit cards with incentives such as cash upfront and free trainers. And Reebok has been lambasted for glamorising gun crime following its high-profile TV ad starring US rapper 50 Cent.
There is no doubt that young people make potentially valuable customers.
UK tweens and teens are Europe's richest, with annual income per child reaching £775 in 2003, twice as much as for Spanish children, according to Datamonitor. This income is predicted to jump by about 10% to £848 in 2008.
But while youths are a prized target audience, do marketers have a moral obligation to market products more responsibly to them?
The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) has published a study analysing morality in marketing, which reveals that one-third of adults believe companies have a responsibility to educate consumers.
David Thorp, head of insight at the CIM, believes there is no question that marketers should take more responsibility.
'I'm the father of a 10-year-old girl, and I'm horrified at some of the marketing reaching out to young consumers. It seems to be getting worse in the age of mobile phones. I certainly believe that to be a good marketer you've got to put yourself in the position of a consumer. Young people think they know it all, but because of their unformed world views, they don't know what nasties are lurking out there. Marketers should take responsibility.'
But Thorp has little faith that marketers will recognise their responsibilities voluntarily. 'I've been in marketing for many years and I stopped expecting companies to do the right thing long ago,' he says. 'Most organisations won't choose to take the moral high ground unless they're forced to.'
It may well be the case that marketers are forced to, if they fail to impose self-regulatory sanctions. European regulations are clamping down more heavily on marketers' freedom and the trend is likely to accelerate if legislators are given ammunition.
Centrepoint is already lobbying the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to tighten up rules surrounding financial marketing to youths following its report into credit card promotion. 'The government and the FSA have to recognise that young people are a distinct group,' says Lisa Nandy, policy and research officer at Centrepoint. 'They have often just moved out of home and are learning to live independently. Throwing glossy brochures and free trainers at them, and raising their credit limits without request, isn't good for them. It's also not good for lenders, which will only have to chase them for payment. Lenders must exercise caution when promoting to this group.'
While Centrepoint is calling for an end to bad practice, it is not arguing that marketers should stop targeting these young people altogether. Living in hostels, they can be in desperate need of money to help them out of their current situation.
'We want to work with the credit industry to tackle this problem. These young people need credit, but it needs to be the right credit that doesn't saddle them with debt,' says Nandy. Centrepoint declined to reveal which brands were behind the campaigns, but said some had contacted the charity, keen to work with it to develop responsible marketing strategies.
Capital One has been among those lenders criticised, when it was quizzed last October by the Treasury Select Committee about targeting a young man a few days after his 18th birthday. The company offered him a credit card with £4000 free credit for six months, after which he would be charged an APR of 14.9%. A spokesman for Capital One denied that the youth was specifically targeted, saying the offer was automatically generated from a database. He admits, however, that the brand makes no allowances for the fact that it might be targeting a younger, more vulnerable group.
'That mailing was discussed and was subsequently changed, but it wasn't changed in relation to an age factor,' he says. 'We don't target, and would never target, a youth group. In our mailing system, an 18-year-old is treated in the same way as a 40-year-old, but we don't make the same lending decisions.'
Capital One also blamed the fact that under UK law, it can't access information which allows it to determine the earning details of the prospect. Nevertheless, this is not an issue the firm feels strongly enough about to be lobbying for change.
Many marketers whose risque youth strategies have provoked a backlash are reluctant to share their views on the subject, for fear of being lambasted.
French Connection, for example, has courted controversy in the past with its prolific media assault using the acronym FCUK in a host of sexually explicit contexts. But the clothing retailer declined to talk to Marketing on this subject, as did its long-standing agency of record, TBWA\London.
Similarly, Reebok only issued a statement justifying its use of 50 Cent in advertising, saying: 'Reebok does not condone or support every action or view expressed by the hundreds of athletes and celebrities who wear our products. However, we do support their individuality and their right to express themselves freely' (Marketing, 20 April).
Observers such as Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy (MCBD) managing director Helen Calcraft believe this is an unacceptable defence. She finds the Reebok campaign particularly galling, as MCBD holds the Metropolitan Police account and has been working hard to talk about gun crime in a responsible way. 'To have a glossy, cool TV brand undermining that is socially irresponsible,' she says. 'Reebok's response is disingenuous.
I accept the advertiser does not condone everything 50 Cent says, but surely it condones everything he says in its ad? If Alan Whicker said something outrageous in our Travelocity ads, then of course we'd consider it the brand's issue.'
Industry figures believe that the cumulative effect of youth strategies such as Reebok's is that marketing sullies its reputation and makes it more difficult to get responsible messages through to young people. Nevertheless, although they don't garner column inches, there are examples of responsible marketing strategies that are proving effective.
One of the most responsible ways to approach the youth market is to convey information in a clear, straightforward fashion. Oxford University is running its first national campaign, through integrated agency 23red, to encourage schoolchildren from all walks of life to apply, especially those who may be put off by financial concerns or misperceptions. It is using press, outdoor, online and bus panel advertising. When deciding on the creative, the team debated using language and imagery that would give it 'cool' credentials.
'We looked at using street language, but we felt that that was quite patronising,' says Jane Asscher, managing partner of 23red. 'We felt it was wrong because it didn't treat young people with respect or credit their intelligence. They can see through it, too. We decided to create a campaign that didn't try to talk like one of them at all.'
Similarly, vocational training body City & Guilds considered using former student Jamie Oliver as the 'face' of its ad-vertising. 'But using Oliver would have been a bit like tricking potential students into the message,' says Alistair Bryan, account director at the agency behind the campaign, Archibald Ingall Stretton (AIS).
Young people are often grappling to find their identity, so instead of exploiting this to 'sell' them the image of a lifestyle they could cling to, AIS decided that the most responsible route was to use research to find out what kind of information would be most helpful to them. The study revealed that many were career-driven, but dissatisfied with, and confused by, traditional career guidance services, which they felt took a one-size-fits-all approach.
'Rather than telling them "you should do this", we wanted to show them that City & Guilds opens up new avenues for every character attribute,' says Bryan. 'Young people often feel pushed from pillar to post, so we wanted to show them that "the real you is in there somewhere".'
City & Guilds' TV and press ads in youth media, such as E4 and magazine More, prompt viewers to request a brochure detailing 500 different qualifications, from which they can decide for themselves the course that best suits their personality.
A research-led approach is endorsed by Dubit, an online community for young adults. Its ongoing dialogue with young people reveals that they feel neglected by financial services brands, but want a way to pay for goods online that is tailored to their situation. After taking their views onboard, Dubit has launched an own-brand VIP discount and loyalty card that young people can use on the internet or on the high street via a personal identification number.
The card gives teenagers special deals on teen-focused offers, such as entry to events on under-18 nights and two-for-one cinema tickets.
The organisation is now in talks with an unnamed bank about adding a debit function. 'We were listening to teenagers for a long time to develop a card that they wanted,' says Ian Douthwaite, managing director of Dubit.
'If you adjust marketing so that it is teen-oriented, they don't feel they're being exploited. Good marketing is all about changing the product into something that teens are actually looking for.'
There are many reasons behind the phenomenon coined in marketing-speak as KGOY (kids growing older younger), and it is certainly not all down to advertising and marketing. It would be unrealistic and ludicrous, for example, to try to prevent young people from seeing any sexual or violent images - they only have to switch on news bulletins to witness the latter.
But being 'edgy' and appealing to youth doesn't have to be synonymous with being irresponsible or shocking.
One of the edgiest youth brands around, MTV, is vehemently committed to its 'prosocial' marketing initiatives. In a cluttered UK music television market, where it is relatively simple to set up a channel and get a listing on the EPG, MTV has to find ways in which it can add value to a young person's life to keep the brand relevant.
Last year, MTV launched a programme called 'Boom!' in 720 schools to inspire 13-year-olds in their music and information and communications technology classes. It aimed to help students learn how to use technology to make pop videos and allowed them rights-free access to MTV material.
The project is running again this year due to demand from schools.
MTV has a long tradition of educating young people on all manner of subjects, from sex trafficking to preventing the spread of AIDS through condoms.
But as well as believing that this is 'the right thing to do', the brand does it for another reason, which may prove more compelling to marketers than either the threat of legislation or being branded immoral for strategies that could be deemed irresponsible.
'Corporate social responsibility helps the brand enormously,' says James Scroggs, vice-president of marketing at MTV Networks UK & Ireland. 'It is less about selling and more about inviting audiences to buy. It's very effective. Campaigns such as Boom! are what real marketing is all about.'
CITY & GUILDS
The vocational training body researched the youth market to discover what really mattered to them before embarking on an ad campaign
Accused of high lending to vulnerable 18 year olds
'Boom!' campaign gives schoolchildren access to MTV material to help them learn how to use technology to make pop videos
Ad featuring US rapper 50 Cent counting down the number of times he had been shot saw Reebok accused of glorifying gun culture
Encouraged kids from all backgrounds to apply
Caused controversy with use of sexual imagery in its marketing, allied with the suggestiveness of its TBWA-inspired acronym
DATA FILE - YOUTH ATTITUDES
Marketers who believe that edgy, risque images are the most effective way of reaching an audience of young adults may not be as in tune with the youth of today as they would like to believe.
New research from OMD Insight suggests that young people are exhibiting a growing sense of responsibility for their actions. The research forms part of OMD's ongoing ROAR youth marketing project, which is now in its 10th year. The study compares the views of 15- to 25-year-olds in 2005, with 15- to 25-year-olds in 1995.
The study shows that today's young people are purposely going out to get drunk less, are more aware that drugs are equally, if not more, dangerous than alcohol, more of them believe smoking to be 'stupid' and they demonstrate a greater awareness of what is going on around them. They also feel more charitable toward their environment, both immediate and global.
ROAR results are being unveiled at a conference hosted by OMD Insight and Channel 4 on 11 May.
This article was first published on Marketing