Peer pressure beyond the playground

All over the UK this week, blazer-clad role models of perfect teen behaviour will be plastering pictures of Jamie Cullum on their bedroom walls, applying stickers of the jazz musician to their lunch boxes and sampling his new CD, while executives of Universal Records wait for an anticipated surge in sales among private-school girls.

Why? A senior exec probably spotted a few neatly turned out middle-class girls at concerts and dispatched a package of Cullum merchandise and his new CD to hundreds of head girls.

Now excuse me for being a cynic, but surely head girls are only cool in Enid Blyton books and copies of Jackie from the 1970s. These days, the number of girls who aspire to becoming the top teacher's pet are not thick on the ground – even in the independent sector.

But record companies are canny about the playground. An earlier promotion for Busted was banned after protests, but not before it engendered such pester power that I too gave in and had to endure them almost non-stop for six months. And my daughter is only seven years old.

Anyone who has kids will recognise the insidious power of peer pressure. Take Scoobies – coloured plastic strings that can be plaited. Not the most dynamic of products, but any parent who failed to send their kid to school with a bag full of them pre-summer break was in danger of exposing the child to ridicule.

Peer pressure in the playground is a serious business, which is why firms such as Universal go looking for 'cool-hunters' – kids who are cool themselves, can spot trends and influence their peers. And the principle does not just apply to the playground. As we grow up, peer pressure may decline, but as our trust in institutions, government and media has withered, peer influence has increased. And as PRWeek explores in its upcoming Management Report on 'Influencing the Influencers' (14 October), if you can identify and reach key figures in local communities and gain their endorsement, you can create a huge shift in buying patterns.

But such ringleaders are not easy to identify. It would be great if playground and local community structures mirrored those of the boardroom. A few years ago, Hasbro identified what it termed 'alpha pups' by asking eight to 13-year-old boys to name the coolest person they knew; they then went to this person and repeated the exercise, until they hit the key influencer among that group of kids.

I suspect if Universal undertook the same exercise it would not have ended up with the head girl.

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