Marketing to Teens Without Showing Too Much 'Skin'

MTV is in hot water with some advertisers and parenting groups over one of its newest dramas. When marketing your business to teens, should you be cautious of showing too much “skin?”

MTV is no stranger to controversy over its choice of programming, from a series on expectant teens to one that follows a rowdy and party-hungry group of “Jersey Shore” twenty-somethings on their summer break, the network has had many successes turning this risqué and live-reality television into profits from advertisers. But some say its latest drama “Skins,” which covers with visual footage the sex lives of teens aged as young as 15, is going too far. Advertisers have been pulling out by the day, including Subway and Taco Bell, and some critics say the show itself may be in violation of child pornography laws.

Matt Britton, CEO and founder of Mr. Youth, a marketing agency, said while MTV has always aimed for controversy with its programming, this latest attempt at going for shock value may be alienating its advertising base.  But he said that is a decision to be made regarding what's best for business, and not based on a moral issue, as ultimately it comes down to parents, not advertisers, to police what content teens are exposed to.

“It’s more of a parental issue than an MTV issue,” Britton said. “Young people will have access to content that is not wholesome in a variety of sources. Parents need to raise their kids and let them know they will have access to information like that, and if brands don’t want to associate, the market will really determine if they can make a viable business model out of that.”

MTV is only doing what has come naturally to it over the network’s evolution, according to Cliff Courtney, chief strategy officer at Zimmerman Advertising. Since the days of the “Real World” in the 1990s, MTV has marketed to teens through scandal and controversy.

“The object of programming is to tell a good story, and at the heart of every great story there is conflict,” Courtney said. “MTV had to up the ante in salacious content. But, I will say that “Teen Mom” does come across as much more of a cautionary tale.”

However, getting through to teens doesn’t necessarily need to involve sex, drugs and early pregnancy. Here are some strategies from marketing experts on how to efficiently target teenagers.

No. 1: Be authentic. Most teens can see right through businesses pretending to be something they are not, and they don’t like it. “Teens are very savvy,” Britton said.

“They can sniff out brands that are trying to manufacture cool, and they will call you out on it.” Courtney agreed, adding, “This audience has the most acute BS-meter of all time. They were raised in the culture of 4,000 messages a day and 500 channels on T.V.”

No. 2: Be a collaborator brand. Small businesses can utilize social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to ask teens to put in their two cents as to where products or service are headed. Britton said teens respond well to brands that care about their opinion.

“Have them contribute their input on what the logo should look like, or what product should be sold next in stores,” he said. “They will say, “that brand is really listening to me.’”

No. 3: Teens have all the answers. Or at least they think they do, and businesses need to play into this belief.

“We know wisdom is accumulated through time, but you have to respect that they can believe that,” Courtney said. Instead of trying to teach teens something, market to them as if they already know it.

No. 4: Provide utility. Teens are attracted to products, services and stores that provide utility to their own lives, Britton said. He cited the energy drink industry as an example, because they are marketing efficiently to teens on the go.

“They show teens they can accomplish something, and keep going, by using their product,” he said.

No. 5: Know what they want. Teens aspire to fit in, be popular and be admired by their peers, Courtney said, and businesses need to remember that when marketing.

“Their aspiration is to be the thing that puts you in with the peer group,” he said. “No one aspires to be an outcast… although some embrace the role when it is thrust upon them.”