Our Tender Youth Imperiled-Yet Another Corporate Menace

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers , by Alissa Quart. Perseus, 239 pages, $25.

In this breathless, occasionally raspy treatise about the over-commercialization of adolescence, Alissa Quart piggybacks, Prada knapsack–like, onto a couple of hot trends in the American book business. The first is the rich-kids-say-the-darnedest-things school of journalism, which involves reporters in their 30’s and 40’s visiting the strange and faraway Narnia of affluent teenland, quoting their subjects by first name only while they say “like” and “you know” a lot-as if this unearths particularly raw, authentic societal truths. The second is the rattling crusade against corporate control and globalization; see for example Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool (1997), Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2000) and the increasingly insufferable McSweeney ‘s clique, with its homemade, Bento-box approach to publishing. Branded is about companies, with their insatiable lust for profit, infiltrating and exploiting fragile juvenile identities; it’s also about juvenile attempts to construct some kind of fragile identity in a spiritually depreciated consumer culture. You might even say that Ms. Quart has written “two, two, two books in one”-but then you’d betray your indoctrination, circa 1985, at age 13, by a certain popular advertisement for Certs, the breath mint. And that’s exactly her point.

These days we all know-simply by flipping on the tube or walking past a newsstand or trying to figure out how the pop singers Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch can possibly exist at the same time-that Generation Y, those wireless, tireless spawn of the baby boomers, constitute a force whose potential purchasing power is even more momentous than that of their parents. By sheer virtue of their population numbers, buying power and savvy, teens are not merely in vogue-the brats have a Vogue of their own, as well as editions of Elle , Cosmo , and People custom-edited just for them. Entire carpeted auditoriums of middle-age movie, TV, retail and Internet executives devote themselves to tracking the spending habits of these juniors, decoding their preferences, catering to their every mass hiccup. Yet Branded ‘s author sees not the pampered, autonomous Mini-Me’s one might expect from such circumstances, but rather a sad, hollow, cheated generation, thoroughly saturated by artful product placement, co-opted by viral marketing, oppressed by the trickle-down effect of the (now rather pockmarked) “contemporary luxury economy.” She takes a hard look at a cosmetics-coated, designer-handbag-toting young mob in the parking lot of one Manhasset mall and writes, “It all makes me rather anxious.” She ponders the Backstreet Boys’ entertainment marketing firm and concludes they engage in “promotional wilding.” She watches the cynical cheerleader movie Bring it On , starring Kirsten Dunst, and tsks at the teenage actresses “encased in super-tight shirts, jog bras, colored panties, and even sudsy wet bikinis.” Scoot over that fainting couch!

Ms. Quart’s air of prim, detached shock is curious, considering she’s a not-entirely-over-the-hill-yet 30 herself, sort of like a slightly overprotective older sister or concerned young aunt playing Mom to kids who aren’t exactly crying out for help. The force of her indignation propels her through dozens of parking lots into grim little hamlets like Uniondale, N.Y., and Dedham, Mass., where she tracks down and debriefs soul-sapped little Avon-ladies-in-training and corporate trend-spotters. (Suffice to say, this kind of entrepreneurship goes way beyond Girl Scout cookies.) Like an unmarked deluxe motor coach bumbling earnestly around suburban America, Ms. Quart stops in at marketing conferences and peeks at teenagers’ bedrooms and then vrooms out again without ever really connecting the dots. In a few chapters-like those on teen Web cams and young male body-building-it seems like she’s veering off onto unnecessarily circuitous byways. Curiously, something about her book’s well-organized sprawl calls to mind the very shopping malls it bashes: The reader, like the shopper, pops in at will, ambles about boutique-like chapters on teen cinema, teen video games, teen cosmetic surgery, forgets completely that she’s enclosed in a larger structure-and emerges again, somewhat bleary-eyed and depleted.

Though she derides teenagers’ addiction to the power of names and brands, Ms. Quart is a graduate of Brown and the Columbia School of Journalism-two examples of the name-brand institutions whose worth she interrogates in a chapter called “Logo U.” (In another chapter, she admits wistfully to envying the “bohemian” upbringing of a home-schooled youth: “sometimes he bakes bread, sometimes he gets lessons in medicine from a doctor, one of his parents’ friends.”) Ms. Quart is not immune to academic name-dropping: She bolsters her “text,” as she would put it, with lashings of theory from old-school critics like Lionel Trilling, Stanley Cavell and Pierre Bourdieu. She flaunts words like “palaver,” “ineluctably” and, perhaps inevitably (ineluctably?), “semiotics.” Not for nothing did she get that six-figure education!

Speaking of education, the most persuasive arguments in the book are the sections on corporate-sponsored schools, horrifying institutions where students spend English class coming up with ad slogans and get disciplined for selling juice instead of Coke at bake sales. If the author had limited herself to an exposition of this subject rather than trying to take in the whole landscape of brands and teens in America in 200-odd pages, she might have produced a more substantive-though perhaps less marketable-book.

Large chunks of Branded are virtuous and smart, but overall it’s dry in both sense of the word-in the sardonic detachment of its analysis and its willful lack of pleasure (or, as Roland Barthes would have put it, plaisir ). Some graphic or pictorial examples might have helped liven up Branded . It’s interesting to note that Lauren Greenfield’s lush collection of photographs, Girl Culture , and her earlier Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood , make many of Ms. Quart’s points more fully and arrestingly.

Alexandra Jacobs has moved to Los Angeles.