Consuming Teen Identity

An Excerpt from Beyond Me

Wendell Loewen | Feb 18, 2009

This article appears as an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Beyond Me: Grounding Youth Ministry in God’s Story (Scottdale PA: Life and Life Resources, a division of Mennonite Publishing Network, 2008). Reprinted with permission.

Consumerism: The New Salvation Story

My family enjoys watching the reality series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in which new homes are built for families in need. It didn’t take Shelly and me too long before we grew weary of the new homeowners’ incessant use of the phrase, “Oh my God!” It was as if this was the only way to express their shock at the extravagance in which they were about to live. We grew up learning that God’s people were not to “misuse the name of the Lord” (Exodus 20:7). So we winced every time we heard the phrase. Actually we got quite good at anticipating it. Each time we could sense the phrase coming we would mute the sound on the television. After awhile we felt good about our ability to keep our kids from potential damage to their spiritual lives.

But after watching a few episodes—successfully muting almost all references to God—I heard something perhaps more disturbing. At the end of one show, one of my children muttered, “I wish we had a new house.” At that moment I realized something was going on at a deeper level. Somehow this seemingly harmless show was sowing seeds of discontent in the minds and hearts of my children-and me.

Shows like this tell us, “You can be saved from a life of insignificance and despair. When you find yourself in a struggle for happiness, dissatisfied with life and who you are, your search will ultimately lead you to a purchase.” Personal acquisition is the way to fulfillment, happiness, and meaning in life. But that is not all to the story. It also tells us that our identity lies in what we buy. And our task as adults is to nurture a new generation of consumers-because that’s who we are.

Consumerism and the Adolescent Narrative

Consumerism’s influence on today’s teens is mammoth. [[Note the appendix below this article for more on the influence of consumer culture overall.]] Cearly, its powerful, ever-present message has affected adolescent realities of sexuality, drug use, violence, and body image. But how has it shaped their narrative in terms of the key psychosocial tasks of adolescence: identity, belonging, and autonomy?

The consumerist narrative tells teens that identity and fulfillment come through consumption and material accumulation. This idea competes with the Christian understanding that true identity and fulfillment come through our relationship with Christ as children of God. The speed and omnipresence of consumerism’s media messages have increased the busyness and noise levels of today’s teens. This feverish lifestyle undermines adolescent identity formation and sabotages their spiritual growth.

Identity with a price tag.

The over-riding narrative of consumerism is: “You are what you consume.” Identity is based on what a teen can purchase and put on display. The result is that adolescent identity tends to be formed externally rather than generated internally.

One strategy marketers use is “identity branding.” This is an explicit effort to get teens to identify themselves with a particular product or corporate brand. The craze around Apple’s iPod is an example of this identity branding. The iPod has changed the face of the music industry. As a part of iPod’s early, and vastly successful ad campaign, the website’s homepage contained a neon-colored image screaming for your attention. The image was the now-familiar dark silhouette of a trendy young person passionately dancing to the music playing on the white iPod linked by earphones to his ear. The caption read, “Which iPod are you?” Notice the question wasn’t “Which iPod do you prefer?” or “Which iPod suits your lifestyle?” It was an overt attempt to blend product and identity in hopes that teens would fuse their own identity with their product. With millions of consumers gobbling up iPod and iTunes products every year, the strategy of mixing identity and brand must be working.

But consumerism doesn’t stop there. It also engages in a marketing strategy we could call “caricaturing.” In an effort to sell their products more efficiently, corporate advertisers go so far as to design a form of adolescent identity for teens to readily adopt.

Extensive research and vast of marketing dollars have generated teen-targeted, media-created caricatures. One example is the “Mook.” He is the crude, loud, obnoxious, in-your-face male: a teen frozen in permanent adolescence. Mooks can be found everywhere. They’re the daredevils on “Jackass.” They star in MTV’s Spring Break specials. Mooks continue to be spun out as key characters in new television shows every season. You don’t have to look very hard.

But there’s no real Mook. It’s a market creation designed to take advantage of the testosterone-driven craziness of male adolescence. Teenage males identify with it and “buy into” it. All that needs to be done is associate merchandise with the Mook caricature and you have Mooks gobbling up those products.

Along with the Mook, the media machine has also produced a female caricature. The “Midriff”-no more true to life than the Mook-is the sexually empowered, prematurely adult female. The Mook doesn’t care what people think of him, but the Midriff is consumed by appearances. The Midriff is a repackaged collection of sexual clichés, but marketed as a form of empowerment. Your body is your best asset. Flaunt your sexuality even if you don’t understand it. [[Douglas Rushkoff spends a lot of time developing these two media caricatures in his Frontline documentary, “The Merchants of Cool.”]] Celebutantes Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears seem to embody the essence of the Midriff. The marketing strategy is similar to that of the Mook: project the caricature to teens and they will embrace and begin to personify them. All you need to do is infuse a brand or product into a pre-designed teen market.

Belonging to the brand.

There is a way in which we are united by what we are being sold. Almost everyone can identify the McDonald’s golden arches or the Coca-Cola symbol. When it comes to the question, “How do I fit?” adolescents seem to find their sense of belonging in the brand itself. They’ve been branded. It’s no secret that marketers desire lifelong brand loyalty; impressionable teens with disposable income are ready to offer their allegiance. And sure enough, teenagers show more brand loyalty than any other age group.

This isn’t to say that all teens are brand loyalists. Some savvy and thoughtful adolescents, influenced by some sort of counternarrative (Christian or other), are aware of these brand-influence strategies. But the vast majority of teens have been swayed by brand appeal. Adolescents also sense that they belong in the “brand community.” Companies are very effective at building such communities on product websites.

Commodified autonomy.

How does our consumer culture demonstrate to teens that they matter? Corporate brands send a very powerful message to teens: they are valued for their spending power and for their claim on “cool.” There are two areas in which this message is conveyed: consumer influence, and image and style.

First, adolescent autonomy comes with their consumer influence. The corporate market machine values them for their ability to spend vast amounts of money. With wads of cash, teens are flexing their economic muscle and marketers are salivating over this massive consumer group. Consumerism has swooped in and is selling the story that teens matter to the corporate branders. And why do they matter? They matter because they have the power to spend. Consumerism sees adolescents’ value and their power to choose as nothing more than a commodity. Teenage autonomy is based on a shallow, callous, pragmatic sense of value.

Second, adolescent autonomy has to do with image and style. A lucrative strategy for corporate brands is to capture and sell “cool.” “Cool hunting” is a relatively recent paradigm in market research. It’s not structured around the whims of Madison Avenue, where the money is, but around values and expressions of a given player in a social network. Corporate cool hunters are searching for teens that have the respect, trust, and admiration of their friends. They’re looking for cool. Embedded in teen culture, these sleeper agents extract “coolness” from those who exude cool, and broker it to those who don’t. Marketing firms such as Look-Look and the Zandl Group interpret and “forecast” their findings on their corporate websites, giving companies exclusive access to cool for an immense premium.

The direct and instant access of cool hunting has created something of a feedback loop. Consumerism captures the latest trends in youth image and style, brings it to market, and sells it back to teens. Teenagers consume it and project it back, embodying the cool they already embrace. In a very real sense, consumerism has become the lens through which adolescents see themselves, and they want to emulate what they see. Ironically, cool hunting kills what it finds. Once cool is brought to market it’s been exposed and made available to the masses. So, cool moves on to the next thing or drives further underground. The faster and more efficient the feedback loop works, the harder cool is to find.

The feedback loop created by consumerism’s search for cool has an implicit, but clearly understood message: image and style are valued over substance. Adolescents themselves are obsessed enough with facade and veneer. Now the forces of consumerism are reinforcing that myth with power and precision. A teenager might wonder, “What about me matters most?” The answer is not strong character or deep integrity. The deafening answer is image and style. The answer is cool.

Countering the Consumer Narrative

Youth workers and parents who hope to cultivate deeper values and character traits like compassion, generosity, or service must be creative and intentional if they hope to compete. Perhaps the most effective strategy is to tell and retell the story of God’s reign as a contrasting narrative that challenges the assumptions of consumerism.

Most adolescents believe that their identity and fulfillment come through consumption, not by knowing and following Jesus in life. Belonging is found in a brand and its community. A sense of autonomy emerges from their power to spend and their ability to capture and broker the latest in cool. My experience leads me to believe that most Christian adolescents buy this story too. But in the face of consumerism’s pervasive influence, we can offer a contrasting story. The counternarrative of God’s reign can rescript the idea of “the good life.” It can also reconnect their sense of identity and fulfillment in Christ, and help them discover a sense of belonging with the faith community.

We can invite kids to participate in and engage this life-giving contrast story. This requires considerable resolve and intentionality. The implications are far-reaching. They extend beyond the individual lives of adolescents to include a reformation in the way we do church. In youth ministry we have an extraordinary opportunity to recapture and rescript a sense of narrative, community, and mission for this emerging generation of adolescents.

Action Points

  1. While consumer culture is the air we all breathe, in what ways do you see its particular impact on adolescents? Dialog with a group of students this week about ways they see themselves impacted by the realities of consumer culture.
  2. Email this article to parents of kids in your ministry and ask for their ideas about how to help build a counter-narrative and counter-community to consumer culture’s answers to the questions of identity, autonomy, and belonging.
  3. Assuming culture is neither all bad nor all good, what redemptive threads do you find woven through the fabric of current youth culture? How are adolescents building their own counter-narratives to consumerism, and what can we learn from those movements for our own ministries?

Appendix: The Reality of Consumer Culture

1. Consumer Culture’s Reach. Weeks before the 2006 Disney/Pixar movie Cars hit the big screen, its characters were already being marketed. Lightning McQueen, Sally, Mader, and Luigi were plastered all over the boxes of our favorite sugary cereals. They were marketed as Happy Meal toys. They were also part of an ad campaign for a major auto insurance company. The lovable automobiles were everywhere. There was almost no way for our family not to see the motion picture once it debuted. Our kids were in love with the characters before they ever experienced the movie.

But this isn’t just about getting families to buy movie tickets; it’s much more. It’s a clever collaborative effort on the part of Disney, McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, and State Farm, using popular culture to leverage themselves and market their products. They sold a product while telling a powerful story: buy and be happy. This is consumerism in action.

Our consumer culture uses the collective forces of media conglomerates, information and communications firms, and the market research giants to shape consumer desire. Consumer desire accounts for the vast majority of the world’s output of shared images, stories, songs, information, news, and entertainment. [[Michael Budde, The (Magic) Kingdom of God (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 14.]]

2. Consumer Culture’s Clout. Consumerism has been given immense power because of the notion that it’s absolutely necessary to keep a capitalist, free-market economy afloat. [[Budde, The (Magic) Kingdom of God, 27.]] Consumption, rather than production, is driving today’s brand of North American capitalism, one that’s becoming increasingly global. Consumers must therefore be convinced to buy the products that producers are creating.

Consumerism in our culture is not morally condemned as greed because it’s a critically important feature of global capitalism. After the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, the resounding and routine message of government officials from the President on down was that the most patriotic act American could perform was to go spend money. [[Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press), 149.]] Otherwise, the economy might also crumble.

3. Consumer Culture’s Strategy. In a highly competitive marketplace, consumers have developed immunity to traditional corporate advertising. Companies therefore have to be about something else. The added value has become the story or idea behind the brand. Corporate brands have moved into the realm of selling pseudo-spirituality-belonging, love, community-that we used to get from other sources like family or church. [[In her book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York, NY: Picado, 1999), Naomi Klein is critical of marketing’s effects on culture. In a PBS/Frontline interview, she discusses the influence of branding.]]

The Starbucks Coffee Company understands this tactic. Taking its brand beyond the proverbial “billboard,” Starbucks has created its identity by establishing strong emotional ties. Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz believes that people who come to Starbucks are not just there for the coffee. They come for “the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community that people get in Starbucks stores.” [[Howard Schultz, Pour Yourself into It (New York, NY: Hyperion, 1997), 5, quoted in Naomi Klein, No Logo, 20.]] In an interview on the television news magazine 60 Minutes, Schultz intimated, “We’re not in the business of filling bellies. We’re in the business of filling souls.” [[The 60 Minutes episode aired April 23, 2006.]] That sounds like a salvation story.

The savvy brand builders are selling much more than a product. Nike sells the essence of sport. Coke sells love. Disney sells family and the lost, idyllic American town. At some point we must ask, “To what extent do the brand builders control our collective stories? And who is allowed to define and shape values such as love or community for us? Should these values be sold to us, or should they come from us?”

Wendell Loewen
Wendell J. Loewen has taught at Tabor College since 1997 in the areas of youth, church, and culture. A graduate of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (M. Div.) and Fuller Theological Seminary (D. Min.), he speaks regularly at retreats, conferences, and training events. He lives in Hillsboro, Kansas, with his wife Shelly and three children.

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