Deflowering innocence

As public concern about marketing to children mounts, the spotlight has shifted to the sexualisation of young girls.

Brand owners are again being pilloried for marketing inappropriate products to children, with the spotlight moving this time to the “sexualisation” of little girls.

Mintel’s report on teenage cosmetics, published last week, painted a picture of girls as young as seven regularly wearing lipstick, mascara and perfumes when they go out. The survey of 6,000 children found that 85 per cent of 14-year-old girls regularly wear make-up and 63 per cent of seven- to ten-year-olds wear lipstick, while 58 per cent use perfume.

Age concerns

Having saturated the women’s and then the teenage fashion and make-up markets, brand owners have tried to open up new sectors by targeting younger consumers. Publishers of teen magazines, fragrance and cosmetics manufacturers, and the pop industry have all been accused of encouraging girls to become interested in make-up and fashion from a young age and to dress in a sexual way, potentially attracting the unwanted attentions of adult males.

The controversy has split the marketing industry. On one side, there are those who argue that girls have always dressed up and that imitating the fashions and behaviour of their mothers and older girls is a natural – and essential – part of growing up.

Others believe that brand owners risk provoking a massive public backlash through irresponsible marketing to an easily influenced and vulnerable group of children – and that this could end up severely damaging corporate reputations.

One critic is Sean Pillot de Chenecey, a marketing consultant specialising in the youth sector who works with many top brands. “It comes down to morality and ethics, which have been spoken about so often in so many areas. If brand owners get up to no good in food, snacks or any other area, they get hammered one after another and this lot are next on the list,” he says.

De Chenecey believes fashion and cosmetics manufacturers are looking for short-term gain from pushing inappropriate sexualised products to young girls, but risk damaging their reputations in the longer term. “The issue is that brands get tarnished easily and it is hard to get the gleam back. Everyone is playing catch-up and no one has asked ‘should this be allowed?’. They are seeing how far they can go before the Government pulls them back through regulation. Where is the morality from the agencies and brand owners that push this stuff? This is completely out of order,” he says.

But even de Chenecey admits there is a fine line to be drawn between what is responsible marketing to young girls and what is not. He accepts that it can be far from clear where this line should be.

With the phenomenon of children growing older younger, it is likely that brands nominally aimed at 13- to 16-year-olds will appeal to girls two or three years younger. Pre-pubescents are drawn to an older world, even though in terms of development they are still pre-teens. There is a direct step from childish playing with dolls to teenage interest in fashion and beauty.

Stuck between the years

Marketers have long tried to target the so-called “tweenies” market of children between nine and 12, but have never been able to crack it; and the difference between a nine-year-old and a 13-year-old in marketing terms is really quite small. A toy marketer blames the escalation of testing in schools for forcing children to grow up too quickly – by the age of seven, many children are already classified as failures by the tests and this makes them cynical and rebellious, he believes.

One advertising executive says it is impossible to stop “overheard communication”, where messages are picked up on by groups that are not part of the original target market. He thinks it is unfortunate that pre-teens are picking up on brands aimed at teenagers, but says it is beyond the control of brand owners. And a media buyer specialising in magazines says: “It is well-known that 13-year-old girls trade up in their minds to older magazines. Publishers may say ‘this is our target market’ but 13-year-olds look at magazines for 16-year-olds and the 16-year-olds want to be like 21-year-olds.”

Sexualisation of pre-pubescent girls intensified in the mid-Nineties with talk of “girl power” and the arrival of pop group the Spice Girls, who were described as “encouraging a generation of ten-year-old girls to dress up like 50-year-old hookers”. The pop industry has been accused of presenting images of young girls as sex objects, especially in the videos of stars such as Britney Spears, who dressed up as a sexy schoolgirl for the song “(Hit me) Baby One More Time”. Brand owners have been keen to cash in on the trend.

Over the past few years, retailers have tried their hand at selling provocative clothes for little girls, but have been forced to withdraw ranges of sexy underwear such as thongs and enhanced bras. Argos removed a range of Tammy-branded G-strings and padded bras for nine- to 14-year-olds from its catalogue. Bhs was urged to withdraw a range of bras with the words “Little Miss Naughty” inscribed on them, because they were considered too risqué for children. Marks & Spencer was forced to discontinue a range of children’s satin lingerie.

Sexual tensions

It seems amazing that as the media has become increasingly obsessed with stories about paedophiles over the past five years, marketers have targeted sexy products at young girls ever more strongly.

Today, there is a plethora of cosmetics and fragrance brands aimed at this age group. Last year, Revlon relaunched its Seventies cult fragrance Charlie targeting this group, advertising in magazines such as Bliss and directing readers to the website doyourthing.com. Revlon insists that the brand positioning promotes positive messages.

A spokeswoman says: “Charlie is targeting 14- to 16-year-old girls. It is about doing your own thing and freedom of expression, and not feeling you have to be like all the other girls. It is quite an innocent brand, it is all about encouraging them to feel confident to express themselves.” She says that the majority of sales are of body spray rather than fragrances, but refuses to comment on whether Charlie is marketed responsibly.

Another fragrance that was launched recently is an extension of the Chupa Chups lollipop brand called Chupa Chups I Love Me eau de parfum, which is marketed in association with Coty. It might seem to be aimed at pre-teen girls, given the children’s appeal of lollipops, though Chupa Chups has been trying to make its lollies appeal to clubgoers, students and youth.

The I Love Me website asks the question: “Are you the most beautiful girl? In your School?” So it does appear to be aimed at young teenagers. The website clearly plays on sex and positions the fragrance as a passport to seducing boys, with a questionnaire called “What sort of seductress are you?”

Pillow talk

The section of the website promoting the Night Fever fragrance says: “Fever fervor for sexy nights. When Night Fever loves boys, or when she loves herself, it is always passionated [sic]. She’s waiting for hot sensations and gives back the same. Loving without limits makes life extreme.” The fragrance boasts “magic sparkles of Tangerine for the shameless!”. Coty was unavailable for comment.

Marketers deny they are knowingly trying to encourage 11- and 12-year-olds to buy products aimed at older girls. Lysanne Currie, editorial director for the teen group at Hachette Filipacchi magazine company, which publishes Sugar and Elle Girl, says the average age of Sugar readers is 14-and-a-half. “These magazines are not read by ten- and 11-year-olds,” she says. She defends the advertising of cosmetics and perfumes in teen mags. “We are very careful not to make it part of looking sexy; it is not a sexualisation thing, it is a prettiness thing. We make sure there is nothing Lolita-ish. Teenagers have always been interested in fashion and make-up,” she adds.

Others who have worked on teen magazines say they take a responsible attitude to talking about sexuality and many of the articles are very thoughtful and informative on what is otherwise a taboo subject. Nevertheless that has not stopped teen magazine Bliss advising readers as young as 14 to “look five years older in five minutes”.

Indecent proposals

A campaign for government regulation of girls’ magazines is being waged by the Association of Teachers & Lecturers, which is demanding age guidance to be put on the front of magazines. The ATL’s Ralph Surman, who is heading the campaign, says: “They are promoting and glamorising sexual activity and promoting promiscuity. These girls require a childhood, they are not fashion objects that can be exploited.” He is meeting Department for Culture, Media and Sport minister Lord Macintosh this October to put the case for age restrictions.

As with the furore over the marketing of snack foods to children, a nationwide blame game is under way as to who is responsible for the supposed sexualisation of girls. Parents blame marketers for pushing inappropriate products to their children; marketers say it is up to parents to act as gatekeepers for what their children read and wear. Teachers, meanwhile, blame both parties for exploiting children – Surman says some parents treat their children as fashion accessories and dress them up accordingly.

But teachers are also in the frame for testing young children and stamping success or failure on their foreheads at an early age, forcing them to grow up too fast.

In the current climate of panic about child sex abuse, marketers seem to be playing a dangerous game by using sex to sell products to girls, especially when there is so much uncertainty about the age of those who are buying them. It was all much simpler when girlhood meant Mallory Towers, My Little Pony and an innocent game of hopscotch.

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