"The Merchants of Cool" rings a lot truer than I wish it did. I'm not that far removed from my teen years, so I can relate to that constant pressure to be "cool," and knowing that once cool became mainstream, it wasn't cool anymore. Teens are pretty savvy, though, and they know when they're being manipulated. Remember the response to the Sprite ads? A teen basically outlined the whole plan of the ad campaign to sell Sprite by saying, "Don't listen to an athlete being paid an endorsement" while telling you to listen to the athlete after all. At the same time, conversely, there is this "giant feedback loop" of marketing listening to teens, creating a product like the mook and the midriff, and (some) teens getting the idea that that's what "cool" teens are like, which in turn causes marketing to ratchet it up further looking for the next "pop."
This sort of pressure to perform comes not only from advertisers, but also from other teens. I remember my sister refusing to carry her gym clothes in an old plastic bag from Stop & Shop. It couldn't be just any bag. It had to be American Eagle or Old Navy. Even her cast-off bags for gym clothes had to prove she shopped at the "right" stores.
So where does that leave us? Are teens doomed to the downward spiral of advertising and peer pressure? I don't think so. I think a lot of teens have higher standards than we sometimes give them credit for. Not all of them rebel against marketing in quite the form as the fans of rage rock. My own "rebellion" was (is) to not wear t-shirts that advertise a brand across the front and to buy what I like on sale and because I like it. A lot of the teens I know don't have an interest in Spring Break-like escapades, but really care about values, people, and what their parents think (I always thought I was a "unique" teen, but it turns out to be a trend in teens of my generation). Every summer for the past few years, I've travelled to Workcamps with about 35 other teens and adults (mostly young adults) who would give up a week of their summer vacation, sleep on a classroom floor, eat cafeteria food, and work on a stranger's house with five other people they've never met before. They don't get paid; it actually costs around $400, not counting the cost of food on the way there and back. Yet it's one of the most popular events our teen group has.
I began this post saying that teens are savvy to marketing. This relates to libraries, too, because aren't we trying to promote our programs, books, etc. for teens? I think libraries and librarians can be different in two ways. First, we can give them what they actually want instead of finding out what they want so that we can sell them what we want. Next, we can ask them about themselves -- likes, dislikes, books they want to read, things they're interested in -- because we care, not because we want to repackage it and sell it. They will notice.