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Reading Up on Teen Culture—J-14 and Teen People

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Teen magazines have been around since the dark ages predating my teen years. You should be able to get a rough grasp on my age if I tell you that the faces of Donny Osmond, David Cassidy, and Leif Garrett were usually plastered on the front pages during my adolescence.

And yes, I admit to purchasing the odd edition of TigerBeat, but only if there was coverage of those charming Brady Girls. (First public confession – I had quite the crush on Eve Plumb who played Jan, the one in the middle… Sigh…)

Amazingly, even with DVDs, Discmans, satellite receivers, the Internet, and a plethora of other media appliances that have cropped up since my youth, the low-tech activity of turning pages of glossy photos and shallow articles must still be a favorite activity for many teens, because these mags are more than alive and financially well.

But the real reason parents should crack the covers of these pop journals is because they provide a very clear insight into what products and philosophies are being marketed and targeted to your teens. And you’ll likely not be surprised to know that some of these pulp pages are pushing advice and subjects that are far more mature than Donny’s newest top ten hit.

If you’re cheap like me, the best place to do your research on everything periodically adolescent is at your local library. I’m fortunate enough to have a large library near me, which has the bonus of being connected to a high school.

Needless to say, the young crowd ensures there is a selection of titles like Teen People, J-14, YM, and the classic Seventeen on the shelves. I found these dog-eared well-used titles next to pristine copies of business and aeronautical journals. Just look for the bright covers with girls flashing teeth and guys posing with that serious “I’m not happy with life” Eminem look.

Flipping though the pages of the four mentioned titles, I thought it would be interesting to look at the tone and content—both positive and negative—in each. I selected the most recent edition of all four that I could check out and took them home for the full read. Teen People (October 2003), J-14 (Oct./Nov 2003), YM (November 2003), and Seventeen (November 2003).

It didn’t take long before I could see the obvious things each magazine had in common: Makeup, clothes, articles about guys, and celebrities—namely Amanda Bynes and Hillary Duff (both were in all four magazines except Seventeen, where it seems Bynes was passed over for more “mature” lookers like Jessica Biel).

But each magazine also had subtle differences, in an apparent attempt to separate it from the competition. Teen People and J-14 seem to play to the youngest readers, while YM, and especially Seventeen, dole out advice and ads geared to older teens.

Accounting for a few ripped out pages that must have attracted the attention of previous eager readers, I made a crude statistical summary of the subjects covered using the categories of beauty products (makeup, acne formulas, perfume), fashion (clothes, shoes, watches, jewelry), celebrities and entertainment, and “other,” where I listed articles covering college life, racial prejudice, horoscopes, and even nudism!

Categorizing the advertising into the same four groups wasn’t so simple. The marketing minds behind these magazines are pros at passing off advertising as editorial content to young eyes.

My favorite example of an advertorial was one found in YM titled Just what the doctor ordered, with a subtext saying, “It’s a little-known fact that earth-tone makeup can save your life in cold and flu season.” Hopefully after young readers get through the tongue-in-cheek writing (“A glittery coffee shadow, like Maybelline Color Delights Cream Shadow in Mocha Lights, $7, can boost immunity when smudged up to the crease and used in conjunction with a coat of chocolate-colored mascara) they will notice the footnote: “None of this health information is true in the slightest…”

After spending hours poring over these pages in detail, you can’t help but notice contradictory messages from all corners of teen society. “Shake Your Booty,” says a one-pager in Seventeen where readers share their best guy pickup messages. “The secret is tight, low-rise, white jeans. If you don’t get him with those, it just wasn’t meant to be!”

Yet in that same magazine, a two-page spread reports the findings of a survey with teens who experienced intercourse for the first time (often referred to in this magazine and others as “hooking up”). Of the 500 surveyed, 67% hadn’t indulged. Of those that had, 61% of the girls wished they had waited longer. Perhaps some booties need tightening…

For parents and teachers eager to have teens drop the remote control and pick up a book, these publications may be an attractive alternative. But not everyone is so sure.

Rose M. Kundanis, author of “Children, Teens, Families and Mass Media: The Millennial Generation” is quoted saying, “Researchers explain that because television encourages the consumption of high-fat foods, the effect toward eating disorders is minimized. On the other hand, magazines offer more instruction on dieting and therefore seem to be more significantly correlated to eating disorders.”

Certainly page after page of makeup, hair, and body advice—the apparent common priority of all these publications—must attest to the audience’s willingness to purchase the products being offered. Considering the combined circulation of these four magazines alone is over 6.6 million (there are other popular teen titles not covered in this article), the words of advice on these glossy pages have the power to influence a huge percentage of our young population.

In the second part of this column, I’ll take a closer look at each magazine and provide a complete overview of the best and worst, along with my opinion of where the editor’s priorities lie. While I can't say I'm about to buy my daughter a gift subscription to any of them, each magazine offers a different flavor - and even some interesting surprises that caught me off guard!

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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