Claire Beale on Advertising

The kids are still all right living in the real world rather than cyberspace
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The Independent Online

A week or two ago I went to a friend's for Sunday lunch to be greeted at the door by his 14-year-old daughter wearing a bra top, leather trousers and more make-up than a drag queen in front of a full house. I confess, I was scared.

They don't make teenagers like they used to (knee-length white socks, Haircut One Hundred records and my mom in charge: that was my 14). Today's iPodding, content-generating, PSP-playing teenage savants can seem a breed apart. And boy, that can make the rest of us feel uncomfortable.

It certainly makes advertisers feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to spend millions of pounds trying to understand our teenagers and how to relieve them of their pocket money. Even the advertisers that are normally pretty good at this marketing game seem to lose confidence when it comes to tapping young consumers and winning their brand loyalty. An entire industry of conferences, marketing handbooks and specialist agencies has grown up to try to explain to the rest of us how young people think, feel and buy.

MTV knows a thing or two about young people. It's just teamed up with Microsoft to unleash a new study into what it's really like being a teenager in 2007 Britain. You might be comforted to know that while today's teens might seem like sexually predatory technophiles, uploading their own mini-movies on to YouTube with one hand and playing PSP with the other, they're not. Not quite.

They might be frenzied digital social networkers and as comfortable making user-generated content as they are watching Corrie, but all the new technology to hand is simply seen as a means to an end; youngsters aren't obsessed with the technology itself.

When you get down to the nub of it, teenagers really haven't changed that much over the last few decades. They might have 75 numbers stored in their mobile phone contacts book, and 86 names on their instant messenger buddy directory, and 83 mates in their MySpace network, but young Brits still love watching TV and DVDs, hanging out with their friends and just chilling. They might be Facedbooked- and MySpaced-up but really they would rather see people face-to-face than just in cyberspace: only 2 per cent favour keeping in touch with their mates online, while 53 per cent would rather see the whites of their eyes.

All of which might not be good news for all those advertisers piling on to the social networking bandwagon, but offers some comfort to the rest of us. And as advertisers pump even more of their budget online, it's worth noting that the MTV study actually found that the web only came ninth in the list of how our youngsters like to spend time. And, no, binge drinking and eating Big Macs didn't top the list. Listening to music and watching TV are still what the kids want to do when they get time to themselves. Really not that different from our day, then.

Mind you, in the good old days, the dangers of social networking were little more than excessive consumption of cheap alcohol and the possibility that you might get stuck in a corner with someone whose hobby was twitching. These days, professional and social networking has gone cyber and the dangers are potentially rather more serious.

According to a new report in the US, more than 29,000 sex offenders have been found stalking round MySpace – and those are only the sex offenders who used their own names (rather than a pseudonym) to sign up, and who are registered on police lists. This is extremely concerning on many levels, particularly with the number of children now registering on the sites.

It's also yet another example of how unregulated the digital space actually is, and that's a danger for users and for the advertisers piggybacking the sites.

Back to that MTV study, apparently the typical British youngster has 16 online "friends" that they have never met. Now I know the internet is about broadening horizons, connectivity, a new, more intimate way of communicating and of sharing information. But don't you find this rather worrying?

On a sweeter level, literally, Cadbury has just launched what it claims is the world's smallest ad campaign. It's for its new "healthy" sweet brand, the Natural Confectionery Company.

The Natural Confectionery Company makes sweeties, but not ones with artificial colours or flavours. Perfect for kids then. Hence the launch ad campaign, which consists of pint-size posters dotted around London; festivals around the country called Little Days Out; and, soon, mini press ads that you'll need a magnifying glass to see.

The campaign is the brainchild of Fallon. It's quirky and fun – very un-Cadbury. Now that advertisers can't promote lots of confectionery brands on kids' TV programming, let's hope we'll see more of this sort of clever thinking.

All those junk food pressure groups angsting about our children's waistlines were probably punching the air last week when Walkers crisps found itself in a spot of hot water.

Walkers' latest marketing ruse involves the crisp giant eschewing foreign potatoes in favour of the good old British spud. The well-meaning initiative is all about supporting British farmers and curbing Walkers' carbon footprint.

But apparently all this rain we've been having is likely to lead to a national shortage of spuds. Which will no doubt be etching some worry lines down at the crisp factory.

What's more, poor old Walkers has just made a spanking new ad to promote its British spud initiative. The ads rather embarrassingly feature Gary Lineker japesing with a bunch of singing farmers. Lineker ends up dripping in mud, not unlike some of the poor folk who have been flooded out of their homes over the past week.

But just to prove that advertisers do (sometimes) have a sensitive gene, Walkers has pulled the commercial in deference to all those affected by the downpour. "Our theme is British weather," says a Walkers statement, "which we don't feel is an appropriate message during the flooding crisis."

Beale's Best In Show – Road Safety (Leo Burnett/Carat)

Young people again. As mentioned in this column today, they can be a tricky bunch to advertise to in this era of digital, open-access communications.

So what to do if you're a boring old government department with a vital but less than exciting safety message you need to drill into the nation's teenagers? Well, you go to MTV (yes, them again) – or rather, their commercial solutions department, Viacom Brand Solutions – and you encourage the kids to make the ad themselves.

That's what the Department of Transport and its creative agency, Leo Burnett, and media agency, Carat, did in an attempt to raise awareness of teen road safety. The department held a competition in the spring inviting MTV viewers to come up with the idea for a new road safety ad. From the more than 200 kids who entered the competition, a shortlist was chosen. The candidates were put into creative teams and asked to present their ideas to a panel of judges. The judges chose three teams, and each team made an ad that was broadcast on MTV. Viewers were then asked to vote for their favourite; 170,000 of them actually bothered to go online to do so.

The winning ad is called 'Ghosts' and was created by George Sampson from Warrington, Vanessa Uanseru from Southwark and Anya Fitzpatrick from Glasgow. The commercial shows a young boy wearing earphones about to cross the road in front of a car. Just in time, he is faced with the ghosts of other teenagers who have died while crossing the road, and he steps back on to the pavement.

You can see the ad on four of MTV's TV channels next month, or catch it online at http://hosting.thinkjam.com/mtv_think.

The whole idea is an excellent way to get kids really thinking about an issue that most of them would probably rather ignore. The winning ad is certainly as good as anything your average ad agency could come up with. And there aren't many examples of user-generated content you could say that about.

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