All savvy marketers and advertisers know they can’t skimp on the teenage demographic, especially when Generation Z—according to some estimates—offers up to $44 billion in annual purchasing power. With so much potential for profit, brands need to be invested in advertising to the young teenage consumer and fostering brand loyalty. And, in recent times, the answer to that mission has been social media.

Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have proven to be the most effective when it comes to reaching teens. In fact, around 85% of Gen Z uses social media to shop and learn about new products, and social media influencers have become the key to reaching young consumers. Most teens have negative feelings toward non-skippable advertisements, and TV and radio advertisements have fallen by the wayside when it comes to Millennials and Gen Zers. This means sponsoring other young people to post about products and services on their own profiles is the preferred way for teenagers to be advertised to.

Unfortunately, while social media is an excellent opportunity for ambitious marketers to cater to teenagers, the fact is that the social media and influencer-led advertising crusade is damaging teens in irreparable ways. While it’s an effective marketing technique, we first and foremost have a responsibility to foster positive health trends in the most recent consumer generation—not destructive ones. There are a number of strategies online marketers can use to build brand loyalty in teens without contributing to the negative side effects of social media. But, before we can go about finding a cure, we need to identify the illness.

The Problem

Due to the stage of brain development taking place during the teenage and adolescent years, youth consumers are especially susceptible to internalizing their surrounding environment—whether it be real or virtual.

In the years before social media came into play, teens were already at the forefront of battles when it came to forming their identities. The clique politics of high school, academic and extracurricular expectations, and the pressure of being asked about future plans was already enough to make most teens crack. It still is. It’s why teenagers often rebeland lash out. They feel heightened pressures and emotions they don’t yet know how to resolve and justify.

A neon sign depicting no “likes.” Credit: Unsplash

Now, with social media, teenagers face the added facet of displaying their perceived persona to their peers at all times. They must constantly project a “good” image on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and whatever next month’s technological breakthrough musters up. And, while there are certainly arguments for the pros of social media, there are numerous reasons it can be harmful, too. Namely, the negative effect it has on teenage mental health.

Studies show that constant use of social media decreases self-esteem and increases anxiety in users. The general theory is that social media encourages users to compare themselves to others and make judgments on their own success. They compare likes, profile views, and base what they feel is the “correct” way to live based on what they see on their phone screen. Teenagers are the top users of social media, and the people most negatively affected its pitfalls.

How Advertisements Contribute

If social media itself is the problem, what role does advertising and marketing have in the propagation of these harmful trends? Well, if we consider the role influencers take on in the modern social media market, quite a bit.

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A popular brand among Gen Z, Supreme. Credit: Unsplash

Many Gen Zers—up to 27%—look at influencers to inform their opinions of brands and products. They feel influencers are more honest and upfront about what they’re selling, and like the models they see are “normal people,” like themselves. However, when their feeds are filled with images of advertisements shown in the best possible light, it does just as much to contribute to the feeling of lowered self-esteem and anxiety as anything else.

These advertisements and sponsorships are based on asking teens to compare themselves to the people they see online. They encourage teenagers to buy products to “fit in” and front an acceptable online persona. It’s the same impossible standard teenagers are asked to meet when it comes to perfect SAT scores and unattainable beauty standards. They want to fulfill their societal role—no matter the cost to their personal happiness and wellbeing. It’s a cost much too high, and something ethical marketers should avoid asking at all costs.

Fortunately, influencers on social media aren’t the only way to reach teenagers, and there are several alternatives that contribute less to these harmful practices.

The Solutions

Be Honest 

No ethical marketing campaign lies about the product or service, but the ads can be rife with provocative imagery that contributes to the negative side of social media. Teens are incredibly impressionable and will want to emulate what they see. But what if ads were more about the product’s purpose, rather than associated emotions and desires?

One great approach to social media marketing is honesty. Look at Clearasil’s Droga 5 ad campaign as a template. The company catered to teens by admitting they didn’t actually understand the teen demographic, but could help when it came to acne. It was a funny, transparent marketing move that made teens feel comfortable with the brand. They knew, at least, Clearasil wasn’t just trying to take advantage of them.

Sometimes flat-out honesty about a product is the best way to go.Masking campaigns in imagery dreamt up in focus groups and demographic analyses might miss the mark entirely, and if it’s successful, it could contribute to the negative side of social media. Not only is honesty proven to increase people’s brand loyalty, but it refrains from drawing on teens’ vulnerable self-image as a way to make money. When it comes down to it, honesty truly is the best policy.

Lean on Teenage Values

Similarly to their predecessors, the Millennials, Gen Z is proving to be the most progressive generation in history, surpassing Millennials in several areas such as climate change, support for government involvement, and gender recognition. This is great news for marketers, who can easily align their brand’s mission with supporting these kinds of pursuits.

A progressive protest. Credit: Unsplash

Instead of leaning on toxic images of “normalcy” to market to teenagers (bikinis, body image, heightened sexuality, etc.) brands should focus on social justice issues and progressive politics. By showing teens they care about the same large-scale concerns, marketers not only contribute to the positive change already occurring in society, but break the ice between themselves and teenage consumers.

Utilize Brand Purpose Marketing

Brand purpose marketing is a great way to show teenagers that a particular brand aligns with their values, and it also helps the larger world community! It’s a win-win.

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If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, brand purpose marketing shows consumers that the brand or company has a higher goal than pure profit. A great example is Budweiser’s 2018 Super Bowl ad focusing on disaster relief. Rather than show images of macho men drinking Bud or wild parties and coolers filled with blue cans, the ad highlighted Budweiser’s contributions when it came to providing water to communities impacted by natural disasters.

Another fantastic company to look at is Dove. The Dove Self Esteem Project works to address self-esteem issues in women and young girls. Both these campaigns not only foster brand loyalty by showing consumers they truly care about critical issues, but for the positive impact they make on society as a whole. One easy way to utilize brand purpose marketing is to show support for a cause by donating a small amount of profit to a relevant charity.

This approach is great for marketing to modern teenagers. Gen Z is a generation that cares deeply about social issues all across the spectrum. Brand purpose marketing is not only a great way to appeal to them as consumers, but to actually show how marketing can positively impact the world at large.

Offer a Choice

Many teenagers make impulsive decisions because they feel they have no other choice. Advertisers who use this to their advantage are only contributing to the negative side effects of social media use. Making it seem like a particular product or brand is a teenager’s only option of “fitting in” or doing something “right” puts immense pressure on them. Instead of taking this approach, marketers should offer teenagers a choice.

A person with two choices. Credit: Unsplash

Most Gen Zers have negative attitudes toward ads that don’t have a skip option and feel they are being pandered to when ads pop up on their profile feeds. Rather than bombard teenagers with unavoidable advertisements, it behooves smart marketers to incorporate their brands into posts that teens will view by choice. This could look like using the previous strategies regarding honesty and teen values to pique a teenager’s interest, then including a tag or description of a product in the post’s caption. If a teen is interested, they can go to the brand’s profile and begin doing their own research. This gives the teenager a sense of autonomy (which they desperately want), and it will make them more receptive to the brand.

The Takeaway

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to marketing and increasing brand loyalty. But as it stands now, teenagers are being bombarded with unrealistic expectations via influencer-led marketing, leading to decreased self-esteem and increased instances of mental illness like depression and anxiety. Advertisers have a critical say in what teens encounter on social media every day and need to begin changing the way teens engage in marketing. Rather than having teens associate brands with particular feelings and appearances, when it comes to fostering brand loyalty it’s better to be transparent and lean on teenager’s passions and interests.

Author Bio 

Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.