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The youth market is hotly pursued by scores of brands in so many industries—from entertainment and fast food to retail. And it's no wonder, when the prize is kids', tweens', and teens' combined spending power approaching $40 billion, according to self-reported data collected by C&R Research's YouthBeat service (which I head up).

Recognizing the potential is one thing. Employing accurate and targeted intelligence to shape the most effective marketing strategies to realize it is another. That's because the youth demographic is fraught with myths, half-truths, and the kind of conventional wisdom that leads to conventional marketing.

To help you rethink, reframe, or reinvent your efforts to be more in line with the real needs of youths and their families, here are five common myths busted—or at least clarified.

1. Mom's approval is the kiss of death

The idea that we should never tell kids that a product is healthy, educational, or responsible, especially if endorsed by a parent, has been the basis for many youth marketing campaigns over the years.

However, today's parents and children actually have more in common, and they agree on more things, than ever in recent memory.

Take music. You once could count on seeing considerable discord in musical taste between young people and their parents. Instead, our surveys find that 85% of kids, 76% of tweens, and 66% of teens commonly listen to music with their parents.

Parental approval is something youths are motivated to acquire. They respect parental opinion on everything from fashion to fitness, our research finds.

Key takeaway: To help advance health and education messages, marketers should look at moms and dads as allies, not gatekeepers. These days, parental approval, implicit and explicit, just might carry some weight.

2. Healthy messages are key for today's kids, tweens, and teens

Though this myth isn't totally off the mark, it just doesn't go far enough. In fact, today's youth need more than merely messages regarding their health. They need solutions. Even kids as young as six are very aware of the key tenets of healthy living, YouthBeat's research finds. In other words, message received.

But most youths, just like most adults, find that following these rules is easier said than done: Only 18% of kids and tweens and 15% of teens strongly agree with the statement, "I'm aware of what I eat and try to eat healthy."

Key takeaway: Telling the youth about their health should be taken to a new level. Marketers need to go beyond talking the talk—they need to walk it, too. For example, they might make healthy food options more portable and palatable (think baby carrots). But it needs to go deeper than that. Nickelodeon and Disney, for example, are very selective with their partners, lending their endorsement power only to products that have met fairly strict health criteria.

3. You're not connecting with today's youth if you're not social networking

Not exactly. True: teens and older tweens are gravitating to social media to connect; they "like" brands, groups, and comments and otherwise spend time on social sites. But younger kids are less likely to be in that game and more likely to be playing games online.

It's not just that the official age bar on most social networks is 13. Kids and younger tweens are probably less attracted to them because the complex social dance of social networking may be a little over their heads. So, if your brand doesn't have a social network presence, that doesn't mean you can't connect with youths in the digital world.

The younger group among youth tends to pay the most attention to branding within online games; this form of Internet advertising may therefore be an ideal way to reach them. Just remember, though: Despite all the forms of online advertising, it's still television advertising that younger kids pay the most attention to.

Key takeaway: If your target is young people, determine whether social networks are the right place to bring your strategy to life, or whether there are more age-appropriate formats online that you can more effectively mine.

4. Boys will be boys, and girls will be both

A youth marketing truism is that you can show many kinds of girls (and even boys) in ads, and the girls will relate—but boys only aspire to be the classic male: sports-playing and attitude-toting.

It's true that for many boys masculinity remains a fixed and narrow concept, but for others it also includes caring about their appearance, being in the glee club, and eating frou-frou foods.

The MO of the current generation is acceptance. That means, more than ever, that the concept of gender is a continuum.

It's tough for girls, though, to find role models who really represent the less-girly side of girl power. (Lady Gaga stands out, but as much to boys as to girls.) It's OK to be funny and non-Hollywood-sized, but the feminine ideal seems to have a hold on the way girls see and judge themselves. As for role models, it seems the alternative to being a girly girl is to be bad: Think Taylor Momsen, Lindsay Lohan, and various other starlets in trouble.

Key takeaway: Don't ignore gender—play with it! Take a page from Old Spice's book and poke fun at "old-school" views of masculinity and femininity. And while you're at it, give some tomboys a chance!

5. Kids are getting older younger

This truism has some validity. Physicians and sociologists have been tracking the increasingly early start of menarche for years! But you should proceed with caution before generalizing.

Today's kids are undoubtedly exposed to more media and, therefore, more ideas about the world. But conversations with average kids will reveal a mindset that still feels quite innocent:

  • They might imitate the slightly risqué dance moves of tween stars, but they're disappointed when their idols cross the line (think Miley Cyrus).
  • Boys might be intrigued by games that feel violent and sophisticated, but they're often more focused on play value.
  • And ask tweens whether they aspire to be a teen, and they'll mostly look at you with fear and concern.

Teen and tween cultures are really a world apart; just compare how tween TV shows present the "reality" of high school with the grittiness of teen shows.

Key takeaway: Don't underestimate kids, but understand that equating physical development with cognitive competence or sexual precociousness will lead your brand down the wrong path. Those brands that don't take "aspiring up" too literally, and instead seek to understand where their target really is, will achieve the most success.

* * *

Truisms abound in marketing to youth (or any other demographic, for that matter). The savviest and most successful marketers will go beyond the face value of the above-listed clichés to make sure their strategies are grounded in ongoing research and dialog with the audience they're trying to reach.

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Amy Henry is vice-president of youth insights at C&R Research, Chicago, and head of its YouthBeat insight service. Reach her at amyh@crresearch.com and the YouthBeat blog.