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Childhood for sale on Alloy website

 

Matt Wake

Upstate Today

June 12, 2008
 

CLEMSON — Photos of the Jonas Brothers. Hairdo trends. Gossip about chicks on “The Hills.” The content of alloy.com isn’t Shakespeare, but it seems innocent enough entertainment for teen and pre-teen girls.

Yet looking closer, there’s something else going on, according to Sharon R. Mazzarella, a professor of communication studies at Clemson University. Mazzarella warns that while sites like alloy.com are dressed like information hubs, they’re designed to push brands.

“I was surprised at how much cross-pollination there was,” Mazzarella said. “Alloy.com for example began as a clothing catalog much like someone might get an L.L. Bean catalog in the mail. Then, they created this Web site, with pull-down menus that allow you to shop for clothes and read things about style and celebrities.”

Here’s the rub: alloy.com’s parent company, Alloy Media & Marketing, also publishes books (a series of which inspired “The Gossip Girls” TV show). “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movie? Same deal.

“Kids don’t just sit and watch TV like we baby boomers did and then go buy the cereal they see advertised,” Mazzarella said. “Marketers know they can’t reach these kids though TV ads. They have to go where the kids are, and they are online, where they’re not just seeing 30-second commercials.

“The content on these Web sites can keep them online for hours at a time, through message boards, gossip news and other columns. They keep you in this commercial world. Kids are more immersed in commercial messaging than they ever were before.”

The impact, Mazzarella said, is a childhood for sale, with kids becoming brand conscious at an earlier age.

As of press time, Alloy Media & Marketing and alloy.com did not respond to The Daily Journal/Messenger’s requests for comments in regards to Mazzarella’s study.

Mazzarella believes public places for children are disappearing, making youth-oriented Internet sites even riper for marketers.

“The playgrounds, the malls, they’re not considered safe anymore. But these Web sites are basically saying, ‘You are welcome here. We care what you have to say,’” Mazzarella said. “Everyone is all worried about middle-aged perverts; well marketers can also be cyber predators.”

While Mazzarella does not believe alloy.com or similar sites are dangerous to children, she thinks parents need to be aware of their intent. Then, parents can help kids disseminate information on sites more accurately. The eight- to 13-year-old is a coveted demographic — but this insight is important for the entire family.

“In addition to a disposable income of their own, this age group influences millions of dollars in parental spending a year,” Mazzarella said. “If you can reach that market no only do you create brand-loyal customers for the rest of their life, it also influences what families buy.”

Mazzarella’s research is multi-tiered. Assisted by Clemson communication studies student Allison Atkins, Mazzarella combs through the content on “tween”-centric sites, pulling down every pull-down menu and visiting every link. In addition to looking for commercial saturation, Mazzarella also checks for body image impact and other contemporary issues.

“It’s almost like reading a novel in English class and interpreting the hidden messages,” Mazzarella said.

The biggest hurdle for Mazzarella isn’t funding or obscure material. It’s language. At 48, the professor is well outside the sites’ pre-teen target audience.

“I have to look up things: the slang and pop culture references,” she said.

The other half of the study involves looking even deeper. Mazzarella examines Web content from the parent corporations — like Alloy Media & Marketing. She scours stock reports and information posted online for investors, which can reveal how a girls’ site fits into a broader plan.

“You see it’s just this circle,” Mazzarella said. “The toys kids play with, the sheets they sleep on, the lunch boxes they take to school, the magazines they read; they’re all being produced by the same companies.”

Youth culture is a recurring theme in Mazzarella’s work. Her previous research includes a study on fan sites. In particular, Mazzarella examined sites dedicated to actor Chad Michael Murray, known for his roles on TV shows, like “The Gilmore Girls” and “One Tree Hill.”

Said Mazzarella: “When I was a girl, you would clip out photos of celebrities and put them on your wall. Now girls create Web sites for the dreamboat types.”

 

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