Marketing Youth Revolt

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

Much of the apprehension once sparked by youth culture has now been reduced to consumer theatre: any suburban teen or 20-something can don punk, goth, or hippie style supplied by chain stores that sell pre-torn jeans, mass-produced tie-dye shirts, or black nail polish.  Youth culture may once have referred to a generationally distinct experience, but today it is shorthand for a marketing demographic, a consumer identity that fancies creative and even rebellious personalities are confirmed in shopping.  The contemporary youth marketplace is populated with contrived “edginess” projected onto the likes of Iron Maiden shirts, cannabis earrings, and shotgun shell shot glasses, but it is not clear that those trinkets or shows of stylistic resistance pose any significant threat to the established order of things.

Post-war youth experience has been distinguished by a progressively persistent marketplace appeal to boomers and successive waves of Gen X-Y-and-Z’s that has aspired to sell youth resistant aesthetics.  On the one hand, mass-produced commodities tend to reduce genuine subversiveness to aesthetics or reproduce reactionary politics behind the guise of ironic humor.  Bands pilfered from history become an aesthetic “look”; racy promiscuity clumsily poses as independent morality; and drug allusions paint drug consumption simply as a pleasure pathologized by elder ideologues.

On the other hand, though, youth culture is a rich terrain of digital spaces, musical tastes, sexualities, and materiality that ideologues rush to manage yet can never predict or control.  The caricature of a homogeneous youth culture bound by birthdays ignores the diversity of contemporary experiences and the degree to which youth consumers acknowledge the patent absurdity of consumer culture. The wall of sex, drug, and rock shirts at mall stores may be less about public generational revolt than they are soliloquys: consumers clad in Pink Floyd shirts imagine and find pleasure in their perceived creativity and its violation of bourgeois normality.

A faux concert shirt from the Doors 1968 tour (image Hot Topic)

A faux concert shirt from the Doors 1968 tour (image Hot Topic)

A range of marketers have taken aim on youth consumers while celebrating various dimensions of generational rebellion.  Hot Topic, for instance, proclaims itself the “loudest store in the mall” and targets “rebellious teens” between 12 and 22 as their primary audience.  Founded in 1988 with its first store in a Montclair California mall, the retailer borrowed MTV’s appeal revolving around music, visual style, consumption, and safely alternative values.  About 40% of the chain’s profits come from t-shirts that invoke a breadth of historical motifs, cult symbols, and racy, ironic, or simply vulgar messages.  The t-shirt has become an essential element of 21st-century wardrobes, but they do not simply signal politics, fandom, or taste; rather, shirts are evocative mechanisms that accommodate the imagination of both wearer and viewer and allow wearers to fancy themselves somehow “outside” mainstream style and morality.

 Hot Topic sells nearly 800 band shirts that include numerous groups long disbanded or their members deceased.  For those who missed the Doors’ 1968 tour, for instance, Hot Topic provides a “distressed” shirt—that is, a shirt intentionally aged during production to evoke the patina of a well-loved, threadbare concert shirt and invoke the appeal of a band that has not existed for over 40 years.  We might contemptuously suggest this reflects a contemporary desire to thieve something “authentic” from the stream of elders’ history, but this is at best a cynical generational response.  Much of the appeal of music fandom is the evocative dimension of sound, message, and artist:  What a band’s oeuvre and historical meaning connote to a contemporary consumer is absolutely flexible, and that flexibility is critical to the appeal of these rock shirts.  Elvis shirts reference a real historical figure, but Elvis may be no more “real” than Colonel Sanders: that is, rock shirts are symbolically productive things that spark introspection, reflection, and conversation, but they have no especially fixed or even intended meaning and may only tangentially refer to actual music.  Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Batman all could be signs of law-and-order, rebellion, or style, and none of those meanings are exclusive to each other or necessarily even articulate.  In that sense, a band shirt is a creative, social, but ambiguous expression rather than an articulate display of fandom or oppositional angst.

Urban Outfitters' discontinued prescription shot glass

Urban Outfitters’ discontinued prescription shot glass

Much of youth consumer resistance may aspire to simply violate bourgeois morals; that is, youth consumption exposes transparent disciplinary codes, but it typically does not pose social codes or political alternatives in their place.  Urban Outfitters may grasp this theatrical mockery of social conventions better than any other youth retailer.  Urban Outfitters’ 217 stores sell a range of goods that are calculated to violate mainstream suburban sensibilities.  Last year they offered up prescription bottle shot glasses and a matching beer cozy that Kentucky’s Governor concluded “glamorize prescription drugs.”  Urban Outfitters discontinued the line, but the accessories actually did confront prescription drug abuse left largely outside the “drug war.”

The hypocrisy surrounding drug consumption is an easy target for t-shirt irony.  The LA boutique Kitson was attacked for its “designer drugs” shirt line last year, which they called a “parody of pop culture” that aspired to “open the door to a much-needed dialogue.”  The challenge with irony is that it demands critical reflection, and most of the references to drugs in youth commodities are simplistic if not reactionary shows of superficial profanity.

Kitson's 2013 "Designers Drugs" shirt line (image from Buzzfeed)

Kitson’s 2013 “Designers Drugs” shirt line (image from Buzzfeed)

These marketers routinely argue that such messages are generational acting out and not pathways to drug consumption, unsafe sex, or metal fandom.  In 2012 Urban Outfitters CEO Susan Otto linked her customers’ consumer resistance to their middle-class upbringing, arguing that “Our customer is from traditional homes and advantage, but this offers them the benefit of rebellion.”  In that analysis, the disaffected and upwardly mobile youth bourgeois has the financial means to rebel by engaging in shopping that questions inherited moralities.  Otto may in fact be correct that such mass consumption is theatrical irreverence that simply illuminates arbitrary if not hypocritical morality without necessarily replacing it; that is, her customers may have no especially deep investment in any unbending moral and disciplinary codes.

Such marketing analyses are largely observations about the shopping behavior of a modest circle of middle-class consumers that focus on everyday consumer practices and are not especially interested in youth politics.  In just over 40 years, Urban Outfitters has never conducted focus groups and they have done only two surveys; instead, they rely on “customer profiles” produced by videotaping and taking snapshots of customers.  Founder Richard Hayne (an Anthropology major) argues that “We’re not after people’s statements, we’re after their actions.”

The suppressive “mainstream” that such marketers invoke is appealing to youth consumers in particular, who often feel socially repressed and creatively stifled by the structural realities of school, parental discipline, and personal uncertainty.  In the hands of marketers, the rhetorical foil of a parental “mainstream” paints everyday domination as a coordinated repressive force invested in outdated generational values, fossil bands, and a suppression of dissent, creativity, and style.

American Apparel's 2012 care tag  instructs men in the appropriate gendered division of labor (image from Daily Mail)

American Apparel’s 2012 care tag instructs men in the appropriate gendered division of labor (image from Daily Mail)

Many youth consumer goods take aim on stereotypically repressed sexualities of their parents’ generation.  These sales appeals leverage crass humor to expose arbitrary sexual discipline, but they routinely descend into reactionary embraces of sexism.  American Apparel extends its patriarchy to care tags that instruct its consumer in proper laundry techniques before breaking down and advising the male consumer to “Give it to your woman; Its her job,” aspiring to reduce sexism to an ironic joke.

American Apparel’s incessant stream of sexualized images champions recreational drug use, casual sex, and emotionally hyperbolic bands as the building blocks of a liberal morality.   Their semi-pornographic brand aesthetic attempts to rationalize itself through irony, artistic license, and humor, but it is simply thinly veiled misogyny.  Their ad “In Bed with the Boss” finds founder Dov Charney, American Apparel’s two creative directors, and an uneasy beagle forgoing the boardroom for the bedroom.  Trend forecasting company Youth Intelligence told a teen marketing conference that in the eyes of teens such ads (and a series of unsuccessful sexual harassment suits against Charney) may actually boost American Apparel’s brand, indicating that “We’ve talked to kids about that, actually, and what they’re telling us is that it fits their brand. In some ways it lends more authenticity to the brand. They’re not just saying they’re sexually deviant, they really are!”

American Apparel's "In Bed with the Boss" ad (image from Styleite)

American Apparel’s “In Bed with the Boss” ad (image from Styleite)

The very notion of a youth culture that has been reduced to a marketing niche may be delivering its own death rites.  At the end of January a prescient teen told the New York Times that “When I think of who is shopping at Abercrombie … I think it’s more of people’s parents shopping for them.”  Youth fashion sales for the final quarter of 2013 did indeed fall 6.4%, the worst single drop in the fashion industry, and many youth appear to be shopping with 20- and even 30-somethings in a marketplace in which “dress your age” is apparently an eroding maxim.

Stores like Hot Topic find themselves racing to catch up with a do-it-yourself shirt industry that produces clever, unlicensed shirts distinguished by their novelty and creativity and open rejection of commonplace mass-consumed fare.  The highest fashion complement today may be “Where did you get that shirt?,” yet this is a tribute to shopping resourcefulness as much as it is flattery to taste.

In February a Utah mother alarmed by a display of PacSun shirts purchased all of them for nearly $600 in an effort to remove them from her local mall.  Shirts like this that inspire at least some parents’ apprehension will perhaps always be potent statements of selfhood for certain youth eager to distance themselves from heavy-handed moralizing.  However, they are being sold alongside increasingly more shirts valued for their creative novelty and characterized by intentionally cryptic allusions across generational divides.  We might be appropriately startled by the bad taste or vulgarities that some marketers think are acceptable public impudence; yet clumsy invocations of rebellion meant to disturb parents seem less meaningful to most youth than novel and creative aesthetics.  Imaginative if theatrical symbols are probably less as an affront to elders than a private generational musing.

This post is based on a longer paper delivered at the IUPUI Weekend U “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” Conference March 8, 2014


Andy Bennett

2002 Researching youth culture and popular music: a methodological critiqueThe British Journal of Sociology 53(3):451–466. (subscription access)

2005 Culture and Everyday Life.  Sage Publications, London.

Paul Hodkinson and Andy Bennett (editors)

2013 Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style and Identity. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York.

Ryan Moore

2009 Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis.  New York University Press,

New York.

David Muggleton

2000 Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style.  Berg Publishers, Oxford.


American Apparel care tag image from Daily Mail

American Apparel Boss ad from Styleite

Hot Topic wall image from Hot Topic facebook page

Hot Topic Doors shirt image from Hot Topic

Kitson Designer Drugs shirt image from Buzzfeed

Urban Outfitters shot glass image from Urban Outfitters

Posted on March 12, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. There is a story that Coca-Cola tried to persuade the German radical Rudi Dutschke to put a bottle of Coke by the microphone when delivering his inflammatory anti-capitalist speeches!

  2. Martha Kennedy

    Thanks! This was great reading — I started noticing this when my students started showing up in Pink Floyd shirts about 10 years ago. One of my current students frat has a photo of JFK on the front. It’s the same frat JFK joined, but the student knew nothing about the actual PERSON except “I hear he was a great president and he was a frat brother.”

  3. Fantastic Read.ReBlogged. Love!!

  4. Reblogged this on SHROOMANTICS and commented:
    Really enjoyed reading this. Agree with so much of its sentiment.

  1. Pingback: I'm Not a Weekend Punk T-shirt, Color Black - AnjumsList

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