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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Selling National Youth Culture

Out of these local markets American Bandstand’s map created a vision of a national market of teenage consumers that advertisers and record producers sought to reach. Although the teenage consumer market began developing in the decades before World War II, in the 1950s marketers and the popular press emphasized the discovery of a previously untapped market of teenage consumers.[i] In 1956, for example, the Wall Street Journal described the nation’s 16 million teenagers as a “market that’s getting increasing attention from merchants and advertisers.” Estimating that teens spent between $7 and $9 billion dollars annually, the article described how advertisers were turning to teenage-market researchers to help them win the brand loyalty of these customers at an early age. [ii] Foremost among these researchers, Eugene Gilbert generated many of the statistics that fueled the interest in the teenage market. Starting in the early 1940s, Gilbert, who called himself the “George Gallop of the teenagers,” hired a network of high school students to conduct market research among their peers. By the late 1950s, Gilbert wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “What Young People Think,” and published Advertising and Marketing to Young People (1957), encouraging marketers to develop specific strategies to reach teens. [iii] Gilbert’s Advertising and Marketing to Young People opens with charts emphasizing that the postwar baby boom had made eight- to eighteen-year-olds the fastest growing age demographic in the country. The size of the youth market, combined with young people's willingness to try new products, made an “unbeatable selling formula” in Gilbert’s estimation. “Just look at youth!,” Gilbert advised readers,
No established pattern…No inventory of treasured, and to many an adult’s way of thinking, irreplaceable objects. Youth…is the greatest growing force in the community. His physical needs alone constitute a continuing and growing requirement in food, cloths, entertainment, etc. It has definitely been established that because he is open-minded and desires to learn, he is often the first to accept new and forward-looking products.[iv]
Gilbert’s statements of fact about the youth market were part of the midcentury growth of surveys about “average” Americans. In attempting to “reveal the nation to its members,” historian Sarah Igo contends, these “social scientists were covert nation-builders, conjuring up a collective that could be visualized only because it was radically simplified.”[v] Gilbert’s writings on the youth market were influential because he provided pages of data on the consumer preferences of youth, thereby transforming millions of individual teens and pre-teens into a market niche. As evidence of a company eager to reach young consumers, Gilbert could have cited ABC’s attempt to outflank the larger networks by targeting teenage viewers with programs like American Bandstand. For his part, Clark echoed Gilbert’s descriptions of teens as a large, but underserved, consumer market. “It’s been a long, long time since a major network has aimed at the most entertainment-starved group in the country,” Clark told Newsweek in December 1957. “And why not? After all, teen-agers have $9 billion a year to spend.”[vi] While Gilbert generated interest in teenagers as lucrative consumers, American Bandstand provided Clark with a platform to put Gilbert’s ideas into practice.

In an era when advertisers “discovered” teenagers, American Bandstand offered daily access to the largest market of young consumers. Almost every minute of American Bandstand was dedicated to selling products. From paid advertisements for consumer goods to promotions of records and musical guests (also often paid for by record promoters), the show presented its viewers with a host of messages everyday. The show urged teenagers to drink Seven-Up and Dr. Pepper, snack on Rice-a-Roni and Almond Joy, buy records by the newest hitmakers and carry these records in an American Bandstand case, read about the show’s regulars in publications like ‘Teen magazine, wear the same “Dick Clark American Bandstand” shoes as these dancers, learn new dances from the American Bandstand yearbook, and apply Clearasil to their pimples. This was an extraordinarily high level of promotional activity, even by the standards of commercial television. By representing the show’s teenagers consuming all of these products, American Bandstand constructed a national youth culture centered on simultaneous consumption. By inviting viewers to participate in the same consumption rituals as the studio audience, American Bandstand encouraged teens across the country to identify with each other.

In this wave of attention focused on teenage consumer culture, American Bandstand stood out for the way that it showed teens using the sponsors’ products. When buying time on American Bandstand sponsors like 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, Clearasil, and Cheerios also bought interaction between their products and the show’s teenagers. For example, after the opening shot of teens dancing behind the cut-out map of the United States in one 1957 episode, the camera focused on a 7-Up sign and bottles of the soda placed next to Clark at his podium. Clark read a letter from a viewer in Schenectady, New York, who sent him a bottle opener because he was unable to open a bottle of 7-Up in a previous show. After thanking the viewer for her letter and the gift and commenting on his thirst, Clark took an exaggerated swig of the soda. The camera cut to teenagers in the studio audience who asked for drinks of their own, which Clark promised to deliver after a short commercial. After a one-minute cartoon advertisement for 7-Up, the camera returned to a live shot of Clark handing out bottles of 7-Up from a cooler to an eager group of audience members. As Clark introduced “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes, the camera stayed focused on teens drinking 7-Up and milling about near the cooler through the first fifteen seconds of the song. Throughout the song, the cameras cut away from shots of teens dancing to return to the teenagers drinking 7-Up. All told, this 7-Up promo lasted nearly five minutes and was only the first of several in that episode.[vii]

These interpolated commercials, which were common in radio and television shows in this era, provided American Bandstand’s viewers with daily visual evidence of teenagers’ eagerness to consume products.[viii] While such a message appealed to marketers looking to expand sales, images of teenagers as consumers also encouraged the home audience to join in by buying the sponsor’s products. The show’s advertisements focused on soft drinks and snacks—Popsicles, Mounds, Almond Joy, Dr. Pepper, and Welch’s grape juice all advertised on the show—all of which were aimed at teenage viewers and their parents in the after-school hours.[ix] American Bandstand’s afternoon broadcast time was also less expensive for sponsors. In 1958, these advertisers paid $3,400 per half hour compared to $30,000 to $45,000 for a half hour on a live music show in the evening.[x] For this bargain rate American Bandstand offered sponsors an unusually deep level of interaction with teenagers in the studio audience and those viewing at home.

To recruit sponsors, ABC also drew on market research suggesting that many housewives watched the show. The network sent a press release proclaiming “Age No Barrier to Bandstand Beat” to local affiliates and sponsors, and during the broadcast Clark encouraged “You housewives [to] roll up the ironing board and join us when you can.”[xi] By appealing to both the advertising industry’s traditional view of housewives as archetypal consumers and the new interest in teenage consumers, Clark and ABC positioned American Bandstand to be as attractive as possible to advertisers.[xii] In turn, these advertisers ensured the show’s sustainability.

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