Trend spotting

My first job was at the information booth in a mall when I was 16. I answered phones and gave directions. There was no "mall culture" then, in the way we think of it now. My friends came by the booth on their way to buy records or clothes, but they didn't hang out at the mall.

How surprised, and skeptical, we would have been if a marketing person had asked us to join a group to talk about teen buying trends (see story, right). Sure, we bought stuff, but our parents strictly limited our spending money. If stores paid attention to us at all, it was to run us off the premises if we got too rowdy.

I can't remember what my minuscule wages were spent on, but I liked earning my own money, being responsible, and having my ideas listened to by adults. Other than the basic fear of appearing uncool to my friends, life was good.

Today, companies are vying to tap into the huge teen market. How? By recruiting kids to report emerging trends among their peers. Pay them or give them products, make them feel important - like insiders - and Presto! Companies get valuable insights into teenage tastes, and teens feel like they've contributed something to consumer culture.

But questions arise about whether teens are being exploited. Do they have enough real-world experience to decide if they are being taken advantage of? Do companies have an ethical responsibility not to target teens? Is advertising basically harmless? Do kids buy too much anyway?

Welcome to the world of trend spotting.

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