Family Life: The Advertising Dream - an Audience under Ten; Advertising Is Influencing Our Lives More Than Ever - and Its Main Target Is Kids. Caroline Foulkes Reports

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Byline: Caroline Foulkes

Spot the difference. Two females are walking down the street. Each has long, straight, shiny hair. Each wears hipster jeans and a crop top. Each has a bag from the trendiest high street store swinging in her hand.

So which one is the teenager? The answer could well be neither. Pre-teens, or tweens, as they have become known, aspire to be teenagers. And in a society that increasingly fears growing old, so do adults.

Teenagers have become the key target for corporations seeking to market, advertise and sell their products.

'Advertising has been targeting adolescents for at least 100 years,' says Alissa Quart, author of Branded: the buying and selling of teenagers. 'It intensified in the US after World War Two and what's happened is that during the 1990s there was an increasing interest in branding and finding niche markets, until you got groups like teens and tweens being targeted just as much as groups like Latinos or gays.

'Advertising that aims itself specifically at teens has multiplied 20 times in the US between 1989 and 1999.'

This constant push, push, push towards the teen market has meant the profile of that particular age group has been raised, and hence they have become the ideal so many aspire to be.

But while adults and pre-teens want to be teenagers, teenagers, according to Quart, want to be adults.

'I've talked to teenagers who want to look like they've just stepped out of Sex and the City,' she says. 'They want Manolo Blahniks.

'Toy manufacturers used to produce toys for children aged 14 and under. Now they produce them for children aged ten and under. That's quite a distinction.

'The main problem is that the idea of sexuality, of having a sense of oneself as an object to be looked at, is now affecting children as young as ten, an age when they should be free of such objectification.'

Yet while it is fairly easy to market goods to the under tens, teenagers are more tricky. So advertising has to go to work in more subtle ways.

'Teenagers can be quite suspicious of advertising that is directed straight at them. They expect to be targeted through television adverts. So advertisers have developed more sophisticated ways of reaching them.

'For example, when they play computer games there will quite often be subliminal advertising in there.'

And while marketing goods to teens is becoming cleverer, the more direct forms of advertising are targeting children younger and younger.

It's something that has caused so much concern for Stourbridge MP Debra Shipley that she is planning to introduce a bill banning food and drink advertising during pre-school children's programmes.

Originally, her concern was over all advertising aimed at children under five, due to the effect of 'pester power'.

But after asking a group of parents to monitor the adverts between programmes targeted at this age group, her concern grew.

'I expected them to come back and say that the adverts were mostly for expensive toys. But they came back and said that they were overwhelmingly for food and drink.

'While I think there is an element of truth in it when people say that parents have to learn how to say no to their children when they pester them for toys, food and drink are completely different matters.

'It's about building and developing patterns of eating that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

'Because the food that is advertised is also often cheap, it's accessible to everyone on a daily basis, it's not beyond your means.

'We have a growing levels of child obesity in this country as well as increased cases of diabetes. To bombard children in their formative, pre-school years with images of food and drink that is high in salt, high in sugar and high in fat is inappropriate. …