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Is Gossip Girl What Teens Really Want?

08/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Based on the notion that teens are always going to love what their parents hate, Gossip Girl's executive producers are running a salacious ad campaign features the underage stars of the show in a post-coital embrace with the tagline quoted directly from the Parents Television Council:

"Mind-blowingly Inappropriate!"

The proffering of this forbidden fruit, so the reasoning goes, will be like catnip to a young, rebellious audience. Here we have an advocacy group that's horrified by Gossip Girl's candid glorifications of bed-hopping, pill popping, boozed up teens. That their shocked pronouncements could hand explosive ratings to the CBS-owned network on a platter is just too good for any contrarian marketer to pass up.

And, after all, it's what teens want, isn't it? According to Rick Haskins, the CW's executive vice president of marketing, the network is merely talking the language of teens. The show's 30-something creators are simply showing the teens themselves, right?

WRONG! Sure, the PTC can be annoying, and I can understand the temptation to use their words against them. But I have a real problem with how marketers perpetuate stereotypes without even taking the time to ask their audience. It's all about how they see youth, not how they actually are. It's what they want kids to be, but I bet when they're sitting in that room coming up with the show's concept, there isn't a person under 20 anywhere in the vicinity.

Let's invite some teens to this party. Let's give them some credit. Instead of creating a shock and awe advertising campaign and declaring this is how teens are, why not acknowledge the fact that they are incredibly complex people who need to be reached on all levels? And why not recognize that parents are a lot more clued in than this campaign suggests? I know plenty of hip moms who watch this show with their sons and daughters and use it to bring up talking points about what NOT to do.

Instead of pissing off parent's groups, why not highlight this fact? Why not brag about Gossip Girl for actually inspiring open discussions between parents and their teens about sex and drugs (the fourth and fifth characters on the show)? Now that would be a bold marketing move I could respect.

This latest tactic is an act of total, irresponsible desperation. The numbers don't lie. Even after a heavy marketing push last season, their weekly ratings were consistently at the bottom of the Nielson chart. They averaged 2.6 million viewers per new episode, and only about 500,000 are teens, the show's supposed target market.

By comparison, The Hills blows Gossip Girl out of the water in terms of popularity among teens, and it's a reality show produced on a fraction of their budget. According to my "What Teens Want," survey findings, kids gravitate more towards The Hills, even though it's about 20-somethings, because it's so much more relatable. They see themselves in the young people struggling to get along, disliking each other's boyfriends and sneaking beer in a red plastic cup at a backyard party. Of course, I'm not holding this show up as a paragon of virtue to teens. If anything, the characters are more vapid than those invented in Gossip Girl. But they're more real.

Do my buzzSpotters order cocktails from a hotel bar. No. Do they regularly have sex with their boyfriends in the back of a limo? No! (And by the way, in a further disturbing slide from reality, witness how, when GG's Blair and Chuck do the deed while in transit, there's no mention of a condom.) Do they ever dress like designer-clad sex kittens with school uniform minis? Even the girls at the top prep schools in Manhattan's Upper East Side say, "No!" Well, maybe occasionally, on weekends.

In other words, Gossip Girl bears next to no resemblance to the real lives of teens, even from that narrow, privileged demographic. I get the concept of escapism, but, honestly, what exactly are today's teens escaping from? Kids today are ridiculously fabulous. In many ways they are more interesting than anyone in these shows, and they know it!

But don't take my word for it. A reader wrote in on my blog last week with a great suggestion- that I start a discussion forum on these very topics with my buzzSpotters. I am going to do just that for Gossip Girl, and see what the kids really think (CW producers, take note -- I'm offering you this market research for free!)

Seriously, I'll set up a thread on Facebook and ask my 9,000 teens, tweens and 20-somethings to comment on the question: "Is Gossip Girl Too Racy?" Watch this space. You'll have your answers. I'll even provide you with the link.

Look, I'm not trying to kill the show. I even TiVo it myself from time to time. It's a guilty pleasure for me and my friends. But I'm 28 years old. I can't even get my head around the idea that these characters are supposed to be teens. Kids may seem older these days, but deep down, they're still developing, and that's as it should be.

For the amount of money the CW spends on this flagship show, their ratings suck because they simply don't get their core audience. They miss the mark. You know the ship is going down when marketers employ such tactics. They're trying too hard.

It's not unlike Virgin Mobile's latest campaign, "Strip2Clothe," which invited people -- mainly from the youth market -- to post videos of themselves undressing. For every five views money goes to a charity for homeless people. Sure, it's consistent with Virgin and its edgy image, but why drag the charities into it? And why, in this day and age of Warholism and voyeurism, encourage potentially underage kids in their exhibitionism? I can just see the hordes of pervy old men in raincoats rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect.

Oh, snap! Wait a minute. I think I see a parallel here. Maybe it's not too much of a leap between dirty old men viewing underage girls stripping online, and older male writers conceiving shows about raging nymphets in short school girl uniforms and high heels. Could that be the audience Gossip Girl is really going for?

Probably not. But the whole hot mess makes me long for those "innocent" days of Beverly Hills 90210. I guess that's why they're bringing the show back. Clearly, we're all missing those simpler times.

Tina Wells, 28, founded Buzz Marketing Group (www.buzzmg.com) when she was just 16. A leading consulting company that specializes in the latest youth trends, Buzz clients include St. Martin's Press, SonyBMG, Sesame Workshop and Time Inc., to name a few. A trailblazer in her field, her list of honors include Essence Magazine's 40 Under 40 Award, Billboard's 30 Under 30 Award, and AOL's Black Voices Female Entrepreneur's Award.