BRANDED

The Buying and Selling of Teenagers

By Alissa Quart

Perseus. 239 pp. $25

THE MARTYRS OF COLUMBINE

Faith and the Politics of Tragedy

By Justin Watson

Palgrave. 212 pp. $24.95

One hundred thousand-dollar bar mitzvahs. Freddie Prinze Jr. movies. Companies that actually listen to kids in their efforts to serve them. These are just some of the forces, Alissa Quart explains in Branded, that turn teens into "victims of the contemporary luxury economy." On the scale of sympathetic victims, alas, children born with platinum credit cards in their Gucci purses don't rate quite as high as, for instance, teenage sweatshop workers in Indonesia. But Quart insists that capitalism exploits affluent kids, too: "Raised by a commodity culture from the cradle, teens' dependably fragile self-images and their need to belong to groups are perfect qualities for advertisers to exploit."

True enough. But while Quart excels in capturing the chirpy, soulless avarice that tends to characterize today's hyper-predatory kiddie-peddlers, she also sidesteps some major questions. Namely, how effective are these reactive, uncertain marketers of cool? Can they really create desire out of (fashionably) thin air, or do they just hope to steer it toward their clients from time to time? And isn't it possible that teens might actually generate real meaning out of the commercialized culture they consume with such binge-and-charge fervor?

While marketers may view teens as little more than billboards with wallets, Quart appears to equate them with slightly retarded parrots. The teen girls who volunteer to share their opinions for Teen People focus groups do not fully understand that "they are being used," Quart insists. The teen boys who lift weights relentlessly in an effort to supersize their pecs do so out of "male bodily self-hatred" generated by Calvin Klein ads and Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, Quart suggests.

Of course, none of this is particularly new. As Quart acknowledges, companies have been using teens to sell to other teens since at least the 1930s, when "girls [were] rounded up and paid to scream for Frank Sinatra." And improbable physical ideals marketed to teens have an equally aged pedigree: The first Charles Atlas ads started appearing in comic books and magazines in 1929.

What's different now, Quart maintains, is the ubiquity of teen marketing: It's inescapable; it wears teens down; it turns them into stylish, stressed-out overachievers even if, deep down, they long to be pudgy slackers. At the same time, though, the fierce competition to win teen favor confers a certain kind of power that Quart barely acknowledges. Billion-dollar corporations grovel for teen approval. Fickle 14-year-olds can destroy 35-year-old brand managers. And if a boy doesn't want to become an Abercrombie & Fitch mimbo, well, there are thousands of other companies desperate to help him self-actualize as a utopian raver, or misanthropic Goth, or even no-logo anti-corporate rebel.

Addressing the possible upsides of teen-marketing ubiquity would have made for a more interesting book, so why did Quart ignore them? Perhaps she felt a more nuanced approach might dilute Branded's brand as muckraking expose{acute}.

While Justin Watson doesn't explicitly address teen marketing in The Martyrs of Columbine, his book fits right into the world that Quart describes in Branded. A professor of religious studies, Watson documents how evangelical Christians continue to use teen murder victims Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott to promote Christianity to other teens.

Bernall and Scott were two of the 13 people Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed in the Columbine massacre. In separate incidents, the killers purportedly asked each girl if she believed in God; each one supposedly replied that she did. "Within days of their deaths," Watson recounts, "Cassie and Rachel were being hailed as modern-day martyrs and were seen by some, especially within the American evangelical community, as the sparks for a potential religious revival among teenagers."

Brave, principled and attractive, the girls made model martyrs. A wide range of products inspired by their experience soon followed: at least six books (usually branding the girls as "martyrs" in their titles); videotapes; "Yes, I Believe" hats and bracelets; a short-lived magazine called "Rachel's Journal." In addition, the girls have become stock characters in plays and "Hell House" events (an alternative to traditional Halloween haunted houses) that various Christian groups present around the country.

"Cassie Bernall died a death so archetypal, it is almost an adolescent's fantasy of martyrdom," wrote J. Bottum in the magazine First Things. But as Watson shows, it might also be a fantasy perpertrated by adults. In the first place, he argues, there are a number of ways in which the girls' narratives veer from traditional concepts of martyrdom, including the absence of a chance to save themselves by renouncing their faith.

And in the second place, he argues, it's all but impossible to establish a definitive version of each girl's death and what they actually said (or didn't say) to their killers. Multiple versions of each story exist, differing in dialogue and sequence of events: Watson examines journalistic accounts and official law enforcement reports and highlights the ambiguities -- clashing eyewitness testimonies, inconsistent chronologies and a general lack of clear, conclusive evidence as to what actually happened.

Some debunkers see these martyr stories and the merchandise they've generated as callous efforts to cash in on tragedy. Watson cites several Amazon.com reader reviews of the book Bernall's mother wrote: One person labeled it "fundamentalist-propaganda-for-dollars." Another remarked that it was "sad to see people profiting off of a tragedy." But while Watson ends up doubting these stories as factual truth, he doesn't believe that their "dramatic license" invalidates them completely. "These stories can be, and are for those who honor the legacies of these two young women, a summons to heroism," he asserts. "For those who 'stick to the martyr story' the real truth about Columbine will never be reducible to a mere constellation of facts."

Are there "real truths" to be found in the more commercialized realm of teen marketing as well? A marketer might be interested in developing a peer-to-peer network of Backstreet Boys fans solely for the purpose of selling more Backstreet Boys albums, but the teens who actually create such a network have the power to imbue it with whatever meaning they like. What Watson suggests, and what Quart doesn't acknowledge, is that interpretation counts, too. *

G. Beato is the editor of Soundbitten.com.