As an unappointed culture watcher, I have often given thanks and footnotes to assorted Madison Avenue copywriters for magazines.
One of them, after all, gave birth to the Cosmo Girl, that marvelous creature of the Swinging Seventies whose I.Q. is on par with her cleavage. Another completed the renovation of Playboy into the charming egocentric of the Me Decade -- "elbowing his way in, saying I want it all."
So, just imagine how excited I was to see the following announcement spread across the back page of The New York Times last week by Seventeen magazine:
"In 1926 Freud asked, What do women want? In 1979, we found out."
Aha! I thought, out of the bible of adolescence would come The Answer. Next to this mystery, the shroud of Turin, the quest for the photovoltaic cell and the meaning of life have all paled. Herein might dwell the youthful role model of the 1980s.
Thus, atwitter with excitement, I sat down to read. What secrets of raging hormonal imbalance would the ad people unlock? What, in short, do women want?
According to the fine and not so fine print, Dr. Freud had been stumped by the question of what women wanted out of life. But Seventeen, in a flash of inspiration, had hired Dr. Uankelovich to discover what they wanted out of products.
Heading not to the couch but to the poll, they determined that "an impressive number of women want the same things from their products that they wanted they were young." The message was simply that if you grab them while they're virtually virgin consumers, they'll be loyal to you forever.
Or at least to your nail polish.
In short, as proud-as-punch ad director Robert Bunge put it on the phone, "We here at Seventeen always say it's easier to start a habit than stop it."
Well, talk about your Freudian slips.
The teen advertisers are in the business of starting a habit all right -- the habit of self-loathing. If their manufacturers are selling solutions, they have to produce the need.
They raise the Gross National Level of teenage insecurity and then offer the cure. By age 15, the average girl is hooked on cosmetics and absolutely mainlining shampoo.
Teen-agers have been easy prey since the days when they saved up money for freckle-remover cream. But today they are an astonishing bit market, dubbed Superspenders. They spend $2.1 billion on beauty aids and $12.8 billion on clothes.
A quick look at the magazine itself (and this is the best in the market) will tell you why. It's enough to make Freud redefine anxiety. Teen-agers are defined as tragically and physically flawed people who must stop the greasies, turn their lips into a work of art, take their faces to Maxi, and wonder, "If you shampooed yesterday will he do this [snuggle] today?"
They are not told how to accept themselves, but how to constantly "improve" themselves. No part of the anatomy is left uncriticzed: "Dear Beauty Editor: My elbows are always grimy looking no matter how much I scrub them. How can I get them to look as clean as the rest of me?" And when they collapse into self-loathing because of a pimple, they are offered Mariel Hemingway for Noxzema.
The editorial content of the magazine is not all foolish. The teens are offered articles on the Holocaust, family therapy, biking, health, national service and dating older men (of, say, 22). But the sensible things are overwhelmed by the consumable.
Next to an article on a career in medicine, for example, is an ad that cautions: "Every time you scratch your head, you could be telling someone you have dandruff."
I don't know what Freud would say about teen-age anxiety, but you can be sure it would be more profound than "Fight Oily Skin."
It is clear that Seventeen was more interested in finding out what women want out of products than out of life. And advertisers are working to make sure that what our daughters want out of life is products.