Tina Wells, Teen Whisperer
WHILE WELLS will be glad to see that happen for the sake of their souls, she’ll also mourn the loss. The way young people live today is a bonanza for marketers; everything they do is “searchable, sortable and storable,” and Wells loves finding new means of utilizing the reams of raw data they produce. So isn’t there, like, a conflict between the protective instinct she harbors toward Millennials and the fact that she just wrote a book essentially telling corporations how to take advantage of them?
“I don’t believe Millennials can be manipulated,” she says. “They love marketing. My generation hated it. [Millennials] expect it. They want to be moved.” Besides, the Internet has made the shopping world much more democratic: “My first client was Neil Cole of Bongo Shoes. I’d see his new shoes in his showroom, and I’d love them. Then I’d go into stores, and all I’d see would be the same dumb pump. He said that’s the only shoe the department-store buyers would buy.” In the new world order, some suit at Macy’s doesn’t get to dictate what kids in Queen Village and Malvern wear.
Still, Wells does worry, especially about today’s “mean girls” culture, in which it seems the more poorly you behave, the more attention you get. She devotes an entire chapter of Chasing Youth Culture to the tightrope corporations walk when they sponsor racy TV shows or hire celebrity spokesbabes. She also puts her time where her mouth is: To try to counteract Miley Cyrus taking off her shirt in Vanity Fair, Wells has written a series of tween books with a heroine, Mackenzie “Zee” Blue, who’s quirky and confused but cool, who shops at thrift stores and plays in a rock band and fights with her friends in a normal tween way, meaning the cops never have to break things up. The fourth book in the series came out in November, from HarperCollins.
“Girls e-mail her,” Wells says, a little- awed. “Mackenzie lets me see a whole other side from marketing. They ask her, ‘Can you teach me how to flirt?’ Or they’ll say of Jasper,”—Zee’s long-suffering admirer—-“‘Don’t you realize he likes you?’”
There was skepticism at the series’s debut. “Some bloggers said, ‘Oh, she’s going to fill the books with products from her clients,’” Wells bristles. “I would never be that stupid. I’m not going to write, ‘Zee put on her Bonne Bell lip gloss.’” Still, brands define the characters Wells delineates, and Zee sports Converse sneakers: “It’s who she is. It’s her DNA. She wouldn’t be the same if she wore Nike.” Even fourth-graders understand brand shorthand.