As teenagers and their parents ramp up for the beginning of another school year the purchase of “cool” or peer-accepted clothing often leads to conflict and stress. Parents may be financially challenged to purchase attire that is priced significantly more than comparable items merely to obtain the adolescent stamp of approval. Conversely, adolescents may be subject to peer ridicule and scorn if they are not wearing the in-brands.
In the first study to explore the extent to which teenagers influence each other’s consumer behavior, David B. Wooten (University of Michigan) analyzes the repercussions of adolescent ridicule on brand consciousness. An estimated $15 million was spent last year on back-to-school shopping done with peers instead of with parents.
“The practice of ridicule both reflects and affects adolescents’ perceptions of belongingness, the content of ridicule conveys information about the consumption norms and values of peer groups, and the experience of ridicule influences the acquisition, use, and disposition of possessions,” writes Wooten in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
Wooten explores a period in our lives that we would perhaps rather forget and finds that ridicule, while potentially traumatic, also serves an important function in the formation of value systems and consumer socialization. Kids learn from ridicule what brands, styles, and stores to avoid if they want acceptance, and these pressures play a major role in thefts and violence by teens who covet expensive symbols of belonging but cannot afford to buy them, explains Wooten.
“Although teaching is seldom the motive of teasers, learning is often a byproduct of teasing,” writes Wooten. “Adolescents use ridicule to ostracize, haze, or admonish peers who violate consumption norms.”
Wooten’s findings support a policy of mandatory school uniforms, which he argues may reduce the psychological and social pressures for adolescents to wear expensive brands and the financial pressures on parents to buy them for their children.