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Brands Target Tween Girls In Bid To Keep Them As Longtime Customers

Quick — name one awkward thing you could talk about with a 12-year-old girl. How about menstruation?

Since it was posted to YouTube last year, a video by the women's health company Hello Flo has been viewed more than 30 million times. Unlike common ad trends that skirt around the female topic, it takes a more conscious, humorous approach:

"First Jenny got it. Then stupid Vicky got it. And I tried everything to get my period. Nothing. So, I faked it," says a preteen featured in the ad.

I'm watching with Willa Peltzer, who's 12, and her mother, who both laugh at the ad.

And it turns out, what was once awkward or even shameful is now an ordinary topic of conversation.

"When I got my period, I was definitely comfortable talking about it with my friends and my mom and my sister," Peltzer says.

So for her, she says, "It's not surprising that it could be turned into something funny because it's already something that I'm comfortable with."

Once upon a time — not so long ago — ads for pads and tampons showed images of women in gauzy garments, doing yoga on the beach. Manufacturers left it to mothers and big sisters to give young women "the talk."

But being a young person today is different from even a short time ago. Many 12-year-olds now carry smartphones. They use social media like Snapchat and Tumblr. And brands increasingly see them as a distinct consumer group.

Today, these brands speak to girls directly.

Allison Koller is with CBX, a branding agency that works with Kotex. There, she shows me, "This is the war room for Kotex."

The Kotex "war room" is not much bigger than a closet. Koller is showing me a stack of U by Kotex Tween boxes, containing pads and liners specifically for young women. First thing you notice? The boxes are not eggshell or lavender. They're black.

"Right," Koller says. "The black box makes a huge impression at shelf just because it's so unexpected."

Koller says this approach felt radical, even risky, when the first boxes started showing up in stores in 2010. But the first run sold out in two weeks.

Girls are of course not the only young consumers. Tween boys tend to buy a lot of sneakers and video games.

But there's something special about young women, says Emily Long. She's with the Learning About Multimedia Project, a group that teaches kids to think critically about advertising. Long says underwear, menstrual pads and makeup are the kinds of products that companies can sell to women for decades.

"I see them trying to set up a customer from a young age who's going to stay with them for the long haul," she says.

One trend that troubles Long is ads that reference a kind of soft-focus feminism. Dove has a selfie campaign for teens. Last year, the underwear brand Aerie loudly proclaimed that it had stopped doing post-production on its photography. One ad read: "The girl in this photo has not been retouched. The real you is sexy."

"It's still a construction," Long says. "They're still creating a shot ... putting them in costumes and lighting and makeup. Just because they're not going back over it later on with something like Photoshop doesn't mean that it hasn't been manipulated."

Aerie declined to give an interview.

The models in these ads are clearly older than 12. Aerie says it targets females 15 and older. Its close rival, Pink by Victoria's Secret, says it's for college-age women. But Willa Peltzer, our 12-year-old in Brooklyn, has shopped at both places.

"At 11, other girls my age were shopping there too," she says. "I think that they might not know it, but I think that they target all girls."

Oh, but the companies do know it. One 2013 study put the spending power of kids ages 9 to 13 at $200 billion.

Win a loyal fan today, and she could be a customer for many years to come.

Copyright 2015 WNYC Radio

Ilya Marritz

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