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What do Elvis, Jason Bateman and Justin Timberlake have in common?

Although these men came from different generations, there’s a common thread among them: they all started as teen idols. They are also, by the way, white males who, at the peak of their careers, were sold mostly to a female audience.

Every generation has its version of teen idols, and that’s still true in 2016. But if you look at the slate of teen celebrities today, what you’ll see is an evolving landscape. As I explore in my latest MediaPost article, the changing face of teen idols has implications for brands—and marketers need to pay attention.

Boy bands are still very popular—look at One Direction (before its hiatus) or 5 Seconds of Summer—but the spectrum of teen talent has widened in the past decade. The question is, why? I see three significant trends driving this change.

Gender and ethnic diversity

It’s no secret that Generation Z are used to being in a “majority minority” generation. More than ever, teens embrace the “Lean In” ethos of female empowerment. In fact, two of the biggest stars today, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, became stars in their teens and took charge of their careers and public image. Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley did the same in acting. In sports, Mo’ne Davis is one of the best-known teen athletes.

In television, the days of all-white representation are also gone. Popular teen shows like Pretty Little Liars and The Flash feature an ethnically diverse cast.

If you’re looking for teen talent or spokespersons for your marketing campaigns, ensure that you’re casting people from diverse backgrounds. To be safe, check with your community of customers and test storyboards or creative to ensure that people don’t find it gender- or racially-biased. Doing research before launch is a lot cheaper than dealing with a failed campaign or fixing a PR problem later on.

Wider acceptance of all sexual orientations and gender identities

In the past, it was expected that teen talent present themselves publicly as heterosexual. It was unusual to encounter openly gay, lesbian or transgender entertainers. This is changing quickly as we now live in an age of LGBTQ acceptance. Today, more teens use social media to express support of, and even claim membership in, the community.

Recently, the star of Disney Channel’s Girl Meets World used Twitter to share that she’s “queer”; a Hunger Games actress announced that she’s bisexual; and a Teen Wolf star came out as gay. Meanwhile, Jaden Smith, Will and Jada Smith’s son who has worn skirts in public, has just been hired as the new face of the Louis Vuitton women’s collection, the latest in a series of high-fashion models to blur gender lines.

So, what does this have to do with marketing? Simply put, companies need to encourage their spokespeople to be real. Authenticity counts in today’s business. Somebody who’s open and honest comes across as being more relatable.

Also, don’t assume that your brand can only be for men (e.g., athletic equipment) or women (e.g., a fashion line). Talk to your customers to get a more accurate picture of who’s really buying your brand, and how it’s being used by customers on the cutting edge.

More emphasis on raw talent

To become a celebrity, you still need good looks, but teens today expect something more. Think of the singers who have broken out on YouTube—a growing list that includes Justin Bieber, Tori Kelly and Shawn Mendes. They launched their careers by being heard by millions over the loud din of voices. Today, teen talent isn’t limited to singers and actors. There are teen comics (Lucas Cruikshank), activists (Malala Yousafzi), scientists (Jack Andraka), beauty and fashion experts (Michelle Phan), even a “teen medium” who just turned 20 (Tyler Henry).

When you’re looking for a spokesperson, seek somebody who has a great talent that ties into your brand, and can use his or her authority to influence your target audience. To maximize your success, engage with your customers to test awareness, likeability and fit of these performers with your brand.


The changing face of teen talent is a reflection of the evolving face of Gen Z customers. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re reflecting the full diversity of today’s teens when you’re working with spokespeople, brand evangelists and influencers. And as I mention in my MediaPost article, the companies that fail to engage teen customers for insight are at risk of looking trapped in the ‘50s, in one of those old-school teen beach movies, and seeing their campaigns fail as a result.

The Everything Guide to Gen Z

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