Popular Media and Marketing to Today's Teen


by Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D.

Over the past few months, we've been summarizing data from a custom dataset purchased by the Association from Teen Research Unlimited, Inc. (TRU) that compares the attitudes and preferences of teens who attend camp with those who do not. This month, we'll focus on what the data might mean for marketing to potential campers both in terms of advertising as well as program innovations that might attract campers. For the sake of argument here, we'll assume that we want to market to those teens who are similar to the ones who have chosen to go to camp. The argument could be made that camp directors should find ways to attract atypical campers, but that is a discussion for another day.

Magazine Readership

The TRU data show some interesting differences among teens who said they would attend camp and those that said that they would not. First of all, there is strong evidence that girls aged twelve to seventeen who attend camp read fashion and style magazines more often than those girls who choose to not attend camp. For example, 37 percent of girls aged twelve to fifteen attending camp listed CosmoGIRL as a favorite magazine, compared to 18.3 percent of girls not attending camp. Similarly, 39.2 percent of twelve- to fifteenyear- old girls listed Teen Vogue as a favorite, compared to 18.9 percent of non-attending girls. In Style and Glamour show similar trends. These differences hold for white and nonwhite populations alike.

While these differences might highlight gaps in the socio-economic status of those youth who can afford and cannot afford camp, it is an interesting finding nevertheless. Camp directors must be mindful that perhaps a majority of the girls attending their camps favor reading fashion and style magazines over other options. For camp directors who need to spruce up their marketing materials or reinvigorate their program offerings for girls, look to these magazines for ideas and inspiration. Even the look and feel of the Web sites that accompany these magazines may serve as an artistic model for a site overhaul. We all know that camp offers much more to young women than the opportunity to learn about fashion and personal style, but as a way of getting girls into youth programs, and thus exposing them to a wider range of potential interests or hobbies, the look, style, and content of these magazines can serve as an inspiration.

For boys, the trends are harder to apply to marketing. The data clearly show that boys who attend camp are less likely to list video gaming magazines as their favorites compared to nonattending teen boys. For example, Game Informer is the favorite magazine of 16.3 percent of nonattending teen boys ages twelve to fifteen, but it is the favorite magazine for only 7.8 percent of boys attending camp. Overall, the top three favorite magazines for twelve- to fifteen-year-old boys attending camp are Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, and Rolling Stone. The first two are also popular with nonattending boys, but Rolling Stone is not (10 percent versus 2.2 percent). Given Rolling Stone's content, this suggests that music programs might be a draw to at least some boys with a propensity to go to camp. The data suggest that Rolling Stone is also more popular among nonwhites that attend camp compared to nonwhites that do not attend camp.

Newspaper Readership

Newspapers are a common medium for camp marketing efforts. But where do you place your ad within a newspaper? The TRU data indicates that the comics page is the most read section overall, with nearly 48 percent of teens indicating that they read it. Sports and entertainment news were close followers. Over 40 percent of teens said they read those sections. Among teen boys ages twelve to fifteen who said they would attend camp that year, comics and sports are read by a majority of respondents. Among girls of the same age, entertainment news, comics, and advertising, such as clothing sales, were the leading sections. Overall, non-white campers also indicated high readership of the horoscope pages (over 47 percent). This suggests that when spending on newspaper advertising, it makes sense to work with the paper to place your ad wisely. Obviously, if parents are the target of your ad, perhaps a different section is most appropriate.


We know that teens love music and listen to the radio, but what formats are most popular today? Among teens planning to attend camp, hip-hop or rap stations are the clear winner, with over 43 of TRU respondents listening to them. This is interesting, because more than likely many camp directors are not even aware of their local hip-hop stations. The rise of the art form in the 80s means that there is often a musical generation gap between campers and older staff members that grew up in the 70s or earlier. Yet, as camps try to promote diversity, it should be noted that this dataset indicates that 67 percent of non-white teens attending camp listen to hip-hop or rap radio stations. Clearly, if you intend to use radio marketing to attract teens, hip-hop stations are the place to start in most markets. Naturally, regional differences exist, but the data does not allow us to look at those patterns.

After hip-hop radio, the favored formats for teens attending camp were current hits (35 percent); country (24 percent); Christian (19 percent); alternative (19 percent); and hard rock/heavy metal (16 percent). Classic rock is listened to by only 13 percent of camp-bound teens, and oldies and other formats are all below 10 percent. Country music stations, although a favorite of 24 percent of respondents overall, is more highly favored by white teens (33.0 percent) than non-white teens (1.4 percent). Teens listening to Christian stations were more common among camp-bound teens (19.4 percent) than among all teens surveyed (10.3 percent).


With so many cable stations today, it is hard to point at a few networks and declare them the overwhelming choice of teens, but there are a few frontrunners. Among teens attending camp, the top networks were MTV, Disney®, Cartoon Network®, Fox, ABC Family, Nickelodeon/ Nick at Night®, Comedy Central®, and MTV2. Disney was listed as a favorite of over 21 percent of camp-bound teens while MTV was favored by 19.4 percent of respondents. Younger male teens (twelve to fifteen years) favored the Disney Channel the most, while older male teens (sixteen to seventeen years) indicated ESPN as their favorite. Younger teen girls most commonly chose the Disney Channel, while older teen females favored MTV. If you use cable television advertising, which is obviously a significant investment, always be sure to ask about targeting your ads to ensure the viewership you want.

When asked to indicate a favorite television show, the clear winner was CSI, a favorite of 10 percent of all teens taking the survey who were attending camp. It was especially popular among teens aged sixteen to seventeen. Numerous camps, museums, and other providers of youth programming are offering forensics and CSI-themed curricula, and these data suggest that the choice is a good one. After CSI, the survey indicated the favorite shows overall include Full House, Family Guy, and Hannah Montana. One Tree Hill, Gilmore Girls, and Grey's Anatomy were popular among older teen girls taking the survey. Non-white campers expressed higher preferences for Degrassi, Charmed, and Friends. While it would be beyond the marketing might of most camps to target ads only in certain programs, this sort of information may still be useful. First, make sure that as camp directors and staff members, you are familiar with these television shows. This will help you relate to your campers. This is especially important to camp staffers without their own teens at home. Second, consider secondary media outlets such as Web sites or fan conventions where teens may visit.


If you regularly spend money to market to teens, pay attention to what your campers like to watch on television and listen to on their iPods®. You may be able to find outlets for your advertisements that your competitors have missed. But more importantly, as camp professionals, it is our obligation to understand our clients and the popular culture that affects their daily lives, attitudes, and interests.

Jon C. Malinowski, Ph.D., is professor of geography at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, and a member of the American Camp Association Research Committee.

Originally published in the 2008 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.