In these complicated times, one group of people remains amazingly united in its opinions. Tween girls, those not-quite teen-agers ages 8 to 12, seem to all want to wear their jeans low, their shirts short, and to shop only in a few trendy stores. And a good number of them probably have at least one Roxy Girl item in their closet.
Roxy Girl, one of the hottest labels in girls' fashion, makes sweetly sexy, surfer-centric sportswear along with almost everything else a beach bunny would need: hats, glasses, watches. Now the company has come up with the ultimate brand-name accessory: preteen reading with the Roxy Girl label. It's the first time a clothing company has ventured into the literary field.
Executives at the Huntington Beach, Calif., company decided to create a series of books and hired an author of young-adult fiction to write the tales, and the whole package was sold to Harper-Entertainment, a division of HarperCollins.
Starting next month, these paperbacks, called the Roxy Girl series, will be available in youth sections of bookstores and public libraries -- with little cue to unsuspecting readers that the books were actually published as a way to help promote a fashion brand.
It's all so subtle. Even with the Roxy Girl name and heart-shaped logo on the front and back covers, it's hard to tell from looking at them that these novels of life and love among adolescent surfers are actually stealth advertisements.
"It's insidious and subversive," says Alissa Quart, author of the recent Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teen-agers (Perseus Publishing). "If you're a 9-year-old today, you're entering a world where nothing you encounter is pure or generic. Every-thing is labeled and smacks of commerce."
The new series, aimed at girls 8 to 13, was the brainstorm of Danny Kwock, 41, and Matt Jacobson, 42, who head the year-old entertainment division of Roxy's parent company, Quiksilver, which took in $800 million in sales of board-sport fashions last year.
Jacobson says: "We were sitting in the company cafeteria, talking to some girls who work here. Turns out they're all voracious readers, all members of book clubs and, of course, they all surf. They said they couldn't think of any good girls' fiction since those old series, like Sweet Valley High." Kwock and Jacobson decided to fill the void with tales about surfing, while giving a boost to their brand.
But concerned observers contend that the books are a guerrilla marketing tactic pitched at young people who have no idea they're being "pitched." Although the notion of promotional books isn't new, this is the first time a fictional series, billed as literature, has emanated from a company trying to sell clothes.
That's what bugs those purists who grew up believing that literature is a kind of holy creative pursuit. But people who worry about these things are way behind the times, says Daniel Cook, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose specialty is children's consumer culture. "The commodification of children has been going on for decades," he says. "The latest ploy is the empowerment discourse. If you can empower a child in a wholesome way, there's very little for consumers to object to."
Bettijane Levine is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.