"Beverly Hills 90210" is widely regarded as one of the first television shows that no hip teen-ager can ignore. And rightfully so. It talks teen talk. It stars teen mega-stars. It has even spawned a handful of teen-embracing clones.
So, it would seem only logical that any marketer wanting to tap into teen-agers would link its products to the show. Dozens have. Coca-Cola and UA Theatres just began a "90210" poster giveaway and sweepstakes. General Mills is sticking packs of trading cards with the "90210" stars inside its Honey Nut Cheerios. A new lipstick by Mentholatum is building its entire image around the show. And even Nike has recently placed its shoes on one of the show's most popular stars, Jenny Garth.
But a funny thing happened on "90210's" way to a veritable love-fest with the teen-agers. It got derailed by the notorious fickleness of the teen-age market--and the visible fact that its own stars, such as Luke Perry and Shannen Doherty, are growing up fast. What's more, the wanna-be aspirations of kid sisters and brothers watching the show have scared off their older siblings.
To be sure, millions of teen-agers are still die-hard fans of the Fox TV show about student life at West Beverly High. Some marketing experts even view it as the landmark TV show to first speak directly to teen-agers. But in unmistakably clear numbers, teen-agers are turning away from the show. And for marketers whose main aim is to reach teen-agers--and others paying $125,000 for 30-second spots on the show--that may require an unexpected rethinking of strategy.
"No self-respecting teen wants to own up to watching it anymore," said Marian Salzman, president of the New York marketing firm BKG Youth. "As a teen marketer, I would never advise a client to tie in to '90210.' It's yesterday's news."
Last season, "90210" was by far the nation's No. 1-rated show among teen-agers. But in its second season it has dropped to eighth spot, according to Nielsen Media Research. And while the show had a whopping average of 4.5 million teen-age viewers per show during its first season, that number has dropped dramatically to an average 2.7 million this season.
The three hottest TV shows with teen-age viewers so far this season are 20th Century Fox's "In Living Color," and two NBC shows, "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "Blossom," reports Nielsen.
The producer of "90210"--Aaron Spelling--declined to be interviewed for this story.
"90210's" preteen viewership dropped this season too, but not as much, according to Nielsen. In that category it has fallen to 17th spot from 13th place.
But Salzman pointed out that the show's popularity with preteens has turned off some teens. "The younger kids think it's really cool. It makes them feel like teens," she said.
At the beginning of 1992, a record 50% of the teen-age girls polled by the Zandl Group, a New York teen research firm, said "90210" was their favorite show. But in another poll taken two months ago, 30% of the teen-age girls said it was their favorite show--and 15% said it was their "least favorite," said Irma Zandl, founder of the firm. "That was the first time we had teen-age girls listing it as their least favorite--and that's not a good sign," she said.
But what about the big marketers who linked their products with the show? The fragrance firm Tsumura International created a "90210" perfume aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds. Lon Pinkowitz, the firm's vice president of marketing, said the Secaucus, N.J., company was somewhat surprised to discover the perfume was appealing more to 10- to 16-year-olds.
And the woman who oversees licensing for all "90210" products said that while teen-agers are still the big viewers of the show, it is preteens who actually buy much of the show-related merchandise.
"Once the younger siblings see teens getting into a trend, they just gravitate toward it," said Debra Joester, president of New York-based Hamilton Projects.
By one industry estimate, nearly $200 million worth of "90210" products have been sold in the last two years. Industry executives estimate that Mattel has sold nearly $50 million in vinyl dolls that look like cast members, with mostly 7- to 12-year-old girls buying the dolls. Similarly, when General Mills recently began placing "90210" trading cards inside packs of Honey Nut Cheerios, it wasn't to attract teen-agers. The brand is primarily consumed by 8- to 12-year-olds, company spokeswoman Kathryn Newton said.
Indeed, the United Artists Theatre chain recently interviewed teen-age girls to get their impressions about the show before the company began a big promotional tie-in with "90210." The firm found that more than teen-agers, it was youngsters--as young as 7 years old--who were especially interested in the show.
One teen-age girl even told a UA executive: "We don't like to talk about the show at school because the boys make fun of us for watching it."
But marketers who continue to link up with "90210" insist that they are making the right move.