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Take Three | Shawn Hubler

Kids' Word of Mouth

June 27, 1997|Shawn Hubler

Our freshman was looking back the other day on the good old days of middle school. For a while, she revealed, the teachers had banned a particular kind of candy, which naturally had rendered it wildly popular.

If you wanted it, you had to pass the word to a kid named Sal, who walked with a suave, homeboy limp. When no one was looking, he'd sidle up in his big pants and whisper, "Sour apple or the red kind?

The candy was something called Raven's Revenge, a gaudy, sweet-tart powder that comes in test tubes and is sold from the backs of ice cream trucks. It is--or maybe was, now that grown-ups have wind of it--the coolest thing in the neighborhood.

The label looks Gothic. The sour apple turns your teeth green. The test tubes give people the creeps.

But even more intriguing, in this age of mega-marketing, was the way it had entered our kid's imagination: pure word of mouth. Straight outta the schoolyard underground.

*

I remember when I discovered the underground. When the answer to my parents' inevitable question about how my day had been went from a detailed narrative to the generic, "Fine." Overnight it seemed, my family receded as a frame of reference, and I had this alter-ego: I was a citizen in the nation of kids.

It was a mysterious nation, full of do's and don'ts and clubs that might have me as a member, and then again might not. I remember watching the girls who played jump-rope to discern the pecking order and the rules--who was jumping and therefore popular, who had the sidekick job of turning the rope, what brand of rope it was, store-bought or clothesline, who was said by the rhymers to be "sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g."

It was scary and treacherous, but we wouldn't have dreamed of briefing adults on the particulars. And not even the marketing lords at Disney would have guessed--in time for it to matter--what did, and did not, touch our souls.

It was private then, and private now, though consumer marketers are spending millions to plumb and manipulate its depths.

They should save their money. Alexandra "Raven" Montalban, the former candy store manager who invented Raven's Revenge, has yet to spend a dime on advertising. The Glendale mother of three is not sure why her candy is such a hit, but part of its charm, she suspects, is that it utterly mystifies adults.

That's the thing about the underground the focus-group crowd doesn't get. It's a mystery.

"The thing about middle school," a neighborhood kid told me recently, "is that it's completely about what's cool. It's hard to explain, but you can just tell when you see it if something is cool. Believe me, Disney doesn't tell us what's cool. They're just good at guessing what we're already into."

And guesswork is guesswork. It's unsettling to say the least when Madison Avenue zeros in on your kids. But advertising isn't the whole story, not by far. The underground will always, to some extent, remain terra incognita for adults, for better and for worse, whether its landscape is as tame as forbidden candy or is littered with less wholesome fare.

Not long ago, one of our teenager's friends left her room during the creation of a team science project, and for a long time no one could figure out where the girl had gone. Finally, someone spilled the news that she had stepped outside because she needed a cigarette.

This was in the midst of a blitz of front-page news about cancer and cigarettes and teenagers, in the heat of an unprecedented national anti-smoking campaign. The smoker was 14. She'd been smoking for two years. How much was the media? How much was the kid? How much was the underground?

*

Well, there's nothing like a news flash from someone else's private world. The more our teenager dished about her adventures in eighth grade, the more I wondered what she was leaving out.

But at the same time, I wanted to mind my own business. We need the schoolyard underground, in spite and because of its risks. It is part of growing up that there be no parents allowed, at least occasionally.

No doubt, it is part of our growing up, too, the sweet-and-sour pangs of our children's independence, the stuff of their secret lives. Still, the other day, when the ice cream man rolled down the block, I slipped outside and, discreetly, asked for a test tube of Raven's Revenge.

He laughed out loud as he pulled "the red kind" from a well-worn and almost-empty plastic bin.

"Are you sure," he joked, slipping it out the window, "that you aren't over-aged?"

Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com

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