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Ads for youths

MARKETING is everywhere, and companies like Alloy Media + Marketing are working to make sure that young consumers aren't left out of the promotional blizzard. It's an effort that can blur the lines between real and advertised life. So families should be aware of how often they are getting a sales pitch.

Alloy made headlines in recent weeks for helping Kaavya Viswanathan conceptualize her book, ''How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." When Viswanathan was found to have lifted sections from other books, Alloy backed away, saying it had had nothing to do with the writing.

What Alloy does is to put products where young people, from middle school to college age, will see them. This isn't your father's advertising campaign when audiences got a ''word from our sponsor." Alloy tries to reach young people in schools, movie theaters, and at spring break vacation spots.

Alloy runs websites offering information on colleges and student loans. But as Alloy clearly informs users, their contact information may be shared with other companies marketing products or services.

Alloy's website says it ''partners with clients to facilitate brand integration or product placement within popular youth media -- books, Internet, online gaming, film, and TV." But to date, the company says it has done no placements in books. Nonetheless, books that were produced by Alloy, including the ''The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," and ''The Au Pairs," mention a number of well-known products and stores by their brand names.

For retailers and companies, there's a race to create brand loyalty and win the attention of lead dog teenagers, those who set trends that are seen and copied by friends.

It's a huge field. Parents buy products to make their babies smart. So-called ''reality" shows are full of product placements. On ''The Apprentice," competing teams are frequently asked to create marketing or ad campaigns for specific companies and products. It's an hourlong hybrid of television show and commercial, a contentious, campy wrestle-mania of product promotion.

Last year PQ Media, a marketing research firm, estimated that in 2004 the value of product placements was $3.46 billion -- less than one percent of advertising and marketing dollars but still a lot of persuasion.

Parents and schools have to broadcast a competing message: Shopping isn't a silver bullet. Getting a life is not as simple as getting a credit card. Buying popular music CDs and fashions may make teenagers feel cool and culturally connected. But those dollars mostly make other people rich. Teenagers need different plans to create their own wealth.

Americans love stuff. But they ought to know if it's true love or tough marketing.

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