Where's the Beef (In the Teenage Diet)?

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BEEF STAKES: The beef industry is targeting girls with ads like this pitch from the Cool 2B Real Website

The Atkins diet may be hot among American adults, but its meat-heavy dictates apparently don't fly with the younger generation. According to a new study from market researchers at Teenage Research Unlimited, one in four teens now considers vegetarianism "cool." The study indicates a rise in vegetarianism in the teen population, particularly among girls. While some grown-ups, including those at animal-rights group PETA, are delighted by the trend, others — including those who work for beef production and marketing companies — are understandably miffed. Their goal now: come up with innovative ways to win back young salad-eaters.

Enter the folks at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, who have responded to the looming vegetarian crisis by launching a website, Cool 2B Real, in an attempt to link meat consumption with some degree of hipness. The site, which looks like a cross between a Barbie fan page and a Taco Bell ad (beef-filled tacos and gigantic hamburgers dot the screen), extols teenage girls to "Keep it Real" — "real" as in a person who eats beef. Visitors are also invited to send e-cards to their "real friends" and to tell the world why they are "real girls" (because they eat beef burritos, of course!)

"We hope the 'Cool 2B Real' campaign helps girls make healthy decisions about food and exercise," says Mary Young, a registered dietician and Executive Director of Nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The NCBA, says Young, is concerned about the nutritional shortfalls of vegetarianism, which Young refers to as one of the "wacky eating behaviors" teenage girls tend to favor.

Still, it's hard to wonder if they're going to be successful with this pitch. As any teenager could tell you, obvious pandering is not the way to go when you're trying to reach this audience. Back in the early 1990s, companies with experience in the teen market realized traditional marketing was not going to work; young consumers are too savvy for old-school ads, and too steeped in irony for sincere come-ons.

While chipper taglines about "cool" are not going to affect any normal teenager, frank discussions about health just might. New findings from the University of Minnesota link teen vegetarians to a less health-conscious lifestyle than that of their carnivorous peers. Presented with a degree of subtlety, the U of M study may just succeed not only as an indicator of larger body-image and confidence problems among teens who choose vegetarianism, but also as a warning shot for young vegetarians. You may think you're eating healthfully by avoiding meat, but here are some low-protein pitfalls you could face: thin, brittle hair, bad skin, low energy. These are problems teenage girls care about — and they could be massaged neatly into a palatable pro-meat message.