They're called "tweens," and as Correspondent Mika Brzezinski reports, marketers are obsessed with them.
What tweens buy and what they get their parents to buy for them adds up to billions of dollars. Tween girls are especially prized since they spend the most money -- and marketers are now targeting girls right in their own bedrooms.
Sofia Mandel's special mission as a secret agent is to host a slumber party and invite her closest friends.
It starts with a sealed box filled with goodies, never-before-seen products designed to produce a feeding frenzy of tween girls. The box is strategically placed there by the GIA, not the CIA, which stands for the Girls' Intelligence Agency, a marketing firm.
"If Sofia has given some indication that something's hot, her friends are going to listen and respond, and probably go and buy one," says GIA Chief Executive Laura Groppe, who recruited Sofia to help as a secret agent.
Groppe cultivates girls like Sofia, and there are 40,000 of them across the country. They are known as "alpha girls," or influencers, and the youngest are 8 years old.
How did Groppe zero in on that "alpha girl"?
"It's not easy, It's taken many, many years. It's through girlfriends, telling girlfriends," says Groppe. "And then we have to approve them before we can advocate to our clients that we are going to go into the bedroom of this girl. She and her girlfriends are going to give us important strategic business -- decisions are being made off of this 8-year-old and her friends. We have to make sure she's the right one."
Viral marketing, a new twist on good old-fashioned "word of mouth," is creating a buzz that spreads as fast as little girls can talk.
"Each girl can personally evangelize to anywhere from 10 to 20 girls," says Groppe. "So that slumber party of girls can reach hundreds and hundreds of friends … through one girl."
Groppe collects the results from thousands of slumber parties, and reports her observations to clients. In this case, it's Goody, a hair products company that wants to increase its fast-growing tween business. Goody then decides which bows, ribbons and brushes to market.
GIA charges up to a million dollars for its insights. It has doubled its business each year for the last three years, and it's attracted clients like Disney, Fox Network and Capitol Records.
Is this age group worth all the work? "The tween is a $335 billion market," says Groppe. "That's a powerful consumer, so that includes not only her spending, but the influence on the family spending."
Researcher Alicia Kolski has been studying tweens closely for six years and is a vice president for Alloy, a youth marketing firm.
Kolski literally gets into little girls' closets to gather clues about what tweens wear, what they want, and what they can get their mothers to buy. She trails girls to the mall, hands them money and then questions them as they shop with their moms.
These mothers have agreed to be part of Kolski's research, and Kolski is hoping to find out what these girls want. But critics say the research is enabling marketers to appeal directly to kids, making an end-run around parents.
"The clear message from the marketers is it doesn't matter what the parent thinks," says Juliet Schor, author of "Born to Buy," a book that accuses marketers of skillfully reducing the power of parents. "They go directly to the kids, and say, 'You want this product?' You know, get your parent to buy it for you.'"
Brzezinski asked the parents participating in Kolski's research if they felt like they were "fighting a losing battle."
"You do. You do fight. Also, I find that I give in without realizing I'm giving in," says mother Valerie Pierot. "What happens is when I look back and I'll say, 'I didn't think I would go along with this idea.' I felt very strongly about it. And now I am giving into it and you don't even realize when it's hap -- because they are on you constantly."
Which is exactly the point.
"One of the last places where you are going to cut back is spending on your child, and marketers know that. And they're honing in on that soft spot," says Groppe. "And they know that you will cut back on food for yourself, before you will cut back on buying something for your child, if she can throw enough of a tantrum."
But tweens aren't crying for toys anymore. That's kid's stuff. Now, they're looking forward to being a teenager, and marketers know that tweens want to be part of the teenage world of makeup and pop music.
In fact, nowhere is the power of the tween market more apparent than in the rise of its edgy, new princess – 13-year old Jojo. Angry, irreverent, with a sophisticated beyond her years, Jojo has what tween girls want -- an attitude, not to mention two major labels working hard to make her a star with a gold debut record.
Jojo is an overnight MTV sensation. "They want me to be America's next pop princess," she says. "I'll be that. I will be that person."
Does it make her feel used? "No, I realize that the people in the record industry, they may not love me just because I'm a wonderful person, and just because I'm a sweet girl," says Jojo. "They love me because I'm about to make them a lot of money."
She's only 13, but her songs about bitter breakups have earned her two giant hits right out of the box. She says she's singing about her own life, and that tweens have more going on than parents would like to believe.
"Parents are a bit naïve. I would say, 'Go to any high school.' You'll be like, 'What just happened?' Oh my God, you'd be scared. You would be scared," says Jojo. "I'm not saying you, I'm just saying parents in general would be freaked out if they, for one day, could just be the ears or eyes of a high school or junior high school. They'd be like, 'Oh, wow.' The stuff they know, the stuff they do, the stuff they go through."
It's the stuff that 16-year-old pop newcomer Skye Sweetnam sings about, too. It's a little dangerous, and a little sexy, and Capitol Records believes it will hit the right chord with tweens. That's why Capitol called Groppe before even launching this artist.
"Skye was just coming out on tour, and we wanted to explore, you know, what's the look and feel that she should have when she's performing and when she's in the media, and in her campaigns," says Groppe.
To help get a buzz going, the GIA asked girls to help Skye with her image. "We had three pictures that everybody looked at, so Capital Records launched the CD with this cover," says Groppe.
Using the GIA network of secret agents, 7,000 girls at 500 slumber parties actually re-shaped Skye Sweetnam, helped Capitol re-jigger her look, re-cut her video and redesigned her Web site.
Girls in their pajamas chose the first single off the CD, and at another slumber party, they were voting on her second single. Groppe says she's empowering tweens by giving them a voice.
"Our responsibility is to translate that girl-speak into biz-speak for our clients," says Groppe. "And then come back full circle, and tell the young girls, 'This is what you did. Because of what you said, Capitol Records is making changes. You are affecting change in your world.'"
But what's changing, parents say, is children's attitudes, and it's not for the better.
Meanwhile, Sofia, the alpha girl with her box of loot, is influencing her friends, whether she knows it or not. In fact, it's not clear that any of these girls or their parents are aware of the marketing mechanics at work.
And that's what concerns Schor. She says that while the slumber parties look fun, there's a subtle manipulation going on: "The marketers are inserting themselves into these peer dynamics."
And the host girl? "She's being taught that her friends are an exploitable resource," says Schor. "She needs to get those friends over there, get that information out of them. It's an instrumental use of friendship."
"Was what happened at your home the other day, marketing? Or was it a party," Brzezinski asked Sofia.
"It was kind of both," says Sofia. It was a party for us, but it was marketing for the companies."
Would she host another party? "Oh yeah," she says.