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On "90210,' adults play teens as kids watch

Marketers interested in licensing and merchandising promotions pegged to Beverly Hills, 90210 are discovering an unusual demographic phenomenon: The older the cast of the television series gets, the younger the audience gets.

The drama about the fictional West Beverly Hills High School, where angst afflicts the student body far more often than acne, will begin its fourth season this fall on the Fox network.

Early on, the series appealed primarily to the teenagers whose lives, albeit prettified and glamorized, were fodder for the weekly plot machinations.

Now, though, pre-teenagers, and even children who are, for lack of a more specific age description, pre-pre-teenagers, are becoming its most ardent fans. That means a television program that stars actors in their 20s who pretend to be students in their teens is developing a following among the 8- to 12-year-old set.

"Today's kids are so much more sophisticated," said Fran Caci, a partner at Promotional Resources, a marketing consulting company in New York. "An 8-year-old today is not even the same as an 8-year-old 10 years ago."

For Coca-Cola Foods' Hi-C juice drinks, which are aimed at youngsters age 6 to 12, Promotional Resources created a national sweepstakes and merchandise giveaway tied to Beverly Hills, 90210, which ran from January through mid-April. The promotion was tested with its intended audience before it ran.

"Everyone we talked to, at the ages of 6 and 7, knew everything about the program," Ms. Caci said. "We were quite surprised it skewed as young as it did."

General Mills sponsored a Beverly Hills, 90210 trading-card and poster promotion to build sales of its Honey Nut Cheerios cereal. "Our target audience was about 8 to 13, and that age group emulates the older kids," said Kathryn Newton, a spokeswoman for General Mills in Minneapolis.

Hamilton Projects Inc. in New York, which handles the licensing and merchandising of the series for its producer, Spelling Entertainment Inc., acknowledged the shift.

"The show still has a very solid teen viewership, as well as very solid viewership among adult females," said Debra Joester, the president of Hamilton Projects.

The younger brothers and sisters of those teenage viewers are beginning to crowd out their older siblings, Ms. Joester said. "The inclination among teenagers is to move on to something else when it's no longer theirs exclusively," she said. "When the younger siblings discover it, they distance themselves from it."

That is why Procter & Gamble, for its Noxzema skin care products, and SmithKline Beecham, for its Oxy acne medications, are being supplanted by the likes of Hi-C and Honey Nut Cheerios.

One of the most recent marketers to tie in with the series, the Conair Corp., is happy to find younger consumers amid the older ones as it sponsors a promotion to win a free trip to Beverly Hills that introduces its Jheri Redding California Shine hair-care products.

"At 10, 11, they're buying their own products, and that's what we're interested in," said Edward Rabin, the vice president of marketing for Conair in Stamford, Conn. "At 10, they're teenagers now."

One question recurs when pondering the show's appeal to younger viewers: Is the subject matter, with its focus on dating, drinking, sex, broken families, sex, morality and sex, appropriate?

A similar question has been raised about the film Jurassic Park, which, though rated PG-13, is being promoted with hundreds of licensed products like lunch boxes and clothing aimed at youngsters.

Sigman said he had not let his daughter, who is 8, watch Beverly Hills, 90210, "but she says her girlfriends are watching it."

Some marketers are hedging their bets. Hi-C, in its promotion, has used a character from the series named Andrea Zuckerman, played by Gabrielle Carteris, who is the smartest and least libidinous of all the senior class members at West Beverly High.

"Her image was pretty decent," explained Ms. Caci of Promotional Resources.