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Editorial: Science versus art

The conflict that naturally exists between the hard argument of science and the soft persuasion of art is something that will probably never be fully resolved. There has always been a healthy tension between the clinicians and the craftspeople, and for...
December 1, 1997

The conflict that naturally exists between the hard argument of science and the soft persuasion of art is something that will probably never be fully resolved. There has always been a healthy tension between the clinicians and the craftspeople, and for the most part, it has a positive effect, either in sparking productive debate or in simply keeping either side in check.

The danger comes when there is an imbalance.

With, admittedly, no science to prove this, it certainly appears as though the people with the lab coats and the computer printouts are winning out these days. There are, and there will continue to be, brilliant exceptions, but within the broad mainstream of North American children’s television, there is a rather significant, and numbing, sameness today. Apart from the occasional eccentricity, kids morning television is a repetitive blur. It’s as though every producer and programmer has been working from the identical marketing brief.

And it doesn’t get much better in the real crucible of competition-the retail store. Again, with a few notable exceptions, very little stands out.

I recently took my son to the one store that truly makes his pulse accelerate: Toys `R’ Us. The occasion was his seventh birthday, and he had $10 in birthday contributions that he was desperate to spend.

The pattern when we enter the store is always the same. We linger over a few distractions on the way in, then head directly towards the real reason we’re there-the action figure aisles. Behaving precisely as the marketing plan would have it, my son walks up and down the corridors calling out the names of the various television shows and their characters as they bark back to him from brightly colored packaging. That’s enough to get his attention and sometimes he’ll investigate further. Once an item is in his hands, he inspects the character in the blister pack and goes through some sort of assessment over whether the character and the paraphernalia around it will be fun to play with. He’s never failed to find something he wanted.

Except on this occasion.

For the first time in (I would hate to count them all up) many trips to the toy store, he could not decide on an action figure. We had gone through our normal shopping routine. If anything, we spent more time going up and down the aisles than we ever had before. There was nothing he saw that was particularly unusual or different. Nothing persuaded him. Nothing provided him-quite clearly, the perfect target market-with a compelling reason to buy. At one point, he even asked me to decide.

So we left the action figures section empty-handed and my son dragged me to the Lego display, where he quickly found a way to spend the $10. About the only certainty in our trip was that he was not going to be completely denied.

The current estimate is that half of all toys are derived from some entertainment license, which is understandable, given the ready-made awareness that comes from entertainment-based characters and trademarks. Awareness provides numbers, which, for the marketing scientists, may translate into ‘reach’ in the language of a media plan. But if what they really want to achieve is reach in the broader sense of ‘connecting with,’ then they’ll have to look beyond the numbers.

That’s where the art comes in.

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