Who are these kids of the `90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? ‘The Way Kids Are’ is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Each column will begin by describing a recent experience with a child, followed by an analysis that will examine what this teaches us about children today. Submissions can be made by contacting editor Theresa Dillon by phone: 416-408-2300, fax: 416-408-0870 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I asked my seven-year-old daughter Megan what was cool about her new Tamagotchi. I was expecting her to comment on some element of the new technology-the pushing of buttons, the LCD screen, the feeding ritual, the inherent game play. Instead, she looked at me and said with a precious, endearing smile, ‘It’s my baby.’
I should have suspected as much. After conducting hundreds of studies with children for nearly 20 years, and chasing what’s cool, what isn’t and why, I know that what kids call cool always comes down to timeless emotional needs that are satisfied. Tamagotchi is a case in point. The toy allows children to witness the birth of a newborn creature, to give that creature a home and, for all intent and purposes, to become its adoptive parent. This is precisely the same emotional connection afforded by properties such as Cabbage Patch Kids, Pound Puppies and, vicariously, by films such as Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. Tamagotchi simply touched the same nurturing, emotional hot button, yet in an updated, contemporary way. It isn’t the new technology, per se, that made it cool, it’s the way the technology was used to heighten a timeless emotional connection.
It’s easy to forget that, though it explains why some animated programs can be brilliantly crafted with the newest technology yet not gain a loyal following, while other animated programs can be rough by comparison, yet gain a huge viewership. To play on another phrase that I, too, always remind myself of, ‘Cool is about emotion, stupid!’
There are plenty of other examples.
I lived through the dark days of the video game category in the early 1980s when huge brands like Intellivision and Atari went from boom to bust in a matter of months. For several years thereafter, virtually every manufacturer swore off the entire category of electronic games. There was simply no demand, they said. They are no longer cool. Looking back, that assessment was naive, for another manufacturer rose from the ashes to demonstrate that, with the right game targeting the right emotions, you can indeed succeed. And so Nintendo was born to bring us Mario, a character who threw caution to the wind to fight evils large and small in order to save a princess from a dark fate. This wonderful good versus evil story allowed children not only to vicariously enter a world, but to eventually control it as their mastery evolved. Just ask my 12-year-old son, Matt. Yes, Nintendo’s superior graphics added much to intrigue him. But it was the story, and the timeless feelings of control and mastery that the technology allowed, that guaranteed his interest.
The video game example illustrates a deceiving trap that snares us all. It begins when a property becomes exceedingly cool. Soon thereafter, a lot of ‘me too’ versions follow that look the same on the surface, but are missing a key ingredient that connects with the child emotionally. Then the consumer gets bored with the lesser-quality versions. Then interest and sales plummet. Then every pundit declares that the category is no longer cool, no longer in demand. Then nervous business executives avoid it. But the fact is, categories are neither cool nor un-cool. Cool comes from the quality of the franchises in them. Westerns were thought to be a dead genre, until good westerns made it to the screen again. Animation that appealed to adults was thought to be dead, until The Simpsons made its appearance. It’s about emotion, not techniques or genre or categories. Such things are merely a means to an end.
Cool has other dimensions as well. It is associated, for example, with a child’s aspirations. My son wants to be a Disney animator someday. So that’s cool in his eyes. My daughter wants to be a nurse. So that’s cool, too. Cool is also exclusionary, for part of cool is having something others do not have. That makes a child feel special. What everyone has is no longer cool by virtue of the fact that everyone has it. Cool is also associated with a feeling of empowerment over adults, being able to outwit, out-think, outmaneuver them. That, of course, is a big part of Bart Simpson’s charm. Cool can also be forbidden. As kids get to the tween and teen ages and the desire for independence and rebellion raises its head, cool can become those things that are too edgy, too rebellious by many parents’ standards. Beavis and Butt-head and South Park come to mind.
Chasing cool, then, begins not with a listing of hot properties, but by understanding the many needs occupying a child’s psyche. Once you’ve identified which heartstrings to strum, which is of critical importance, you must use every tool you’ve got-new or old!-to strum them. If you do it well enough, you’ll hear those precious words we all seek.
Kids will tell you that your property is cool. Really cool.
Gene Del Vecchio is senior partner, director of planning and research in the Los Angeles office of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. He has spent nearly 20 years in the kids arena, and is the author of a new book from Pelican Publishing entitled Creating Ever-Cool, A Marketer’s Guide to a Kid’s Heart.