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Playing with the electrons

When I was in New York last month for the first annual Advertising to Kids Conference and Golden Marble Awards, I made a whirlwind market research expedition to FAO Schwarz. Inside the primo toy emporium, I was fascinated to see both...
October 1, 1998

When I was in New York last month for the first annual Advertising to Kids Conference and Golden Marble Awards, I made a whirlwind market research expedition to FAO Schwarz. Inside the primo toy emporium, I was fascinated to see both toddlers and skinheads mesmerized in front of a monitor set in a display that was constantly being restocked. It was, of course, Teletubbies that attracted this stranger-than-fiction co-viewing demo.

Earlier, on the street, I watched a stroller dweller repeatedly kiss its Teletubby plush. A passing board-gear-sporting youth asked his buddy, ‘What’s that weird alien thing?,’ to which came the withering reply, ‘Don’t you know? it’s like Teletubbies, man.’ The implied ‘duh’ hails from the fact that, as conference co-chair Joan Chiaramonte, VP of Roper Starch Worldwide, says, ‘there is a youth culture, and it’s global.’

Feedback from the Roper youth report confirms today’s kids have more demanding lives. Their time is overscheduled and they’re more self-reliant younger. Physiological changes prove the aging-faster theory. Keynote speaker Dr. Michael Cohen of A.R.C. Consulting cites the facts that girls in the U.S. begin menstruating two years earlier than they did 10 years ago and that today’s 10-year-old cognitively looks like a 12-year-old from 20 years ago. He also points out that young kids are capable of more abstract thinking earlier. They embrace the Net, yet they still rate TV as their number one news source. And this new boom (bigger than GenX), has pushed annual kid-buying power into the billions (U.S. stats indicate they spend US$17 billion themselves, as well as directly influencing $187 billion and indirectly influencing $500 billion of family purchases*).

Not surprisingly, ‘creating staying power is much more challenging now,’ according to conference co-chair Paul Kurnit, president and COO of Griffin Bacal, New York. ‘Brand relationships and loyalty are more important.’ And in reaching kids, he says, ‘There’s a lot less room for error.’ While his remarks were directed to advertising principles, they hold true for TV shows and network branding. Long-term kid brand pointers include target a specific audience, find the right partners and keep the brand current.

Realistically defining who a show is for, rather than attempting an undeliverably wide demographic, is key to stress-avoidance. Not every show can scoop as broad a demo as Teletubbies. Since 60% of kid-viewing is for non-kid programming, kidcasters want to repatriate some of those eyeballs, and that requires tightly defined target-demo connection. When you’re selling a show to Fox, Disney, Nick or Cartoon, they are putting their brand on the line. They must believe your content will drive the relationship-building.

In addition to using interstitials and blocks to combat audience fragmentation, kidcasters are taking advantage of all the divisions in their respective conglomerate families to push the tenets of their brands. For instance, the Net is not necessarily a fragmentation tool of Satan, but a way to extend the TV experience on-line to their ‘moving targets living fragmented lives’. As Nickelodeon’s Sergei Kuharsky, senior VP of brand and franchise management, put it, there are only two barriers to becoming more successful: time and understanding your partner’s business (plugging into how the psychographic strategy will roll out across the board).

The conference’s keynote speaker, the Gepetto Group’s Julie Halpern, describes the challenge as figuring out the fixed and the flexible: ‘Keep the nucleus, but play with the electrons-expand the space your product occupies.’

Cheers, mm * Jim McNeal, Texas A&M

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