Just after Thanksgiving this year, many households around the country welcomed a houseguest. It wasn’t an aunt or uncle from across the country. It wasn’t a college friend with their kids in tow. It was an Elf. And he showed up on a shelf.
The Elf on the Shelf tradition can be traced back to 2004, but has taken hold in households as if it had been around for decades. For the uninitiated, the Elf on the Shelf (whose story has been told through a self-published book written by mother and daughter team Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, and later turned into a holiday TV special) serves as Santa’s special envoy in the homes (and increasingly in the classrooms) of children everywhere. The Elf, assigned to the child, watches on Santa’s behalf, eager to catch good behavior or naughtiness! The child gets to name the Elf, but beyond that, the Elf decides where he’ll appear each morning. These Elves can get pretty creative, as shown in this video featuring the 125 best Elf ideas. We think there are lessons to learn from this phenomenon, which returned youth’s attention to the magic of the season just at a time when the getting of gifts often garners more attention than showing Santa you’re “good.”
- Don’t underestimate the power of surprise. While the Elf on the Shelf might have been compelling as Santa’s steadfast seer, he matters more because he’s “new” each day. Consider ways to keep the surprise and delight into your everyday offerings.
- Remember the power of being good. Young kids are obsessed with the rules, and interested in good versus bad. But often, this timeless trope is twisted – we forget that children want recognition for their good behavior as much as they seek to avoid getting in trouble for the bad. Find ways for your brand to catch them acting their best behavior. See Sprout’s wonderful campaign for kindness as an example. http://www.sproutonline.com/kindness-counts
- Keep it simple. With promotions in general, complexity is sometime mistaken for depth. The Elf on the Shelf premise might have meaning, but it does it through the most basic of mechanisms. Make sure your own “events” make participation and the pay-off as easy as possible.
- Build on existing traditions. The Elf on the Shelf may have been a novel idea, but it leveraged the legends of elves, Santa and the naughty list to keep the communication simple, and to ensure a place in the home during the holidays.
- Get parents in on the action. While we don’t necessarily have an inside track on elves’ criteria for choosing their holiday homes, we can imagine that they prefer the ones where parents get involved in the fun. Remember to make your promotions not simply parent-friendly, but make them exciting and enjoyable for mom and dad.
Now that it’s over, it seems the right time to reflect upon the first season of Masterchef Junior Fox’s reality competition show might seem like an unexpected winner to some, but we could have predicted its power. In our second issue of the YouthBeat TrendSpotter, we listed “Kid Cuisine” as a sign of the times. We know that this cohort of youth have grown up with a greater interest in food than any before them. They are exposed to more cuisines, groomed with more refined palettes, and are increasingly indoctrinated that quality matters much more than quantity.
Still, when we saw Masterchef Junior heavily promoted on our On Demand menus, we were skeptical. Right before Masterchef Junior first aired, Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri hosted young chefs for a special episode of their own reality show, Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off. The results were hardly appetizing. We love kids of all kinds, but these young chefs preened for the camera. They seemed skilled, for sure, but they didn’t seem comparable to adults (and before Masterchef Junior, would we have expected them to be?). These young reality chefs seemed too contrived for kids to care about, and yet not interesting enough to engage adults. We were left feeling like we’d been hooked by a gimmick, with kids dangled as the bait.
But, perhaps due to professional integrity more than authentic interest, we tuned in for Masterchef Junior. We were on the lookout for the typical kid-in-adult-context pitfalls. Would they be overly precocious? Think National Spelling Bee, which we love once a year, but in weekly doses! Being out-spelled by a 12 year old is one thing, but how many adults would tune in to be “food-shamed”? And on the flipside, we feared the cloyingly sweet children that sometimes appear in shows made for adults but about kids. But the third possibility was truly the most terrifying: Gordon Ramsey of a show called Hell’s Kitchen would be a judge.
The result: a pleasant surprise. So what made this morsel a meal that “tastes like more”?
- Humble Pie. Time Magazine writer, James Poniewozik, contributed his list of five reasons why Masterchef Junior worked to the pile of rave reviews from critics. We’d like to borrow one of his sentiments here. In a culture in which adults often steal and stay in the spotlight based on bad behavior (MasterChef, Real Housewives of Anywhere, NFL bullies), we have come to expect shows studded with bullies. But in Masterchef Junior, even Gordon Ramsey minds his manners. More than that – he’s nice. All three judges are. And, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching someone who is sour turn sweet. All three judges treat the contestants with more than professional respect – they treat them like their children.
- Taking the Cake. It’s not an easy task to create a show in which the coaches are kind, but the competition is still sharp. And that’s what happens here. These kids come to cook, and the stakes are high – $100,000 for the winner. Not to mention a trophy, and we know how kids love trophies! But in Masterchef Junior, the challenges are real and the strategizing significant. One player has a “target” on his back throughout the competition, yet his cast mates continue to support and comfort him when his cake comes out less ideal than planned. This kind of drama makes for great co-viewing, as parents and youth get caught up in the competition.
- Kids’ Cup of Tea. One of the reasons why watching a program that subjects kids and tweens to such intense competition is something we can bear is that it’s crystal clear that these kids love it. They are engaged in what psychologist Mihaly Czikscentmihalyi refers to as “flow”: (to paraphrase) the experience of being so thoroughly immersed in an activity or pursuit that you lose all track of time. The youth participating in Masterchef Junior are clearly not just there because mom and dad signed them up. They are invested and intrinsically motivated in a way that allows them (and us) to tolerate critiques – because they are committed to mastery and perfection. Because this passion is theirs, we want to see where they take it. Their enthusiasm for their work is contagious, and it’s one of the keys to Masterchef Junior’s success.
- Surviving Spilled Milk. Even these culinary wizards make mistakes. Alexander, the series star right from the onset, mistakes sugar for flour. Parents and other adults suddenly feel less inadequate. As in adult competition shows, even the best and the brightest miscalculate, overreach, overcomplicate or underestimate sometimes. But what makes it different watching these kids is that we know how hard it is, and how important it is to foster resilience in youth. It’s the difference between successful, healthy children and those who are not, according to most psychologists. Call it bounce-back, GRIT, or even “Fishful Thinking” (as the Goldfish brand has), but however you label it, you know it when you see it. These kids not only recover, but they do so with determination, tenacity, and grace. We love these “characters” not only because they can cook – but because they keep going when it gets hot in the kitchen.
- Eating their Hearts Out. Finally, in a culture in which the relationship between kids and food has often been demonized, this show suggests that there’s a new way to frame it. Sure, kids are often known to gain joy from “junk” food, to indulge in insufficient fuel, but Masterchef Junior considers another possibility – can kids learn to love and respect food? Certainly, not every kid will become a foodie (no more than every adult has). Many critics of the show noted an over-representation of kids from California and New York City among the cast. But this show also makes it possible that kids might care about food. Perhaps giving them a bit more credit and some skills in the kitchen could help them get more curious about foods of all types (even the healthy stuff).
When it comes to this kids’ competition show, we suggest indulging, but also incorporating the lessons learned into the brands, products and content that you serve up to youth.
Toys “R” Us began airing their 2013 holiday campaign before trick or treaters even made it around the block. But an early start to holiday advertising isn’t really news and hardly caught our attention. Instead, it was the content of the TV commercial, created by the agency, The Escape Pod that took us by surprise.
The spot starts with a man telling the audience (presumably adults) that a group of kids are about to go on “the best fieldtrip they could wish for – and they don’t even know it.” Ranger Brad enthusiastically ushers a line of elementary schoolers onto a green bus, which reads “Meet the Trees Foundation” on its side. A moment later, he asks the students to play “name that leaf…” Cut to a close-up of a yawning little boy, next to a stone-faced classmate. And then the reveal: Ranger Brad rips off his ranger shirt to expose a Toys “R” Us shirt. “We’re not going to the forest today – we’re going to Toys “R” Us! You’re going to get to choose any toy you want!” Children cheer and triumphant music plays. The Toys “R” Us logo shines from the TV screens behind Ranger Brad, as if he’s (a scaled down) Steve Jobs revealing the iPhone.
In its short time on air, the spot has garnered attacks from predictable critics, The American Forest Foundation and The Sierra Club have penned astute reviews that suggest that this kind of nature-bashing is detrimental to the environmental movement. Raz Godelnik, the co-founder of Eco-Libris who also teaches courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development at Parsons The New School for Design and The University of Delaware’s Business School points out that Toys “R” Us seems to be promoting an unsustainable kind of holiday. Godelnik notes that the Toys “R” Us sustainability page is vacant. Numerous websites have suggested that holiday shoppers boycott Toys “R” Us and take a stand for forests, trees and everything green.
Most of these critics suggest that Toys “R” Us has pitted commercialism against environmentalism – and that’s hard to deny. We agree that the authentic, magical moment of a child getting a toy of their dream is surely a moment that feels like wish fulfillment. From our perspective, it’s not the fantasy of getting a favorite toy that bothers us. We find this ad troubling because it taps into an insight that it assumes to be authentic…The “torture test” featured in this ad suggests that the most boring situation imaginable – the one that allows for a moment of significant surprise – involves learning about nature. We don’t know if youth viewing this ad will actually get the joke (in fact, Ranger Brad seems like a particularly engaging ambassador of the outdoors). But perhaps Toys “R” Us believes that parents will.
And according to statistics from a myriad of sources, today’s children are less connected to nature than ever. In fact, at the same time that Toy R Us is airing it’s campaign poking fun at the forest, the U.S. Forest Service, with the help of the Ad Council, has been making an effort to promote the joys of “finding the forest.” On the same day that we saw Toys “R” Us imply the drudgery of detecting the difference between a field maple and an oak leaf, we heard a radio spot suggesting that a trip to the forest could be as fun as parents remembered it.
In very different ways, both spots convey the same message: many youth may not find the forests to be fun, and certainly don’t find them on their own. We suggest that brands and companies seek ways to change this story, not perpetuate it. And we propose looking for ways to make your messages align with, not fight against, the sustainable future that today’s children and parents want to achieve – even if they don’t always know how to do it.
With Halloween just a day away, it’s time to turn our attention to a specific kind of kid, tween and teen fun: frightening fun. In posts from previous Halloweens, we’ve made predictions about costumes and have made an argument for Halloween as the perfect kid holiday. Rather than writing about the shocking sophistication of little girls’ costumes (just try to find one that doesn’t involve a mini skirt!), or debating whether Breaking Bad characters are appropriate icons for elementary schoolers (or even younger) to emulate, we decided to turn our focus to the very nature of fright. We explored this in last year’s post, calling “the chance to be scared” one of the reasons why youth gravitate to Halloween, a day dedicated to trying on other personas and testing one’s own tolerance for terror. Getting a glimpse at ghouls, in all forms, and showing you can persevere is not simply socially beneficial (i.e., conveys that you’re brave) – it’s also a way for kids, tweens and teens to remind themselves of their own resilience.
Although funny costumes can’t go wrong for any of these age groups, scary looks are likely to rule the night on this Hallow’s Eve. From Royal Vampires to Zombie everything, the undead are “in” this holiday season. Are today’s kids, tweens and teens particularly macabre? Literature professor and smart satirist Regina Barreca suggests that “anxiety and fear are paradoxically often a product—not a failure—of being both astute and perceptive: The most fearful are often those with the most imaginative intelligences.” Given this assessment, it’s no surprise that fear strikes hard among youth, who might seem prone towards delusions of invincibility, but who are also smaller and less in control than many people around them. They live with uncertainty and risk – and even when they embrace it – it’s often despite, not because of, the hold that it has on them. And their imaginations are highly tuned instruments for fighting fear through escape or transformation.
Scary fun and horror surely share some common ground. But knowing how to deliver frightening fun, versus just fright, can be the difference between appealing to most youth and to the small subset who find themselves drawn to true terror. Movies like Monsters Inc. or even old-school TV shows like Scooby Doo let kids unmask the silly ghost or confront the monster in the closet. Halloween specials like Toy Story Tale of Terror might make preschoolers jump, but it also shows them that Woody and his gang can once again triumph over “evil” – even if evil equals an eBay enthralled hotel manager who teaches his pet iguana to swipe toys! And this Halloween, zombie-lovers can take a turn at putting the undead in their place at 2013’s alt-haunted house: zombie paintball! For kids, tweens and teens, it’s the relief and the exhale after the scare that turns fear into frolic. This reassurance reminds them that they can confront and master mayhem, and that they can deal with their worries, not give into them. For brands, it’s important to understand that frightening fun matters and compels – but not to take it too far. For content creators, don’t deny kids, tweens and teens their fill of fear!
Pick up any book for young children that include a reference to or visual of a grandparent, and you’re likely to see a sight unfamiliar to most youth of this generation. The days of the truly elderly grandma, who dons her apron all day and ricks the day away in quiet acceptance of old age are long gone. Many of today’s kids, tweens and teens have grandparents who struggle with the name “grandma” or “grandpa,” opting for sassier monikers to describe their relationship to their children’s children. Many Millennials and their younger counterparts know “grands” as folks who are fully engaged in work or their personal passions or travel. Many see their grandparents running or walking races, staying socially active and fully participating in life. In fact, for some youth, grandparents seem to have a much younger outlook on life than their own parents!
But when we think about the role that grandparents play in youth’s lives, we still tend to think of them as transmitters of tales from the past, or conveyors of fairly conventional life wisdom. It seems as though the kind of influence we attribute to grandparents hasn’t caught up with the way they really live and look at the world right now. Last week, we heard this story on NPR’s Story Corps (collected by Story Corps, an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives) and it reminded us of the way grandparents are and have been reframing their role from authoritative elder to trusted confidant. This tale, told by an adult grandson, describes his grandmother as his partner in crime – someone who would go on adventures with him, not simply warn him of their dangers or wait to hear his recap. He suggests that he didn’t always know where he fit in with the world – he felt like an outsider – and somehow it was his grandmother who (an outsider herself) made him feel like he “fit.”
Like this grandmother, today’s grandparents are sometimes more prepared to play than parent. In a world dominated by devices, they sometimes surprise and delight by bringing offline activities to their offspring’s homes. They are increasingly aware that their value doesn’t come from advising parents about the proper way to do things, but rather providing a break – for parents and for kids – from their daily routines. And for brands and retailers, grandparents represent not only a link to the past, but sometimes, the most forward thinking consumers in the lives of youth.
What if there was a place where girls could ask questions about where they’re going in life and how to get there? This is precisely what SUREFIRE (SUREFIRE) aims to do. At the SUREFIRE event this coming Saturday, high school girls will come together in real space (not virtual space!) to ask questions, but also to tell what’s on their minds.
Girls (and their parents) can attend workshops on social media, fitness, fashion, beauty, philanthropy and finance. Speakers come from girl-centric organizations with names like “InternQueen” and “1000 Watt Presence.” Randi Zuckerberg of DotComplicated will speak with parents about their teens’ tech lives. And Betty DeGeneres will share her story of her role in daughter Ellen’s life-journey.
We have to admit – we’re intrigued. We can’t wait to find out what comes of this event. And we’ll be watching to see what these teen girls not only learn and hear, but also what they contribute. Regardless of what’s said, we think the reminder to listen to girls might be the most lasting legacy of this event.
We sometimes find ourselves compelled to think about the new experiences that define kids’ lives…What is something they’ve never before seen or that’s new to their world (and ours). But we often forget that some of the simplest pleasures of childhood are hardly novel. In the everyday lives of kids, there are many, many “old” experiences that feel new to the latest generation of youth. So in case you’re looking for some inspiration in unexpected places, here are a few youth experiences and products worth revisiting:
- Roller skating. Roller blades might look cooler, but there’s nothing quite so fun than stumbling around the rink on eight wheels! Skating rinks of the suburban sort (Cherry Hill Skate Rink) still fit the bill. Maybe it’s the mini arcades, the kid-friendly food or the lifting of the usual kid noise restrictions! But we think it’s also about the fun of learning the ropes with the help, and the hands, of your friends.
- Bowling. Along the same lines, bowling might seem staid to moms and dads, but it’s new again for youth! Bowling alleys of the retro sort can bring in youth, but many might be getting their first taste of the lanes alongside their parents in hipster takes on the timeless activity. With newer lanes offering the option of bumpers that rise when kids come up to bowl and fall to level the game with parents, bowling might be the newest old way to enjoy family fun!
- Apple picking. Tis the season for apple picking in much of the country, and this old-fashioned pleasure continues to delight kids and their parents. This pastime appeals to romantic notions of childhood, along with the new notions of local and sustainable nature.
- Movie night. Screens may have changed and the popcorn might come in unconventional flavors, but movie night still matters to youth. They might be able to download the movie of their choice any time, but a night with friends or family focused on a flick continues to feel special to today’s youth.
- Sleepover parties. Whether it’s a backyard campout with mom and dad by their side, or the first brave night away from home, sleepover parties are still a milestone for minors.
- Reading with a flashlight. Okay, so today’s kids and tweens might have books that light up all by themselves, but the mischievous pleasure of staying up late and reading under the covers with a flashlight can still make kids feel daring! And parents can feign outrage while secretly endorsing their child’s sneaky reading!
- Friendship bracelets. Loom bracelets might be all the rage right now, but they are just the most recent rendition of a classic kid creation. Whether it’s crafting the look of your arm candy with the perfect collection of charms, or weaving a wristlet of your own design, girls AND boys continue to love the friendship bracelet look. And while the making of these bracelets matters, the sharing is where the timeless fun really comes to fruition.
- Swimming. This “sport” continues to be the favorite active pastime of our youth (kids, tweens and teens)…Despite all the opportunities youth have for elite and unique activities for fitness, this no-pressure, everyone’s invited sport persists as a symbol of childhood at its best for good reason.
- Bike-riding. Bikes have certainly changed, with little kids learning on balance bikes and scooter/bike hybrids making mainstream tracks. But the sense of accomplishment associated with learning to ride a bike, and the freedom of getting to go around the corner on your own leg-power remains the same.
- Scoring a goal…or hitting a homerun or even that hole in one! Carrying the team for just a moment is still the standard in kids’ epic tales of achievement and triumph. Maybe everyone gets a trophy in today’s little leagues and soccer clubs, but making that precious point is still the stuff of kid fantasies.
What do these timeless pleasures tell us? Some of them involve a bit of rebellion. Many involve a break from the everyday routine (like bedtime in your own bed!). Many show the importance of mastery in the lives of youth. And most involve a taste of freedom – even when you’re right alongside your family! When seeking ways to delight today’s youth, don’t forget to consider these classic kid experiences as inspiration.
In case you missed it, we ended our summer at YouthBeat with a look at boys, girls and “Navigating the Murky Waters of Gender Right Now.” Based on YouthBeat research, an academic and media audit and our “Boy-Girl Poll” (fielded in August of this year with our KidzEyes and TeensEyes panels), we identified four rules for re-thinking gender and its relationship to your brand or business right now…
- Don’t blend; EXTEND! Much has been made of this cohort’s attitudes towards gender – they don’t see it, they don’t care…Well, we think that’s only half of the story. This generation of youth (like every generation before them!) certainly cares about and recognizes gender and gender differences. Instead of trying to show gender neutral or non-stereotypical depictions of girls and boys, or trying to create offerings that live “in the middle” of gender (what’s often been called “gender blending”), we advocate “extending” your offerings. Don’t try to make one size fit all…In your “girly” shows, make sure you reflect the wide range of being a girl that your audience would expect to see in their everyday lives. The same for boys – make sure masculinity isn’t defined one way. Instead, show them multiple ways to be comfortable in whatever skin they’re in.
- Don’t ignore; DECIDE! Many brands must make a call regarding gender – and if you don’t think you do, then you might be missing something…When it comes to gender, there’s no point in ignoring the girl-boy question in your creative briefs, in your research designs or in your products. Just as age matters to most youth propositions, so does gender. Seek to be deliberate about the decisions you’re making egarding gender rather than assuming it simply doesn’t matter.
- Don’t battle; EMBRACE! This cohort might occasionally find themselves in a gender debate, but for the most part, today’s youth believe that gender shouldn’t be a limitation. It doesn’t mean that lines aren’t drawn in all kinds of complicated ways when it comes to gender roles and expectations. But it does mean that brands that pit one gender against another risk being deemed out of touch, and worse, insensitive. Feel free to celebrate girls or bolster boys, but don’t position gender empowerment as a zero-sum game. U.K. Toys R Us stores are taking a cue from this rule, refusing to label toy aisles by gender… We’ll see if they’re decision actually changes children’s preferences (we’re not so sure), but we think they’re making the right statement about making everyone feel welcome to tinker with the toys of their choosing.
- Don’t assume; UNDERSTAND! Does all of this sound slightly confusing? Sometimes it is! Gender norms are constantly being negotiated in society at large, and of course, in youth culture. Before setting your strategy, make sure you’re plugged into the conversation surrounding gender in your category. And that means researching your topic or your offering with both boys and girls so you know how your audience members or consumers differ from each other, and, importantly, where they find their common ground.
Amy Henry, Vice President Youth Insights, will be presenting, “Understanding App Value: Parent’s Perspective” at this year’s Digital Kids Summit. The summit, the must-attend event for brand owners, entertainment and media executives, marketers, producers, digital media directors and licensing professionals seeking to engage children online and on digital devices, will take place on September 19 in San Francisco.
It is the last week to register online for Digital Kids Edu and Summit! Visit the website to register online before September 13th and save $100.
Need a little extra boost to attend? Enter speakervip when registering and receive a discount of 10%!
We admit it: the Miley Cyrus story that has dominated headlines this week begs for commentary from us. But with so much being said about the performance of this young star and youth favorite at the 2013 VMA Awards this past weekend, we’re not sure there’s much for us to add to a story that has easily entered media-frenzy mode. Instead, during a week when many commentators have questioned the values of youth, the moral of Millennials and the salaciousness of youth celebrities, we thought we’d focus on a story that’s more authentically affecting kids, tweens and teens around the country: back to school.
If you have kids in your home, you know that back to school is often filled with simple reminders of the timeless joys and fears of childhood. A letter from a new teacher can cause a kindergartner delight usually reserved for a new toy – and it can also cause anxiety about a new challenge ahead. Parents get giddy about the return to a routine – but they also watch, heart breaking, as their little ones take another step away from babyhood. And kids and parents everywhere lose sleep wondering what this year’s workload, teacher, mix of classmates or tryouts for varying activities will mean for how they spend the year ahead.
And this year, across the country, parents at new schools will ask questions about security. They’ll find out about no-tolerance bullying policies. And they’ll wonder if decreasing school budgets will mean the sports they love, or the classes they thrive in, or even the recess time they desperately need will remain available.
Above all, kids, tweens, teens, moms and dads will take a fresh look at how they’re all doing. They’ll resolve to make mornings easier, and they might even institute a new system to organize their households and their lives. They’ll prep new snack options, hoping that this is the year that carrots don’t come home from lunch! And they’ll set goals for who and how they want to be.
During this time, brands can serve as problem-solvers, but they can also take the higher ground: they can inspire and invoke parents’ and their children’s desire to be their best. It can also be a fresh start for brands and content creators, pushing them to take a look at what grade they hope to receive at the end of the year – and how they’ll get there. For youth marketers, back-to-school doesn’t have to mean back to normal – but it should be a call to go back to basics.