The New Material Girl: What Taylor Momsen Tells Us About Stardom Today

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Jul 27, 2010 @ 08:28 AM

In August of this year, Madonna’s latest venture, the Material Girl line of clothes, will launch at Macy’s. That’s right – buy Madonna at your mom’s department store. No one ever suggested that Madonna wasn’t comprised of equal parts art and marketing, but this pretty much seals the deal. The 80s provocateur, who dared to say “virgin” and dared, even further, to test the strength of taboos like religion and androgyny (often in the same video), now lives safely inside the bounds – not on the fringe.

But despite becoming a children’s book author and looking to the mainstream as her muse, she hasn’t completely lost her edge.

For evidence of that, check out her/Macy’s choice of spokesmodel. The irreverent, provocative Taylor Momsen fronts her new tween line…

While once-upon-a-time, Momsen played the role of Cindy Lou Who in The Grinch That Stole Christmas, auditioned for Hannah Montana, and then snagged the role of Jenny, (who started out as) the super sweet, charming little sister to Penn Badgeley’s Dan on Gossip Girl. Mirroring her character on the CW hit, Momsen has evolved (or devolved depending on your perspective) into one of today’s many Hollywood bad girls.

While Madonna waited till she was 26 (seems incredible, right?) to shock the world with her Like a Virgin video, Momsen has already managed to wreak havoc with religious icons and shock even the most edgy rock fan with her lingerie-clad revision of the Last Supper at the ripe age of 17 in the “Miss Nothing” video. Perhaps it’s not surprising that she caught Madge’s attention – Momsen’s look is more than slightly reminiscent of a young Madonna, with a little added eyeliner.

What does Momsen tell us about today’s formula for young fame?

First, rebellion is still in. And getting attention was never more difficult. With exposure seemingly easy to acquire (just make your own YouTubTaylor Momsene video), breaking through the clutter is harder than ever. And still, it seems, the best way to make a splash is by making waves. The questions we’re forced to ask: when does rebellion become passé and nice girls start to stand out? Probably right now…See Taylor Swift for a role model for righteous rock stars who haven’t found the need to implode to get noticed.

Second, being rebellious doesn’t exclude you from being marketable to the mainstream – it makes you more appealing. It used to be that marketers looked for the most scandal-free stars to endorse their brands. But today’s iconoclasts give brands their caché. Macy’s might never truly be an alt brand, or a brand that can be “discovered” by teens as so many cult brands are. But for most mainstream teens, Macy’s is still the place to go when you need back to school clothes. Feeling a little Momsen-y while shopping with your mom might be the best recipe for success.

And finally, young fame today doesn’t just belong to the young. The stars of the 80s do not go gentle into that good night. They re-emerge – not necessarily as trendsetters but as savvy entrepreneurs.  It seems that youth culture today is more manufactured than ever, and this generation doesn’t seem to mind. Or are stars like Madonna nearing that borderline that many probably vowed never to cross?

Tags: Taylor Momsen, kids, Youth, Teens, music, tweens

LeBron James: A Kid’s Take

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Jul 23, 2010 @ 10:38 AM

In 2009, LeBron James was the second most popular athlete among kids and tweens, and the favorite among teens. Who beat him? Michael Phelps…And while we’re not denying that Phelps has some staying power, we can already see that in 2010, with the Olympics fading in kids’ collective memory, he fell to fourth.

In the first half of 2010, LeBron continues at the second spot overall among youth, but his popularity grew among tweens. 3% of tweens cite him as their “favorite professional athlete” versus 2% a year ago. While these numbers might seem small, with sports loyalties being local, any kind of consensus is meaningful. (Interestingly, Peyton Manning beats James among tweens, and Michael Jordan shows he will never die by continuing to win among kids. Who is ahead of him for teens? Fellow ballers, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant…But taking the top spot: Tiger Woods. And that fact deserves a blog entry all its own.)LeBron James

So what do kids, tweens and teens think about LeBron James’ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat?

For adults, this story was hard to avoid. ESPN granted James a one-hour special to make his announcement. His choice of teams trumped most other national news. Other players seemed to be looking to him to make a move before they made their own decision – as if this was a schoolyard pick-up game rather than a multi-million dollar business venture. The lead-up to his decision was rivaled only by the continuous feed of the oil rig spewing in the Gulf.

So were kids as all-consumed as we were? In a nutshell, not so much. Over half of all kids (6-10, in elementary school) admitted that they either didn’t know who LeBron is or that they just didn’t care. Obviously, we have only our fair share of kids from Cleveland.

But perhaps more interesting is that kids seems to be siding with LeBron. When we asked them what they thought of LeBron James' decision to go to the Miami Heat, more kids said that he “did the right thing” than the “wrong one.”

Are kids just cold-hearted winner take all fans?  Perhaps. “There’s little that’s more important than being a “winner” to an 8, 9 or 10 year old,” as Dan Acuff asserts in What Kids Buy and Why. But perhaps kids are applying a more savvy value code than we might think.

First, kids know that good sportsmanship matters. And whatever we might think of James’ decision to leave a team where he started his career, his actions seem much more sportsmanlike than those of Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert. In case you haven’t seen his open letter to Cavs fans, we’ll summarize. We want to win…LeBron would help us win…He doesn’t like us anymore…We hate him.

Most elementary school kids recognize this as the kind of whining that they stopped engaging in long ago. And they probably sense a bit of cyberbullying in Gilbert’s tone. Can you imagine what he might have been texting? Kids might recognize this kind of taunting from the playground – and that might be precisely why they don’t like it.

Kids also seem to understand something that most adults seem to be forgetting; this is a business. And kids are not so innocent to ignore the dollars associated with professional athlete’s decisions. It’s not counter to the mystique – it’s part of it. Perhaps in some ways, they’re more mature about the reality that professional sports is a business. And while it may have always been, they don’t seem nostalgic for the days when pro athletes played for “the love of the game” like many of us adults might be.

Kids also seem to be more willing to accept that doing whatever you need to do to be on a winning team – within the rules of the game – is a sign of drive. And while this may be hard for our Ohio readers to swallow, it’s also a sign of loyalty. In some ways, LeBron is staying true to that dream that he might have had as a child and the dream that his many young fans have too. Kids sense something pure in his desire to be at the top of his field, and to dominate the court.  

Finally, this generation thinks about work differently than the generations before them – even Gen X. As Neil Howe opines in Millenials Rising, “this generation has been told that they’re special – and that they deserve to be treated that way – their whole lives.” Dan Gilbert is clearly of a different era. In his day, loyalty was loyalty and you stuck with the people who gave you your shot. But Millenials are inclined to ask, “What have you done for me lately?” And when they don’t get the answer they want to hear, they’ll take their ball and find another game.

Tags: LeBron James, kids, Sports, Youth

How Siblings Shape Youth…And Beyond

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jul 22, 2010 @ 12:56 PM

This week, Selena Gomez (in the role of Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby) will help re-introduce Beverly Cleary’s classic sibling rivals, Beezus and Ramona , to a new generation of youth. For those of you (women, at least) who didn’t read this series in your younger years, the series’ concept should be pretty easy to grasp…Older sister, Beezus, vacillates between frustration and reluctant appreciation of her inventive and clever little sister, Ramona. The younger sister worships and tortures (often simultaneously) her predecessor, and insists on being engaged by her. Antics ensue.

Youth researchers have known for a long time that sibling status is a factor that counts when recruiting a “representative” sample of kids, tweens or teens. A combination of academic influence and real-life observation has told us that having an older sibling, a younger sibling, or none at all makes a difference in the way that kids and parents see the world around them – including the products they prefer, the shows they watch and the things that matter to them.Beezus and Ramona

And in the August issue of Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano explores the impact that siblings really have on one another.

Experts like British psychologist Judy Dunn and Birth-Order expert Frank Sulloway from the University of California at Berkeley note that during childhood, the relationship with one’s siblings often trumps the connection with friends and almost everyone else in kids’, tweens’ and teens’ lives. Dunn calls the relationship among siblings almost “uncomfortably close.” Dunn notes that babies as young as 12-months-old are sensitive to the treatment of others – siblings in particular. They are especially attuned to differences in treatment, and even if they perceive that an injustice works in their favor, they may feel anxious or insecure as a resul

But most parents insist that they treat and have raised all their children in the same way (in the U.S. at least – not so much in other cultures, where acknowledging the rights of the first born are not considered shameful or unseemly). So what’s going on?

According to these experts, parents might believe that their kids have all grown up in the same household, but, as Sulloway says, “every child grows up in a unique micro-environment.” Certainly, parents are different the second time they raise an infant, toddler, kid, tween or teen. They see the “rules” differently and they learn lessons that they wish they knew the first time around. But even if this was not the case, Child #2 or #3 has a few new factors to deal with: namely, their siblings. And being part of a group of kids, versus being “THE kid” can change them in the short-term, and some psychologists argue, in the long-term.

A few effects of the family dynamic:

  • Perhaps because they have to find a way to “stand out” in the eyes of their parents, siblings tend to occupy different niches in the family versus one another. Said another way: “I can’t be like my sibling because that role within my family is taken.”
  • Because of this, the youngest tends to have fewer options…So what do they tend to do? Break the rules – and reject the notion that mom and dad’s opinion matters most. (Interestingly, many of the most disruptive ideas across domains like art, science, etc. have come from the youngest sibling in a family – like “crazy Copernicus” or “daredevil Darwin.”)
  • The closer they are in age, the more they must, developmentally speaking, engage in “de-identification.” In other words, they have to take on really different roles in relationship to their siblings to get noticed.
  • Many psychologists believe that sibling relationships serve as models that we live with for the rest of our lives. Difficulty in relating to siblings can translate into challenges in relationships later in life. And as Marano notes, “feeling like you didn’t measure up at home can color how you perceive your own self-worth and see injustice in work, marriage and beyond.”
  • And not surprisingly, some of these “strategies” that are intended to help siblings stand out from the crowd can become permanently encoded in people’s personalities. But it’s important to note that many psychologists believe that these strategies are merely situational and that most people “move on.”

And what about the 18% of us who are the only children – a group that is likely to grow, with more and more parents’ choice to have children later in life, making one seem like enough. We know less about this group, beyond the many stereotypes associated with being an “only”…But we do know one famous “only” is about to explore sibling life through art: Selena Gomez. J

What does this mean for marketers, programmers and product developers? We may understand that brothers and sisters matter, but with the youth audience already so small and fragmented, could we ever possibly market by birth order? Could we really include sibling status in the target descriptions of our creative briefs or media manifestos? Probably not. But we should keep the powerful influence of siblings in mind when we think about showing “real life” in ads or shows, when we consider the samples we include in our custom research designs and even when we think about products/packaging designed for the “whole family.”

We’d love to hear from you about other ways that sibling love or rivalry impact how you think about your youth or family brand or business.

Tags: kids, movie, Youth, Teens, Ramona and Beezus, tweens

UPDATE: Most Anticipated Summer Movies

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Jul 16, 2010 @ 01:39 PM

According to a recent YouthBeat poll of over 1000 grade school kids (~ages 6-10), Toy Story was the most highly anticipated movie of summer 2010!Toy Story, Twilight, Karate Kit

And why were kids were flocking to theaters to see these flicks? Check out some of our previous posts…We’ve written about the appeal of Toy Story 3 among teens, who grew up alongside toy-owner Andy; we’ve opined about the reasons behind the unending appeal of Twilight among tweens and teens (and moms, such as it is!); The Karate Kid made a brief appearance in our recent blog on 80’s properties that have stood the test of time.

We’d like to add just a bit more on why we think the results turned out this way.

Toy Story 3 seems to be that rare brand and property (think SpongeBob) that can truly capture the imagination and pull the heartstrings of three year olds, thirteen year olds and thirty (something) year olds.

My own preschooler can’t get to sleep these days without snuggling up to his Buzz Lightyear and Woody dolls. Independent of the compelling meta-narrative that is Toy Story (and one that plays into children’s deepest fantasies and fears that those toys are up to something when you’re not around), these characters deliver on the old-fashioned notion of a great toy.

In one of the DVD extras for Toy Story 2, the film’s creators discuss a moment that makes the film “pure Pixar”: engaging adventure, followed quickly by a bit of humor, topped off with a moment of heart-warming vulnerability. It seems that this formula fits the needs of many ages, not just the kids who are putting this property on top once again.

On Twilight…Having recently admitted to being a “Twihard”, or at least a “Twihard-in-training” (read a few of these books and you will begin to see the world in terms of Vampires versus Werewolves), I am happy to see that Twilight takes second place. We know that kids are watching, but we’re not surprised it took a backseat to Toy Story, which pushes the limits of animation, but continues to feel like a pretty safe viewing experience. In contrast, Twilight speaks perfectly to teens (who continue to make it one of the highest nominated films at the Teen Choice Awards), who are developmentally driven to be fascinated by risky notions, angst-ridden characters and moral dilemmas.

We’d love to hear what you’ve seen this summer – and whether you agree with our panelists that Toy Story 3 should get top billing this season.

Tags: research, movie, Karate Kid, Twilight, Youth, Teens, tweens

What to Make of Miley: The Tween Stars Transition and What it Really Tells Us

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 @ 10:46 AM

For the past few months, we’ve been watching with, well, everyone, to see what Miley Cyrus will do next. While most have seen her recent performances at Canada’s MuchMusic Awards and the MTV Music Awards as shedwater moments in the young entertainer’s life, we’ve been watching her shed her softer side for a while. (Remember that infamous pole dance at the Teen Choice Awards?)

In the beginning of 2009, we began to hear kids tell us that Miley’s days were numbered. But at the same time – and throughout 2009 – Miley remained kids’ and tweens’ choice for “favorite” celebrity. But were they reacting to the time-old tale of tween icon turned teen iconoclast?  Probably not. More than likely, Hannah Montana was just less new than it once was. And with Nick’s iCarly showing a more relatable slice of life (and perhaps even more aspirational, with many tweens fantasizing about hosting their own webcast over starring on stage), Hannah seemed to be losing steam.

But then Miley started pushing boundaries. And things started to get interesting.

As Laura Holson wrote in a NYTimes article last Sunday, Fans of Miley Question Her New Path, kids and tweens have been left in the dust while Miley leaves them behind. For kids and tweens, who often feel a deep connection to the characters they watch, Miley growing up feels a little scary, and a bit like a snub. While we might think of todays’ kids and tweens as edgier, more sophisticated and more experimental than in the past, at the heart of it, they’re terrified of taking that next step into the teen years. They may appear to be dressing seductively, but the kind of overt sexuality that Cyrus has put on display is more intimidating than inspiring.

So what’s a tween to do? Well, we predict they’ll do something surprising – tune in to the final season of Hannah Montana, if only to reminisce about the way things “used to be.” But will they stick with her and look up to her when she’s off air? Probably not. For every Miley (Britney, Christina) who grows up, there’s a benign starlet waiting in the wings (Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Selena Gomez and everyone from Glee!). And for teens, Miley (who just nabbed a Glee-tying total of 19 nominations at the Teen Choice Awards for TV, music and fashion) might be hitting their radar for the first time since they left their own tween years behind.Miley Cyrus

If the lesson for kids and tweens feels somewhat moralistic, what’s the message to brands? First, people might be brands, but when they’re still developing, those brands will – will have to – evolve. As much as marketers and fans might like Miley to stay the way she is, wouldn’t we be a bit worried about her if she did? Second, if you’re a brand, kids and tweens own you – not the other way around. Before your brand changes, check in with your most critical customers: tweens. And finally, recognize that what your youngest consumers want is not to grow up faster or “get older younger,” like so many marketers have mantra’d in the past. For many kids and tweens, the “right now” is comfortable, cozy and confidence-building. And speaking to where they are sometimes requires as much following as it does leading.

So in the next few months, as the frenzy over Miley’s every milestone reaches its peak, we’ll be watching. But instead of seeing her as a brand taking a risk, we’ll be watching as a teen takes on the challenge of finding out who she is and who she wants to be. That seems to us like a story in the making.   

Tags: kids, Nickelodeon, movie, music, TV, Miley Cyrus

Youth Culture Rewind: Or, What’s Behind a Comeback

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jul 07, 2010 @ 10:16 AM

Karate Kid in theaters, Indiana Jones on your Legos and Star Wars top YouthBeat’s list of favorite all-time films among kids.

Don’t pinch yourself – it’s not 1984.

Actually, in 1984, youth marketing wasn’t really a profession, and few creatives could afford to focus on kid stuff. (Nickeloden did not take off as a network until the 1984 relaunch, with the first use of the orange “splat” that we know today.) With so much more focus on creating content that speaks to the hearts and minds of today’s youth, why aren’t we creating new properties that overtake the old ones?

Today’s youth experts and content creators might know more than we think…Here are just a few reasons why, when it comes to kids, oldies are still goodies and what’s old can easily become new again.Indiana Jones

First, it’s not nostalgia that drives kids’ choices – its naivete. Perhaps that sounds harsh…It’s more like innocence. While the stories that shaped our way of seeing this world and worlds beyond are indelibly imprinted in our collective conscious, kids don’t know that (spoiler alert!) Darth Vader is Luke’s father. They don’t know that Harrison Ford was the hero in Indiana Jones, long before he played Shia LeBoeuf’s father. And they are only vaguely aware that their older brothers and sisters grew up on SpongeBob – and watched many of the same episodes that they watch today. Every four or five years, we graduate a group of kids, tweens and teens and replace them with a fresh set of eyes and ears – ones that see the stuff created for their predecessors as new to them.

So if these shows aren’t retro or these reruns familiar fun, then what makes them stand out among the new? The concepts are solid: good versus evil…The underdog ending up on top…While many of these properties were created to appeal to an all-family – or even adult – audience, they leverage themes that connect with kids. The Hero’s Journey might be a formula for success for many narratives, but these coming of age stories are even more salient to kids, tweens and teens who are embarking on new adventures everyday.

But what has made these properties stand the test of time is not just a timeless concept, but makeovers that made sense. Star Wars’ update came in the form of a cartoon – Clone Wars on Cartoon Network – that made the characters even more ageless and gave kids a chance to absorb the narrative in bite-sized pieces. Indiana Jones breathed new life into the franchise with a younger star – all while paying homage to the baton-passer, Harrison Ford. And Karate Kid? The story moves from LA to a whole new continent, and the protagonist is no longer a twenty-something acting like a teen, but the story – a tale of found strength and brains over braun – continues to ring true.

And what they haven’t done is also worth noting. We still see technology, but only where it belongs. We might see updated cuts in clothing, but we don’t see anachronisms. While bringing these stories to a new generation, their creators have preserved their authenticity. And that’s something that youth recognize – even in something they’ve never seen before.

Tags: Nickelodeon, Indiana Jones, movie, Karate Kid, TV, tweens

How I Became a “Twihard”

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jul 01, 2010 @ 11:30 AM

For the past few years, I’ve been keeping tabs on tweens’ and teens’ fascination with Twilight. I’ve read about fanatical fans, whose love of Bella, Edward and Jacob have changed the way we think about vampires, werewolves and monsters in general. I’ve watched them take over and redefine the MTV Music Awards and Comic-Con. And I’ve talked to countless tweens and teens about what makes them passionate about the books and the movies that have become the Harry Potter of the post-puberty set.Twilight

But I must confess: up until two weeks ago, I hadn’t read the books or seen the movies. From what I did know, the concept felt just right for this age group…The romantic notion of forbidden love (as relevant to tween girls as it was in Romeo and Juliet). The captivating cool confidence of an edgy outsider who doesn’t seem to have the need to fit in…Even the realistic and sweet relationship between a father who wants to protect his little girl and a daughter who wants to move on while not disappointing him…And what about the real life intrigue surrounding the secret love between stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson - K-Pat or Stewartson (which I just made up)? You can’t script this stuff.  

With Eclipse hitting the theaters, and with Kristen, Robert and Taylor doing the media/publicity rounds once again, I thought I’d better get authentic. And here’s the lesson I learned: the concept might be right, but it’s the execution that really makes Twilight work.

First, consider the casting. With a cast of relatively unknowns before the first Twilight film, this makes tweens and teens feel like they discovered them on their own. And while Taylor Lautner isn’t exactly a fulfillment of author Stephanie Meyers’ description of a 6’7” werewolf, he delivers fully on the rest of the fantasy. And, for the record, I’m channeling teens here. As a film that – let’s face it – is a romance more than a monster romp, Kristen Stewart could not be a more aspirational leading lady. We don’t want to be her because she’s perfect or pretty, but more because of that inner beauty that shines through her dark and somber façade.

Second, the movie’s setting, which was originally Seattle and then Vancouver, not only feels believable as a haven or a coven for monsters, but feels right as the backdrop for teen angst. Forks (the town in which the movie takes place) feels less fictional, in some ways, than the pseudo-real high schools we’ve seen in recent teen flicks in theater and on TV. The mood matters in this film, and seems to capture that pervasive state of unease that surrounds teens. And it makes it feel natural when Edward and Jake both seek to protect Bella – not just from vampires or werewolves, but maybe from herself.

Finally, I found myself surprised by the friendships in Twilight. I used to think that the romance defined Twilight – and perhaps it does. But as a real reader, I was most surprised by the bond between Bella and Alice. This kind of friendship might fuel tweens’ and teens’ fantasy as much as the sexual tension between Bella and her two “choices.”

I’ve also been reading lots of other opinions on Twilight, and not surprisingly, there’s a lot of focus on whether the special effects are right, whether there’s enough action versus love (for that all important audience – teen boys), and whether or not the book brought to life the words from Meyers that so many tweens and teens have absorbed.  

But I’m pretty content to be a new fan. Am I a “Twihard”? Well, according to definitions from urbandictionary.com, I’m probably less a “Twihard” and more a “Twilighter”. The site draws the following distinction:

“The difference between being a “Twilighter” and being a “Twihard”, is that “Twihards” have embraced a new “Twiligion”... er.... I mean, religion based on Twilight. They live and breathe Twilight. Most “Twihards” are for Edward and Bella. Therefore, those “Twihards” are all for true love and love at first sight. Point out one thing to a “Twihard”, and they can relate it to Twilight instantly. Savage and wild, they need every single thing to be perfect in the upcoming Twilight movie.”

I do drive a Volvo – but more because of the suburban mom connection than the Edward Cullen one!

Tags: kids, movie, Twilight, Youth, Teens, TV, tweens