Back to School Worries Focus on Books More than Bullying

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Aug 31, 2010 @ 02:27 PM

According to media reports from across the country, kids, tweens and teens’ frets focus on very different topics than in the past. According to youth themselves, homework still scares them the most.

Most experts agree that kids should get about ten minutes worth of homework for each grade they’re in…So that means tweens shouldn’t hit the one-hour mark until they land in 6th grade. But parents and many teachers will admit that kids are often overburdened with post-school studying well before they’re ready.Kids Tweens and Teens Back to School

Kids, tweens and teens are more conscious than ever of the power to perform in the classroom while maintaining some semblance of a childhood (and don’t forget about those pesky colleges who want students to foster extracurricular interests in addition to attending to their grades). In a recent survey we conducted among kids, tweens and teens, homework (54 percent) and having less free time (34 percent) are the concerns that weigh heaviest on their minds. And 39% of high schoolers site increasing academic pressures as something they fear going into the new year.

But what are they most looking forward to? Over 80 percent of older tweens and teens (ages 11 to 13 and 14 to 17, respectively) are most looking forward to a “fresh start” – much more so than kids (ages 6-10) at 39 percent.

And this makes sense. Getting a chance to start the year anew, with a clean slate, not only gives tweens and teens a chance to “try again,” but also gives them a chance to reinvent themselves – a new style, a new group of friends and a new take on their own identities. This desire to begin the school year fresh is a timeless need that we continue to see reflected in these results.

Despite media coverage that might imply that all youth are consumed with fear at school, serious school violence (shootings, for example) does not concern the vast majority of them – 95 percent of all kids, tweens and teens. However, African American youth are more concerned about this issue than their Caucasian and Hispanic counterparts, with 15 percent saying they were concerned about school violence, compared with just 8 percent of Caucasian youth and 5 percent of Hispanic youth.

Tags: kids, bullying, homework, Youth, Teens, tweens, school

Parents and Licensed Products: Where Principles Meet Pragmatism

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Aug 26, 2010 @ 01:03 PM

This past weekend, I reached a parenting milestone that most moms and dads would nod their heads to: realizing you’re that parent that you never thought you’d be!

Our son has many unbranded wooden toys, books written for Waldorf classrooms and will be starting at a Montessori school in the fall. But on a trip to Chicago with my husband and son, we found ourselves at the Disney store. All three of us “oohhed” and “aahed” as we eyed the ceiling-high shelf of Toy Story products. And needless to say, we left with Woody and Buzz. On Sunday, we returned because we “forgot” Jessie

So while all this is new to me, fortunately, my short stint as a parent was preceded by years of listening to moms (and the occasional dad) across the country talk about their feelings on licensed products (products that borrow equity from characters) or property-based products (e.g., a Woody or Buzz doll).Toy Story Woody Doll

While critics of commercialism like Susan Linn of CCFC see no gray areas when it comes to these kinds of products (which Linn is referring to when she writes about “unfettered commercialism actually prevent[ing] [children] from playing”), even the most anti-corporate, anti-media parent will usually admit that denying your kids the characters they love is not as easy as it seems. For other parents, it’s a no-brainer. For them, childhood is as much about the joy of having a doll, action figure or other toy that takes on the likeness of their most fantastic friends – just as it did for many of us, pre-Nickelodeon’s hay day.

But back to that first group of parents…in talking to them about licensed products, they often make some good points. Most child development experts would agree that the best objects of play allow kids to create their own narratives – not simply imitate the storylines they see on screen. And many worry about setting an expectation that enjoying a story is about owning an object versus possessing an idea in your mind.

On the flipside, there’s the smile on your child’s face when they see a character whose gentle nature or clever mind or self-deprecating silliness has captured their hearts. And it’s pretty hard to resist.

But as many marketers have learned, the power of characters is actually quite fleeting. While tweens and teens will happily tune-in to SpongeBob, they’re unlikely to wear him on a t-shirt – or even on their PJs. And kids as young as 7 years old will let a researcher accompanying them to the grocery store know that products with characters on them are really meant for their little brothers and sisters. So for most parents, the licensed product “dilemma” is one solved by time…Just in time for more tricky challenges to take their place.

For years, youth marketers have debated whether borrowing or “buying” a halo from an established kids property or creating your own equity characters (think the Trix Rabbit or the Rice Krispies guys) is the easy-street to success. But either way, we think the decision requires serious contemplation. So, how can marketers meet the needs of parents when it comes to the character connection?

  • First, honor the characters you choose to align your brand with or you choose to promote through products. Be authentic to their essence – and that means knowing what their essence is according to kids. A character’s actual bio doesn’t always reflect the story that kids tell about the character – and knowing and creating to that narrative is the first step to getting your property-driven products right.
  • Second, make sure your products keep in mind their true purpose: play. Many licensed products go beyond pure character appeal to meet parents’ needs for age-appropriate play for their kids. For marketers to leverage these properties with integrity, it can’t just be about getting the branding right, but should also pay homage to the real star, your consumer.
  • And finally, when creating your own characters, know that kids love the rich stories behind their favorite characters. Woody isn’t simply a cowboy. He doesn’t just have a look that kids love. He has a heart, a soul and a strong script that allow kids to go beyond observing him to bringing him into their own stories. And it’s just this kind of complexity that makes these characters as much fun to “play” with, as they are to watch.

Tags: research, kids, Nickelodeon, movie, mom, Youth, Toy Story

Why Tween Boys Don’t Stink: Thank, Axe!

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Aug 19, 2010 @ 12:50 PM

It wasn’t too long ago that the average tween boy didn’t see any reason to bathe, groom, and for sure, to use cologne or deodorant. Certainly, countless fifth grade teachers have been forced into interventions in the post-gym class hours. But these days, thanks to Unilever and Procter & Gamble (P&G), tween boys are not only complying with, but requesting personal care products that are marketed with them in mind.

When Axe’s (Unilever) breakthrough advertising hit the scene a Axefew years ago, they hit the mark with tween boys. The original U.S. TV spots (Axe has been around since the 80s in France and other markets), which showed more than telling young men, “wear this deodorant and girls won’t be able to resist you,” adopt a strategy characterized by both hyperbole and satire. These brands poke fun at a category in which ads have traditionally taken themselves very seriously, implying that choosing the right anti-perspirant can make them as aspirational as a star athlete or prevent them from a blunder at a big meeting. And silly seems to have led to sales among tween boys who want nothing more to avoid serious conversations about personal hygiene and body odor.

Old Spice (P&G) has attempted to reinvent itself in the same vane. From our outsider perspective, it seems the insight is similar to the one Axe emOld Spice Swaggerploys…Boys are a bit uncomfortable with traditional expectations of masculinity and relish seeing someone find the chink in the armor. And in Old Spice’s latest campaign, we see the very manly main character, Old Spice Man ride a white stallion, dive from the top of a waterfall, and straddle a very large motorcycle – and for good measure, he cooks a gourmet meal along the way. This exaggerated image of the ideal man is not lost on tweens – the campaign has been one of the most viral ones on YouTube (where tween boys are practically the ruling class).

Interestingly, Old Spice’s first go, “Red Zone,” felt a bit safe and couldn’t find a way to stand out among boys. Their packaging relaunch includes a new name: “Swagger.” Clearly, the lesson learned by P&G is that this is not your dad’s Old Spice – and you’ve got to take a few risks to prove it. (Because we know that no actual tween boys read this blog, we’ll let you in on a secret…This strategy is similar to Kotex’s approach to reinventing the feminine hygiene category, which we discussed in a previous blog entry. But please don’t tell the tween boys you know!)

But what else does this tell us about the challenge of disrupting staid and mature categories for the younger set?

  • First, both brands dared to go younger – despite what we imagine market research told them…This is where the art needs to inform the science. We imagine that the numbers might have told them that moms are buying deodorant for their tween boys – and that there is a much larger men’s market than boy’s. But we know from our own data that deodorant is the item that tweens in general report influencing the most – next to clothes and shoes. In 2009, 51% of tween boys said that they have “a lot” of influence over this purchase, and we know that, in the youth market, influence matters as much as money from your own pocket. And they probably noticed that most men were buying (or asking someone else to buy) the same brand of deodorant that they’ve been using since their teen years. So going younger seemed almost an inevitable market strategy – that no one else was really embracing.
  • Second, they learned that going after this market requires commitment. And it might require, on the surface, alienating your more serious customers. But mom doesn’t seem to be turned off by the edgy campaigns from either brand. In fact, she’s likely to be smiling all the way to the drugstore…Most moms are willing to indulge their tweens if it means making a tricky conversation about taking care of one’s self avoidable. Launching ads that encourage boys to “get some action” might invite a few letters from those people who write letters about ads that they deem offensive, but for tween boys, “going there” is part of the fun.
  • Finally, they took a category that felt formulaic and changed the rules. Each year, Axe launches a new line of fragrances – and ones that signal that they’re talking to a younger, more daring demo. Axe’s “Twisted Humor Tour,” in partnership with Funny or Die and its “Undie Runs” for charity (which challenges college kids to participate and tweens to snort with laughter) are probably difficult to measure with traditional metrics. And the old-fashioned look that characterized the first round of Old Spice Red Zone (sorry, P&G!) has given way to an aesthetic that shows that the brand is willing to leave a few good men behind.

So what’s the bottom line? Taking a chance on tweens means taking a few risks…But with tweens, a little risk-taking can yield unexpected returns.

Tags: boys, Swagger, Axe, Youth, tweens, Unilever, P&G

The Problem With Memory

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Aug 17, 2010 @ 11:46 AM

Youth researchers have been dealing with the “issue” of memory forever…It’s almost impossible to conduct research with an age group that you remember being, without bringing some bias to bear. It’s not always that we assume that the world is the way we remember it, but certainly what strikes us as an interesting outlier might be quite commonplace for the group that we’re observing. And what seems like a new world order to us is the way it’s always been to them…

This reality provides a significant challenge when we’re trying to truly understand the college audience. Like it or not, we’re often engaged in this research from the perspective of people who have been out of school for a bit – and who may not even have used email while on campus, let alone used Facebook to manage their social lives online. And even if we’re closer to that experience, with each generation of new students, technology that has novelty value for today’s students feels almost passé to the next round of freshmen or “first-years.”

But how much have things really changed? Remember, just a generation ago, most college students were literally cranking out essays on typewriters. And most of today’s college students wouldn’t see the wipeboard-on-the-dorm-room-door as having quite the same broadcast power as twitter does. And perhaps some of the other “trends” – at least on some campuses – might elude many of us. How about digital drugs for one? This latest way for college students to get their fix shows just how addicting technology can be!

Digital DrugsAt Duke, freshmen receive something as part of their “welcome” kit that we probably couldn’t have imagine getting back when some of us were in college: an iPod. You can get your class schedules and maps to campus without having to press print!

But has college really changed? As today’s emerging adults pack up their cars or get on a plane, they will endure the same rites of passage as the countless generations before them. And they’ll wonder if they can handle the intense expectations placed on them. They’ll imagine who they’ll meet. And they’ll anticipate what this experience really has in store for them – and what it might mean, or not mean, to the course that the rest of their lives will take.

But just likewise, they’ll have to experience it for themselves.

And the memories they build will probably be similar, in some ways, to our own. But the way they remember keeping in touch with parents or friends back home, or even asking someone out on a date might look a little different than the way it looks in our own rearview mirrors. Can we know what it’s like to stand in their shoes today? Probably not. But can we ask them about it? Of course!

Tags: research, digital drugs, college, Teens

Overheard in a Home Depot: Are Kids Taking Over Your Home?

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 @ 10:57 AM

“It’s called Twilight!” the tween girl standing next to me told her mother, in a high drama, OMG kind of voice.

This was the weekend, and I was not behind the glass watching a mom-kid pair or a focus group. I was in the paint section at Home Depot and upon hearing the magic word my Robert Pattinson radar kicked in. My husband, sensing what was up, took my toddler son to the next aisle and left me to listen in.

“This one’s called ‘sexy’ she giggled – clearly trying to shock her mother, who clearly had been shocked too many times to react. With practiced practicality, the mom ignored her daughter and simply suggested a slightly less bold paint color. The negotiation began.

“I really feel like I’ll be most comfortable if it’s the color I love (Note to reader: that color would be “sexy”). And this is my room so I have to be comfortable, right?”

It seems today’s kids, tweens and teens have been taught, by example, by the media and by pop psychology that environment matters. And retailers haven’t missed their cue. Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel saw an opportunity to develop room décor for this style-savvy set with stores like Pottery Barn Kids and PBTeen, as well as Crate and Barrel’s sister store, Land of Nod. And while directing its messages to parents more than kids, Restoration Hardware recently got into the youth home goods game with its new line of Baby and Toddler furniture.

But proving that kids, tweens and teens have influence beyond these boutiques designed for them, Home Depot’s paint display included snapshots of picture perfect children’s rooms alongside images of  Martha Stewart inspired showrooms. When my family rejoined me, I noticed that my son was “playing” with a paint sample – in the shape of mouse ears. He proudly showed me his new “book,” which was really a brochure for Disney paints. He noted that one of these fantasy spaces included a little car just like one that he has at home.Disney Paint Room

For today’s youth, who have grown up watching deserving kids get decked out rooms on Extreme Home Makeover, or who watched their own version of Trading Spaces (Boys versus Girls) on Saturday morning television, this penchant for paint and obsession with getting their rooms just right isn’t a surprise. If you catch HGTV, you’ll notice an increased emphasis on the crafting of kid spaces – with some shows, like Colour Confidential, letting kids get on the act by picking paint colors and weighing in on what their walls will wear. And with more and more kids watching the Food Network and taking cooking classes in cities and suburbs across the country, it’s no wonder that kids are out to conquer the next domestic frontier. Or, if not conquer, at least make it their own.

But will parenDisney Paint Colorsts indulge their kids’ requests for real – and really costly – renovations to their rooms? It’s likely that kids will continue to have free reign over things traditionally chosen by kids for their rooms: posters and novelty pillows, bedspreads and tchotkes. And for some, coloring their walls to match their mood – or their favorite fantasy – might be the next step in designing the world of their dreams.

Tags: kids, mom, Twilight, Youth, Teens, shopping, Home Depot, money

What Does Michael Cera Say About Youth Culture Right Now?

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Aug 11, 2010 @ 03:32 PM

In Michael Cera’s newest endeavor, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, the 22 year old evolves from superbad to superhero.

According to the movie’s description on IMDB:

“Scott Pilgrim’s life is so awesome…Everything's fantastic until a seriously mind-blowing, dangerously fashionable, roller blading delivery girl named Ramona Flowers starts cruising through his dreams and sailing by him at parties. But the path to Ms. Flowers isn't covered in rose petals. Ramona's seven evil exes stand between Scott and true happiness. Can Scott beat the bad guys and get the girl without turning his precious little life upside-down?”

Maybe this isn’t the kind of superhero we’re used to seeing (although recent films like Kick-Ass and even the soon-to-be-released Exes seem to be turning the tables and taking a poke at this genre). But “unconventional” seems a good word to describe almost every role that this unlikely leading man has tackled. Remember when he secretly pined away for his cousin (Arrested Development)? Or when he played his own moustached alter ego in Youth in Revolt?  But is he really so unexpected or is he the most predictable teen idol to hit matinees in years?

More than just a talented comedian with impeccable timing, Cera might be the perfect representative of the new youth aesthetic.

First, he breaks the rules of “aspirational” that have defined teen icons for decades. Not that the occasional geek hasn’t caught our attention before…But today’s stars really look like underdogs – not like models without make-up. And while we love Twilight and don’t think Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner are going anywhere, more teen boys (and girls) are likely to recognize Cera as the kind of guy they are or are around. So perhaps his appeal is driven by mere relatability, but maybe he also breaks the rules that we think movie stars have to follow…And rule-breaking is, and will always be, something that teens admire.Michael Cera

Second, he represents the perfect mix between pop culture and counter culture. Cera’s indie sensibilities appeal to the more sophisticated and underground aesthetic of the latest cohort of teens, but he does it in a way that makes it mainstream. Rather than daring you to discover him, he’s out there – and in theaters on an almost constant basis. He gives teens a sense that they’re in on the joke – not that they have to try so hard to be included. He winks at his own age group, with humor and a sense of style that seems like one that only they would “get,” but he makes himself more available than exclusive. And that he’s rejecting the clichés of conventional teen culture without abandoning the fun.

Finally, his sense of humor fits perfectly with the wit of the Facebook generation. Cera chooses roles where the humor is far from frat-boyish…even when it’s veiled in seemingly simple bits about boyhood crushes and beer bongs. Instead, his character’s comedic power comes from dry turns of phrase, and self-aware, self-deprecating quips. In his Funny or Die videos, like his self-help parody, “Impossible is the Opposite of Possible,” he shows off the kind of smarts and subtlety that make him sing with the social network set.

What can marketers learn from Cera? In a nutshell…

  • When you’re thinking aspiration, look beyond the surface…Today’s teens care about substance more than we might think.
  • When you’re considering a counter culture approach, remember not to take yourself off teens’ radar – or too far from their comfort zone. Find that happy middle ground between irreverent and accessible.
  • And when you’re looking for superheroes, look for ones who work their mental muscles as much as their physical ones.

Tags: Michael Cera, kids, movie, Youth, Teens, TV

Designer Diapers: Parents Pushing Limits or Just Playing Around?

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Aug 04, 2010 @ 11:45 AM

If you’re a parent of an infant or a toddler, it’s likely that you’ve seen Huggies’ new spot for its “limited edition” denim style diapers. Or maybe you’ve seen Target’s latest brand/designer partnership – Pampers designed by Cynthia Rowley – on the bum of a little boy or girl near you.

Mommy bloggers and consumer critics, who question the priorities of parents who buy disposable diapers at a 40% premium for the sake of a short-lived spot of style, have certainly noticed. And more than one has asserted that today’s babies have gone from objects of affection to their parents’ latest accessories.


Look, I don’t really get denim diapers. I didn’t get when Shaun White wore denim-look snowboard pants during the Olympics either, but to each his own. And when it comes to diapers, my Huggieshusband and I made a point of buying the unbleached, better-for-the-environment kind from Seventh Generation. (Not that we’re above making a statement with our son’s under-things – in Brooklyn, where we lived, the brown bag beige of these diapers were pretty eco-chic.) But why are “we” (“society” or “the media”) so uncomfortable with designer diapers?

  1. “We” don’t think kids are supposed to reflect their parents’ identity, but they do. To differing degrees, we, parents, might believe that we are doing a good job at letting our children – our babies even – choose their own adventure. But in truth, our kids see the world (at least in their early years) through the lens that we carefully craft for them. And we like them to look that way. I’d like my two-year-old to discover his own sense of style, eventually, but for now he wears t-shirts endorsing my political candidate of choice, the Beatles and the Yankees (or the Phillies depending on whether dad or mom has dressed him that day). And I’m pretty sure I think of him as more than an identity prop. In the least, he’s a very cute billboard.

  2. “We” want to take parenting seriously, but sometimes it’s not. Parenting is serious. And today’s parents know that. Today’s moms are more mature (at least in age) and better educated than ever before. More are having babies by choice – and often trying very hard to have kids. And these chosen babies are a more scrutinized, coddled and pampered (no pun intended) group than ever before. If, in the eyes of the world, putting your infants in design-conscious looks negate all the other stuff that these designer-diapering parents are likely doing to nurture their children’s potential, then I would like to ask, “World, did you skip your coffee this morning? And have you ever changed a diaper?”

    We’re not suggesting that parenting is something to take lightly. And we don’t mean to imply that anything that makes a parent laugh is okay or good for their babies, but paying a bit more for a pattern on a diaper (made by companies like Kimberly-Clark or Procter and Gamble, who, presumably, are not going to begin manufacturing gold-plated Pull-Ups or baby stilettos on the heels of this trend), seems like an acceptable indulgence.

  3. “We” claim to not buy sizzle over substance, but actually, we do. Perhaps this debate strikes a chord as it raises the question, “Does design matter?” And perhaps more provocatively, “Should it”? If the answer is, “No,” then we’ve all got a lot of changing to do. And someone needs to call Target and let them know that their design-centric strategy – despite stellar sales even in a down economy – isn’t working.

    Yes, spending so much more for disposable diapers in a down economy is irresponsible or, at least, obnoxious. And there are valid points to make about where R&D dollars are going (towards creating a more earth-friendly diaper or a more aesthetically pleasing one). But if wallpapering your child’s bottom with a cheeky pattern is the vice of choice for today’s parents, then we’re okay with that.

Do you think designer diapers are here to stay? Or just a flash in the can?

Tags: parents, diapers, family, Youth, pregnancy, Huggies