5 Insights Inspired by Boyhood

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jan 28, 2015 @ 02:31 PM

BoyhoodOf course, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood appealed to our YouthBeat team long before it garnered awards and attention – it’s a longitudinal “study” that covers the kind of day-to-day truth of a single child that serves as a model for the kind of research we wish we always got to do! In this case, the objective is simply to reveal the reality of a kid as he journeys through tweendom and teendom, into young adulthood. We couldn’t help but watch in awe as all the characters (mom and dad included) confronted the ups and downs of family life. We were compelled to keep our eyes on the boy at the movie’s center as he sought agency within the confines of the limited and limiting life in which he found himself. It’s tricky to use a fictional character as a font for real-life insights, but we’ll be so bold. Here are our five of our favorite insights inspired by Boyhood:

  • Growth happens. Of course, many of us know that kids go through stages as they go through ages. But so often, we think about growth through the lens of development. What we can easily miss is the way that relationships shift and morph, how their sense of their place in the world evolves, but also realigns. Children don’t grow in neat patterns, but rather in fits and spurts, through stagnation as much as stimulation. The tale of this boy suggests that kids are constantly growing, but not always upward and onward.
  • Kids are resilient. So much has been said about Boyhood as of late, but we haven’t heard enough about the resilience that the kid characters display. Resilience is one of the most valuable characteristics today’s kids could have, and it’s often earned despite, not because of, the adults in a child’s life. Still, Mason managed to have it. Our insight: it’s easy to bemoan all the ways in which youth culture and family life threaten resilience – it’s harder to notice it when it’s right under your nose.
  • Families are systems. We often debate the role of kids and parents: is one more influential than the other, who “nags” whom, and what moment do the scales tip in one direction or another (especially when it comes to purchase decisions). But Boyhood reminds us of the complex interconnectivity apparent in the everyday life of kids and families. There is no such thing as a “decision-maker” that applies to every situation. And even when parents assert authority, kids (and particularly teens) often override. It’s not that the effort to understand the shopping or decision-making process isn’t worthwhile. It just requires closer observation and more flexibility than we often give it.
  • Observe the silence. When it comes to research, particularly with boys, it’s important to listen to (and respect) the silence. We often assume that every insight and every idea can be articulated and expressed if just the moderator would ask the magic question. We sometimes believe that we can see and hear what young respondents believe and know if we just go to the right space. But many of the most important moments in children’s lives are bathed in silence – not expression. They happen in spaces that are intentionally invisible, in places that are hard to access by design. Our job is not always to reveal something not meant to be revealed but rather to notice and acknowledge that what happens quietly and what is said softly is as important as any statistic or proclamation. 
  • Life is in the everyday. It’s easy to consider children’s lives as a series of milestones and achievements, capabilities mastered and skills gained. But in understanding children, and in finding ways to connect with them, it’s often more important to note the everyday matters that make up their lives and make them who they are. This can be the fodder for great content and products as much as the disruptions and events that are easy to talk about and to include in PowerPoint presentations. But truly understanding youth requires the patience to tell a story in which nothing “happens” as much as everything unfolds. 

Tags: kids, boys, Youth, Teens, tweens

A Post-Millennial Pitcher and What She Says About Gender Right Now

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Aug 25, 2014 @ 03:07 PM

As a Philly girl, a (long since retired) softball player, a lifelong baseball fan, and, of course, aSI Mo'neDavis professional observer of youth culture, I couldn’t help but tune into the Little League World Series match between the Taney Dragons from Philadelphia and a team of tween rivals from Nevada. While this event always piques my interest, this year’s pull was decidedly more powerful: the team’s pitcher, Mo’ne Davis.

At a time in the sports calendar when preseason football typically dominates, 13-year-old Davis claimed the cover of Sports Illustrated, making her the first Little Leaguer to do so while still in their formative years. Davis isn’t the first girl to take the field in the crown event of the Little League season, but she is the first to pitch for a win, and the first African-American girl to get in the game at this level.

While many girls have gotten attention for playing boys’ games, many have credited Davis with being the first product of Title IX and the right to a fair playing field it provides for female athletes. Davis is clearly not a publicity stunt, and she’s presented as more than a symbol – she’s someone that her coaches and teammates expect to deliver in the highest pressure athletic situation that many athletes her age will ever face.

Davis arrives on our radar at a time when we’re talking about gender norms, expectations, and realities more than ever before. The very definitions of masculinity and femininity may be in constant flux, but today’s post-Millennials often appear to be growing up at a time when gender is more fluid than ever. We think Mo’Ne Davis – the phenomenon as much as the girl herself – serves as a symbol of what we believe are the evolving ideas and ideals about gender for today’s youth.

  1. Post-Millennial doesn’t mean “post-gender.” With much talk about this being a post-gender cohort, we think it’s critical to acknowledge that Davis’ dramatic victory over a team from Texas, and her mere presence on the mound has garnered a lot of attention. Philly Magazine recently described her as a “reluctant cover girl” who would prefer to catch some of the other games at the South Williamsport, PA tournament in peace. Kids interviewed about the young star for various publications echo the same sentiment that many adults do: this is/she is a big deal. She is on the cover of SI at the end of August, afterall.
  2. To Post-Millennials, everyone who can play should play. Davis is different – it’s not debatable among youth or adults. At the same time, this bucking of sports norms feels very different than it has in previous times, and in some locales still, where we see girls attempting to play being met with accusations of spotlight-seeking. We’ve often heard cries of inequity from boys, not girls, forced to compete against a perceived softer, more fragile set of competitors. But the post-Millennial response to Mo’Ne seems in line with their overall perspective on gender: gender shouldn’t stop you from doing something you’re good at or love.
  3. Boys will be boys, but they’ll also be buddies. While Davis’ pitching is worth watching, I found myself more engrossed in the off-the-field interactions between Mo’Ne and her teammates. To be clear, Mo’Ne doesn’t seem to play the role of mother, cheerleader or even “cool chick” when she’s in the dugout. With serious eyes, she watches the game. Her teammates stand alongside her naturally, without awareness that she’s symbolic of something bigger than the next batter at the plate. When she was pulled from the game, the coach and her infielders seem to have a kind of conversation that felt anything but gendered. It’s possible that, knowing all eyes are on them, these boys are on their best behavior. But in the heat of a game like this one, it seems unlikely that they could fake the kind of friendship, built on mutual respect, which their gestures and body language convey.
  4. Who says girls don’t like baseball? Post-Millennials are more likely than earlier cohorts to have gone to school in co-ed settings from the time they were toddlers. They are more likely to invite boys and girls to their birthday parties. They are even okay watching Frozen (even if Olaf is sometimes the convenient snowy excuse for listening to 1.5 hours worth of show tunes in a princess flick). Boys are happy to don rainbow loom bracelets, and they’re more likely to have been raised by a dad who changed diapers. And guess what? They know that sometimes that stuff that they’re not supposed to like, or their supposed to see as strange for someone of their gender to do, is actually fun. Mo’Ne seems pretty determined to make her mark, but not because of gender politics or a pro-social mission. She seems to like to pitch. 

Tags: post-millennials, girls, boys, Sports, gender

Navigating Gender Right Now

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Sep 13, 2013 @ 03:58 PM

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…Gender Research

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Tags: youth research, girls, boys, gender, culture

What Tween Brands Can Learn From Boy Bands

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Apr 10, 2012 @ 01:05 PM

From the Beatles and the Monkees, to Menudo, Boyz II Men and New Edition, to *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees, and most recently, the Jonas Brothers, it would seem that boy bands are nothing new. Far from surprising, the recent re-emergence of a new crop of boy bands signals a return to a recognizable place. It might be easy to dismiss wannabe sensations like One Direction (who may have made it on the radar of adults-without-tween-girls-living-in-their-homes on Saturday Night Live, when they served as musical guest), as the end of the artist as we know it. Afterall, these groups are often not shy about their one directioncommercial ambitions or the way in which they were brought together by youth-savvy producers and industry moguls. But regardless of what you think of their music or their highly choreographed dance moves, understanding the appeal of boy bands (“then” and “now”) provides invaluable insight into what a tween girl wants…So what can brands and organizations do to access some of that boy band appeal? 

  1. Focus on cute, not cool. Who says nice guys never win? And who says that being aloof makes you more admirable? Not tween girls. Boy bands can come off as cloying to adults, but for tween girls, they are just like candy – sweet, easy to consume, and inviting. As an Irish newspaper, talking about One Direction noted, Justin Bieber had reminded everyone that there was still a market for "clean cut, wholesome, middle class, parent-friendly pop: cute boys advocating puppy love.” When it comes to their fashion sense, their sounds, or their personal style, they are rarely edgy, and often startlingly sweet. And for tweens who are moving into music for the first time, these boy bands serve as starter artists – who don’t make you work too hard to get them.
  2. Give girls different faces, within the same frame. Go to any middle school playground in America and you’re likely to see groups of tweens girls wearing, what seems to be, the exact same outfit, with such subtle differences that the average adult is likely to gloss over them. Not so for the tween girls, who will proudly distinguish among their group of friends – she’s the one who likes blue…She’s the girly one, so her Tom’s shoes have the sparkles (as opposed to everyone else’s Tom’s shoe that don’t). Boy bands have this down to a science. There’s the scruffy one, the born leader, the mama’s boy (although they’re all a bit over-the-top about their love for their mamas!), and the shy one. There’s the preppy one, the fashion fiend, the “rocker” and the sports savant. The result: everyone in your group can participate, but you can match your guy with your own personal style.
  3. Focus on friendship. Why, you might be asking, is it always a band? Perhaps it’s because of the synchronized dancing (like line dancing and cheerleading routines) that makes dance moves feel so formulaic that they can imagine themselves executing them with enough practice? But more importantly, these guy groups present the ultimate tween girl fantasy: friendship. At a time when tweens are trying with all their might to untangle the web that can be tween girl relations, watching a gang of guys make it look so easy gives them hope! While a group like One Direction, who admittedly came together at the urging of X Factor judge/producer Simon Cowell, even better are the stories (authentic or exaggerated) of a group of true friends from the neighborhood who have had each others’ backs for a long time. 
  4. Don’t assume caring is corny. As any youth brand knows, once you crossover to corny, it’s hard to come back. But, what teens might dismiss as dumb, tweens will often embrace with enthusiasm. Teens might reward artists and brands that seem to be so casual as not to care, tweens appreciate effort. Caring about your fans (and even about their parents!) isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of niceness. And when it comes to boy bands, nice guys finish first.
  5. It’s about the girls, not about the group. Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about the crazes and fevers that develop surrounding boy bands is that it’s all about them. Despite all that hair gel, and their inevitable entourages, tween girls are often left with the impression that these guys would give it all up if it meant dissing their fans. Boy bands don’t put themselves on a pedestal; they put their fans on one (at least from girls’ perspectives).  We see this in their ballads – which are less about relationships and more about reiterating how special, pretty and altogether lovely their love interests are.

Finally, it would be hard to talk about boy bands without acknowledging that tweens have a much higher tolerance than most targets for ubiquity – it’s hard to become overexposed with tweens! But know that the brighter the flame, the faster the fizzle…So brands might want to borrow from the boy bands’ strategy tool box, but make sure that they think about their next hit before the craze has hit crescendo

Tags: girls, boys, free time, fashion, culture, youth media, Justin Bieber

One Kid We're Really Thankful for This Year...

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Nov 23, 2010 @ 03:51 PM

In this season of giving thanks, we at YouthBeat admit that we're thankful for all kids, tweens and teens! But we couldn't help singling this one 14 year old boy out...Graeme Taylor, an openly gay 14 year old, seems to have the spirit of giving in mind when he puts himself on the line to defend a teacher who was recently suspended after kicking a student out of his classroom who had made homophobic remarks. In this profound and moving speech, Taylor lays out the issue of gay bullying better than anyone we've heard to date. So give this a look, get inspired, and give a little thanks that there are kids, tweens and teens like this out there! 

Tags: boys, cyberbullying, bullying, Youth, culture

Re-thinking Gender: What Do You Think?

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Nov 12, 2010 @ 01:49 PM

For the last century, and long before it, scholars, scientists, doctors and parenting experts have debated between focusing on gender differences, between the notion that boys were being “left behind” and that girls were, and between a belief in fixed and blurry gender identities.

athletic boy2

Consumer culture has been credited or accused with allowing youth to explore gender or proscribing narrow definitions of it. While some industries cater to boy and girl differences (think the toy manufacturing and toy retail industries), others have sought common ground between the sexes (think media entities like Nick and Disney). And the culture that youth consume has embodied a scope large enough to hold gender benders and gender stereotypes alike.

But regardless of our theories on gender that aim to describe what it is and what it ought (or ought not) to be, youth experience gender in a way that’s all their own.girl

In YouthBeat’s next round of qualitative research, conducted among a virtual panel of 18 families across the country, we hope to uncover what gender means on boys’ and girls’ own their terms. How do ideas around gender being a spectrum versus a binary translate into the lives of real youth? What role does gender identity play in their emerging understanding of their overall identity? And what role does gender play (or not play) in the choices that they make as consumers of products, services and media?

To do this, we need your help. What questions about gender keep you up at night? What hypotheses do you have about this generation and their relationship to gender? How does your brand negotiate gender and what challenges have you faced?

Tags: girls, boys, Youth, gender, culture

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