Causes and kids – getting it right

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, May 15, 2012 @ 02:58 PM

Years ago, it was unheard of to be a brand in the youth marketplace without a promotion…These days, it seems that connecting with a cause is cost of entry for companies who create products or experiences for kids, tweens or teens. It’s not enough to focus on making good products – now brands and manufacturers are forced to think about doing good along the way (although, of course, this comes more naturally to some brands than to others).

Or are they?

DoSomething.orgWe’ve been among the many who have noted that this generation of youth wants to make a difference.  MTV’s ongoing work with Millennials suggests that the most recent round of young adults has a can-do kind of consciousness that makes them both altruistic and entrepreneurial. Dosomething.org has been thriving based on its model of making causes accessible to both brands and teen consumers. And our data continues to show that youth of all ages care about causes (56% of kids, 63% of tweens and 64% of teens report having supported a cause in the past month). Recently, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm made headlines when her online activism (she authored a petition at change.org) won her a meeting with Seventeen Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. Bluhm’s cause is hardly new – her petition protested the over photoshopping common to most mags, and asked the magazine to feature one photoshop-free spread each month.

But at the same time that more and more orgs have helped youth channel their passions and companies find their corporate responsibility raison d’etre, we know that many brands have abandoned the altruistic approach. It’s not because they aren’t interested in being nice – it’s because they don’t have evidence that these initiatives have made an impact on youth.

So are youth all talk and no action? Is this generation more selfish than sympathetic? Are they eager to help only when they can help themselves?

While there may be a bit of truth to all of these assessments (and to be fair, couldn’t we say the same about even the most altruistic adults – just a bit?). But we think that getting kids, tweens and teens giving isn’t always as simple as it seems. Because we believe in youth, and we believe in brands doing right by them, we offer a few simple guidelines for getting your cause marketing efforts off the ground:

  1. Take a page from the book of Global Philanthropy Group (advisers to celebrity philanthropists), and know who you are before promoting your cause. This advice serves their celebrity clients well, but it also makes sense for brands. Sound self-serving? Consider this: a message that matches your mantra not only oozes authenticity, but it also removes one step for consumers to climb in order to keep your cause in mind. Six degrees of separation between your brand message and your cause is not only confusing, but it counteracts the altruistic action that you’re hoping to catalyze.
  2. This one sounds so simple that it might not seem worth saying…But trust us, it’s one of the most common mistakes that youth brands make. Here goes: make it fun. That simple. Not every cause is a laughing matter, and we don’t suggest that you should make what might be serious silly. But making it fun (satisfying fun, challenging fun, nurturing fun, social fun, etc.) is as important as aligning with a cause that’s relevant. Brands often stumble when they make their cause efforts to earnest, and forget that kids, in particular, are willing to do good, but will be more likely to do so when they get something for their efforts. Sound too self-centered? Keep in mind that getting in the habit of doing good can be hard – especially when it’s accompanied by self-sacrifice. While some kids might be motivated to make this effort on their own, we think there’s nothing wrong with making kids think that giving back is easy/intuitive/energizing and interesting…and for brands who genuinely want to help, creating a generation of youth who thinks that altruism is a breeze might be the best service of all.
  3. Finally, make it easy. For this one, see above. But importantly, when designing your cause efforts, keep in mind that practical barriers often stand in the way of kids, tweens and teens practicing what they preach. Sure, it’s nice to think that every tween can take a trip to a homeless shelter. But remember, they’re years away from being behind the wheel. They might want to donate, but don’t have the means. And even cause-marketing mainstays – collect labels, lids or box tops – require quite a lot of cooperation from mom or dad. Fortunately for the modern-day cause marketer, youth can connect with their friends over causes online. So make sure your efforts are accessible–Partner with online piggy banks (that allow kids to choose to use their allowance to spend, save or give), like Three Jars or Guluck. Get connected with one of the orgs mentioned above who link like-minded brands with motivated youth. And ask your audience what their obstacles are before asking them to do something out of their reach.

Tags: Education, youth research, kids tweens teens, culture, MTV

Skins: Are We Afraid of Authenticity?

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jan 27, 2011 @ 03:21 PM

Last week, MTV’s teen soap, Skins, garnered attention from bloggers and media outlets based on rumors that its producers may have violated child pornography laws by shooting its underage actors in inappropriate scenes. As we, like most everyone who has opined on this topic, haven’t seen the footage and don’t have expertise on this issue, we’re going to leave this issue alone…

But not surprisingly, the collective conversation on Skins quickly turned away from this legal issue towards a theme we’ve heard before: teen TV has gone too far. As I read and watched commentary, I couldn’t help but develop a sneaking suspicion that most of those who claimed that Skins had crossed the line hadn’t actually seen the show. Many of the most passionate blog comments came after the caveat, “I haven’t seen the show, but…” Seemingly under-informed commentators professed that Skins was “smut” (as one morning hostess noted), and that its producers should be “rounded up” (as one TV editorialist professed). The narrative surrounding Skins seemed to trump any conversation about the story of the show itself.skins logo

All of these critiques made me wonder, “will teens even like this show?” Our data shows that most teens have taste when it comes to TV. They get blamed for Jersey Shore, but more of them tune in to House. They watch Lost, but pass on The Bachelorette. They give Gossip Girl a chance, but they really go for Glee.

But after watching Skins, we think teens might continue to tune in. Here are a few things we heard about the show, and here’s what we saw:

  1. All they do is have sex! Skins shows a lot of kissing, and a little provocative dancing, but we’ve seen that before. And there is a lot of talking about sex - and it’s crass, raw and not so eloquent. It’s an adolescent version of fart jokes and potty humor. But it sounds pretty true to how teens talk about sex – more testing their knowledge than putting words into action.
  2. They make it seem like everyone is having sex and doing drugs…Actually, in episode one, the show’s suave star, Tony tries to persuade Stanley to lose his virginity before he turns 18. And – SPOILER ALERT – by the end of the episode, Stanley takes a pass. Stanley does buy drugs for a party but he’s hardly a seasoned pro. Far from being confident and cool, he’s terrified by the bizarre and decidedly unglamorous drug dealer who he meets (in the suburbs, no less). He’s so frazzled that he buys way more than he intended and leaves more shaken than self-satisfied.
  3. They’re acting as though all teens act like this. Actually, in this first episode, the show’s central characters explicitly differentiate themselves from the “rich” kids who don’t do drugs, and seem to live in a whole different world. Within their group, each character has a very different relationship to sex and drugs. And their appeal might be, in part, that they seem to be outsiders. Tony does have the chameleon-like ability to gain entrée into the prep school world, but he finds he doesn’t quite fit in when he shows up to a prep school party with his rag-tag group of pals.  
  4. These characters have no redeeming value. Yes, Skins is more about socializing than the SATs. But the characters are far from shallow or one-dimensional. They’re rebellious and cool, but also vulnerable and confused. And mostly, they seem to be seeking the kind of love and stability that the adults in their lives aren’t providing (parents and teachers are frequently shown as “on the verge” – fueled by out of control rage or neediness),  

Maybe the most subversive thing about Skins is that it feels real. We see the angst that we know teens experience. We see the moral dilemmas they wrestle with, and we witness how teens make decisions – sometimes the right ones and often the wrong ones. We see a world that doesn’t exactly mirror that of Skins’  teen viewers, but one that contains the elements that they can recognize and relate to (likely because the writers tapped into a poised panel of teen experts in the development of the show to make sure they got the language and the nuances just right). Real authenticity is sometimes harder to accept than reality TV.

Whether teens feel that Skins gets it right or not, it seems to us that this is the kind of TV that’s worth considering before dismissing. Adults might prefer shows that show teens a more aspirational view of their lives (one in which a song cures all ills and risks are easily avoided). But we think teens deserve entertainment that makes them think, reflect and even laugh at an approximation of reality on their own terms.

Tags: parents, Teens, gender, TV, culture, school, MTV, Skins

What’s the Most Compelling Superhero Power? A Little Listening…

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Oct 11, 2010 @ 01:30 PM

For the past few weeks, director Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) latest opus, Waiting for Superman, has stirred up sentiment regarding the quality of U.S. education today. Widely available clips from the movie feature shockingly raw and honest (although admittedly, this candor is characteristic of Rhee) assertions from national education figures like Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools for Washington D.C., that kids in her schools are getting a “crappy” education. Guggenheim drives his point home with rankings (meant to trip a very American competitive trigger) which places the U.S. behind too many other nations in regards to math and science.

But these numbers are nothing new. And Guggenheim’s praising of charter schools and vilification of teacher tenure have led educators, administrators, union leaders and educational activists to balk at what they call an “incomplete” picture of the story behind education.

So what has made this underground film strike a nerve? Admittedly, it’s a bit less underground than another film that focuses on education, Road to Nowhere, directed by Vicki Abeles (it’s hard to stay under the radar once you’ve won an Oscar).  But more than Guggenheim’s prior successes, what most people talk about when they talk up this film is the kids. In debates over educational opportunity and access, and in speeches about what should be done to prepare our nation’s children for economic participation or to set them up to master the adult curriculum, it’s hard to hear what real kids think. This simple act of assuming that kids have the agency to tell their own stories has made all the difference in this documentary.Waiting for Superman

As we watch the lottery for a place in charter schools, and we see the potential students of these schools clutching their number, we’re moved by the idea that this scenario resembles a pro-sports draft – but only the stakes are higher and the participants embody more anxiety than bravado. But the most captivating moments involve a child speaking to camera, telling us why they want to learn.

This strategy has legs outside the documentary space. If you’re the president, in need of a little boost, call a town meeting among youth. Let them talk…Because when they talk, our words and ideas look and sound a bit better.

As market researchers, most of us have already learned this lesson. To prove a point, let kids speak it. To convey an idea or insight, show that kids are on to it. But the latest in political statements capitalizing on conversations with kids remind us that an authentic kids’ voice should serve as the starting point, not a last resort, for all our great ideas.

Witnessed the power of real youth voices rallying your team, stakeholders or consumers? Let us know...We're listening!

Tags: Education, movie, Youth, TV, MTV, Superman

The Real World

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 @ 01:27 PM

It might seem that we’re a bit enamored with MTV right now. And that might be accurate.

Not the Jersey Shore variety – this Jersey girl can’t bear to watch her beloved Garden State reduced to an unseemly stereotype (or perhaps it’s just that it’s not all that interesting?). But if we could have created any show on TV right now, it would probably be MTV’s If You really Knew Me. And file “Challenge Day,” the organization at the center of this show, under brilliant ideas we wish were ours.If You Really Knew Me

The challenge that’s central to the show is, “Can one day change a high school?” Through the camera, we meet five key characters and hear their stories. These self-aware teens begin by revealing, in a pretty profound introduction to the half hour show, how they are “known.” Nerd, jock, even stoner – these are a few of the labels that teens (girls and boys) use to describe themselves. And then we get to know their real stories.

MTV has taken on bullying as its issue of the moment. And while our recent data shows that today’s youth don’t site bullying or aggression or violence as one of their top concerns (in fact, it falls quite close to the bottom of the many things on their minds), we know that the emotional lives of teens are, as perhaps they always have been, fragile. Beyond offenses that teens commit on each other, these teens remind us that the complexity of the human experience starts young. Many of the “characters” on the show have already experienced hurt, pain and loss that rivals most adults. And this is what they bring to the school cafeteria with them every day.

Challenge Day looks a bit more like group therapy. We see teens exposed, but in a way that feels raw and real versus contrived and camera-aware. It certainly doesn’t feel for show when a teen boy tells of a father who cut off his relationship with him for no reason. Or a black teen – who identifies himself as the only black student in the school – admits that the racially charged jokes that his teammates on the basketball team often make, are not something he feels comfortable with afterall.

To call this entertaining is a bit of a stretch. As a mom (albeit of a very pre-pre-pre-adolescent), it’s heartbreaking. As someone who has dedicated her recent past to research with kids, tweens and teens, it’s both validating and eye-opening. It’s a reminder of the vulnerability that often lives behind the most seemingly confident teen. It’s a push to see our “subjects” as having a history that lives long before they enter the focus group facility. And it’s eye-opening to see how open these sometimes cynical teens are to the kind of reflection that we might assume requires a maturity beyond their years.

Perhaps what’s most interesting is that while we look to research to help us understand the teen psyche, we might have some examples that – while being edited and produced – start to show us a different, deeper side of today’s adolescent. And it challenges us to question our own simple frameworks and definitions of what this group is – or who they really are.

Tags: kids, If You Really Knew Me, Teens, reality tv, TV, tweens, MTV

MTV Talent: Against Type

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Sep 14, 2010 @ 04:04 PM

On Sunday night’s VMAs, the cheerleader got deep, the bad boy said “sorry” (kind of) and the kids on the fringe dubbed themselves the “cool kids” at the party – and everyone else seemed to agree.

The MTV VMAs have never been predictable. But the “anything goes” mystique around this event (which first aired in 1984 with Madonna as its star performer) has always represented the iconoclastic image of its host brand. In more recent years, its stage has become a platform for bad behavior. A star whose shine has subdued? Kiss someone – anyone – but preferably the most shocking person you can find (see Madonna). Feeling a bit frisky? Fight a puppet – go ahead (see Eminem). And if you think somebody got robbed of the Moon Man? Say what you think. On stage. In the middle of her speech (Kanyegate).

But on Sunday night, the VMAs were a kinder, gentler event – even as they were hosted by the biting, brutal Chelsea Handler.

If this had been the “ordinary” VMAs, we might have seen a celebrity death match between Swift and West. Eminem would have taken a day off from Lady Gagaredemption and gotten riled up. Sexuality would be challenged and played with – not taken seriously. And someone would wear an outfit wholey comprised of raw meat.

Well, that last one happened (see Lady GaGa).

But so did this…Taylor Swift took the high road, and instead of fueling the flames, she walked right into the fire. She showed a clip of the infamous incident from VMAs 2009, but quickly moved to her teenage diary entry, “An Innocent.” The lyrics, “you are not what you did” seemed to be directed to a certain someone in the audience…And while they resisted pairing up for an inauthentic duet, they did attempt to put the whole thing to rest, once and for all.

For his part, Kanye apologized all week via Twitter, and sought forgiveness again via his performance of “Runaway.” He did lace his apology with a pretty extreme number of expletives, but if he didn’t, would we doubt his sincerity.

Cher showed up. In the same outfit she wore back in her 1989 video “If I Could Turn Back Time.”

But perhaps GaGa was the thing that looked most different. It’s not that the VMAs haven’t had their fair share of spectacles (see Cher). And she delivered on the eye-candy front. The number of costumes she wore was just over the number of VMAs she received (that’s 8 for the record). But she also took the time, over and over again to give a shout out to her “Little Monsters.” As Mary Elizabeth Williams from Salon.com wrote, “[She] loves her Little Monsters so much they may want to start screening her calls.” With a belting out of her mantra, “we were born this way,” Lady Gaga rallied her followers with love and acceptance, not anger and aggression. She brought the military to guard her – but she brought the soldiers expelled from the military because of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” On stage, alongside the cast of Glee!, it seemed clear that a different kind of queen had come home.  

But this isn’t the MTV of the old VMAs. This is a brand that followed the awards show with World of Jenks – a 30 Days-style documentary series in which the documentarian named in the title explores the lived experiences of people who live outside of most teens’ comfort zones (an autistic teen, for example). Its show, If You Really Knew Me, strives to bash stereotypes about everyone from gang members to gay teens. Can a brand be rebellious, romantic and relevant at the same time? For today’s teens, it seems to be a model to watch.

Tags: Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Cher, Taylor Swift, VMA, TV, MTV, Eminem, Madona

The Unexpected Appeal of Lady Gaga

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jun 23, 2010 @ 09:51 AM
In full disclosure, Lady Gaga got on our radar quite a while ago - right around the time that MTV's The Hills intro'd her as an emerging artist who Lauren Conrad had the chance to style. And we have to admit that we wouldn't have predicted this star's meteoric rise. Even moreso, we would never have anticipated that she would make the grade with kids and tweens specifically.

But Lady Gaga is nothing if not surprising. Her outfits make as much noise as her singing (and we mean noise in the nicest of ways). Her performances defy expectations - and gravity! And her androgynous look defies categorization.Lady Gaga

But maybe we should have known. When we look at Lady Gaga, we see many of the elements that define this generation's heroes...

  1. She's different. We don't just mean unique - we mean different. And while this might be what we think of as the kiss of death for "fitting-in-conscious" kids, she seems to do "different" in an aspirational way. She knows she's different, but isn't trying too hard to be. And her brand of standing out appears to come from a genuine creative spark versus a marketing machine. She frequently speaks of "thinking like an artist," and claims glam rockers like David Bowie and Queen are kindred spirits.

    Lady Gaga doesn't discuss her sexuality, but she openly embraces the LGBT community as her own. In the past, this might have been enough of a taboo to make them stay away. But for this generation, embracing a broader definition of "normal" is part of their DNA. And for tweens and teens, in particular, seeing someone who feels comfortable in their own skin despite standing out in so many ways inspires - not intimidates - them.

  2. She cares. Perhaps what makes her so appealing is that she not only stands out, but she makes others feel like she empathizes. She supports causes that she cares about - and has teamed up with Virgin Mobil to support homeless youth (based on her knowledge that 40% of homeless youth identify as GLBT). Gaga recently paired up with another stand out songstress, Cyndi Lauper, to raise the profile of the Viva Glam line of cosmetics from M.A.C. - who gives "every cent" of the proceeds to the M.A.C. AIDS Fund. With today's kids, tweens and teens growing up under the assumption that their brands will behave when it comes to pro-social activity (from being green, to being kind to animals to donating to important causes), Lady Gaga's inclination towards altruism contributes to her appeal among the youngest set.

  3. And finally, she's grateful. How refreshing! While much of her work speaks to struggles surrounding fame, she seems to handle most of the side effects of celebrity with grace. When Christina Aguilera dismissed comparisons to Gaga by saying she didn't know who she was, Gaga told the press that she was honored to be compared to Aguilera and should "send her flowers" since Aguilera's comments raised her public profile! Amidst a sea of stars who seem to behave badly and have lost their way, Gaga (barring the occasional pantless appearance at Yankees' games) may be the most revolutionary role model to hit the scene in a long time. And kids and tweens like their stars simple and simply good. While Gaga might never be simple, she might just be the good girl that no one saw coming.

Tags: Lady Gaga, Teens, music, tweens, MTV, MAC

What Does New Research on Teen Pregnancy Really Tell Us About Teens?

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Jun 08, 2010 @ 02:39 PM
A study released this week from researchers at the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics revealed a shocking shift in teens' attitudes toward pregnancy. According to the study, which looked at data collected from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth, 1 in 5 unmarried teens reported that they would be happy if they became pregnant right now. While some people will surely read this as a sign of a society who has failed to prepare our youth morally, we think that this tells us something different about teens today.

First, the romance of parenthood is in the Zeitgeist. The celebrity magazines that many teens page through show pics of young Hollywood and their hopelessly adorable children, alongside stories about Lindsay Lohan (whose family life appears to be less than picture perfect). Ask any teen who Bronx, Suri, Zahara and Kingston are and they're likely to tell you without needing their famous last names (Simpson-Wentz, Cruise, Jolie-Pitt, and Rossdale, respectively). Is it really irresponsible for teens to admire the famous with families over celebrities spiraling out of control?

We know that this generation does not take family for granted. Rather than seeing parents as the out-of-touch enemy, most of the teens that we talk to site their parents as their heroes. They look for ways to spend more - not less - time with them. And they even agree with them on traditionally parent-child battlegrounds like music. Given this, is it any surprise that the idea of starting a family seems less like an immature risk and more like a step towards mature happiness?

Second, it reminds us that most teens cannot yet evaluate risk the way (most) adults can. This doesn't mean that they are illogical or incapable of reason - quite the contrary. It is a reminder, however, that teens are passionate - wonderfully so. They are impulsive - and they have a developmental imperative to try new things, to break away from the rules and limits that they have received from society and their parents. And these very same characteristics that propel them towards growth and authentic identity development can also put them in harm's way.

But they are also impressionable, and most teens that we talk to are willing to learn and be exposed to new ideas - if they are presented to them in a way that respects them and that refrains from judging them.

Finally, today's youth are coming of age at a time when sex education has all but disappeared from many schools. And it's no surprise that teenagers who do engage in sex (which is a number that continues to decline, as it has been for almost a decade) demonstrate less knowledge about contraception than the teens who came before them - with employment of the rhythm method (proven to be only 75% effective) on the rise (17% in the years in which this study was conducted, up from 11% in the previous period). But many experts believe that sex education must include not just a discussion of body parts, but must also involve thoughtful dialogue about relationships (both healthy and abusive ones), life goals and future planning and parenting.

Interestingly, pop culture might be less of a problem than a solution to the problem of teens taking parenthood lightly. Since this study was conducted, MTV launched its breakthrough documentary style show, 16 and Pregnant. 16 and PregnantIn a narrative format reminiscent of sister network VH1's classic, Behind the Music, each episode inevitably begins with the story of where it began: the relationship between future mother and father. But quickly, the story moves to the revelation of an unexpected pregnancy to both families and the father-to-be. And with the teen's decision to keep her child, the reality of pregnancy unfolds before us. While we see the future mom dream about who her child will be, we also see the struggles - big and small. She faces the fact that buying her fantasy prom dress and expecting a child do not go together. As predictably as we watch a music icon fall prey to the temptations of drugs and alcohol in Behind the Music, we see young love pushed to its limits by the overwhelming task of paying for diapers and struggling through sleepless nights. But while people inevitably judge the couple, MTV also gives the young mother a voice of her own. We see her as a person who didn't plan to sabotage her life, but who had a lapse in judgment that had unintended consequences.

And The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a hit with teens, includes two storylines about teen pregnancy. The show thoughtfully explores the complicated feelings that teens bring to this topic - and many others relevant to today's teens.

Only time will tell whether these shows can move the meter on teens' attitudes toward pregnancy. Perhaps their biggest contribution will be giving organizations who talk to teens about pregnancy a model to follow.


Tags: research, mom, Youth, Teens, MTV, pregnancy

Talking the Talk To Tweens and Teens

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, May 27, 2010 @ 09:25 AM
For a generation that seems to talk more than any before it, it might seem that tweens and teens don't have any trouble telling each other what's on their mind. But three brands/organizations have tapped into teens inclination to talk to elevate the dialogue around important issues that society often gives the silent treatment. Along the way, these three brands/organizations remind us that talk doesn't just make sense, but it can also make a difference.
  • In a bold move, Kotex bucked the conventions of a category that communicated in whispers, and encouraged girls to shout - about their period! Rather than positioning the brand as a secret protector, the brand gives girls the courage to confide. Instead of romanticizing menstruation, Kotex got real. But perhaps the brand's smartest move was connecting to a cause that is organic (also the name of the agency behind this compelling campaign) to the brand. By giving girls access to frank and helpful information about their periods and other aspects of women's health, Kotex might just inspire a generation of girls to gain the confidence they need to take control, and take care, of their bodies.
  • MTV's Thin Line pro-social initiative shows the brand's willingness to harness its hold on youth to inspire them to not only watch and surf, but to think and act. Through TV ads, dedicated space on their website and even documentaries about topics ranging from sexting to cyber bullying (or digital harassment), the brand engages teens in thoughtful dialogue about all forms of Internet abuse. Like Kotex, MTV speaks about the nuanced issues that really matter to teen (for example, is a significant other checking your voicemails, text messages or email messages, an early indicator of controlling - and potentially dangerous - behavior?), and they do so in a voice that doesn't reprimand or victimize, but that treats teens like agents for change.
  • Finally, nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms not only talks about a traditionally taboo topic, teen suicide, but, more importantly, lets teens talk to each other. While their message is one of hope, it comes from a voice that seems to understand the real and sometimes rough world that teens are trying to survive. The site's secret: letting teens share their stories and feel like they're really being listened to.

For anyone sending messages to kids, tweens and teens, these brands remind us to not only talk, but to actively work to change the conversation about topics that are truly life and death matters in the lives of today's youth. And they teach us that getting tweens and teens to talk back might be the most important cause of all.

Tags: research, advertisment, Youth, Teens, Kotex, To Write Love on Her Arms, tweens, MTV