November 25, 2005 Los Angeles Times
The Preteen Tech Consultants
They can't drive or vote, but 8- to 12-year-olds are holding sway in the home when it comes to choosing devices.
By Terril Yue Jones, Times Staff Writer
When it comes to technology, Arden Arnold is the go-to guy in his house.
(Myung J. Chun / LAT)
Arden is just 12 years old. But the influence the San Francisco sixth-grader wields makes marketers take notice.
Technology and consumer electronics companies increasingly are crafting messages aimed at kids to pitch such big-ticket gadgetry as flat-panel televisions, personal computers or high-end stereos.
Kids can't afford much of the gear themselves, but the tech industry is wising up to what cereal makers, resort operators and even carmakers have long known: Even young children have an outsize say in how Mom and Dad spend their money.
With tech products, kids hold even more power because they may be the only ones in the house who understand how things work.
"Kids are really the chief technology officers of their households," said Jim Malcolm, senior marketing manager at Sony Electronics Inc. "They're the ones who have the answers and make the recommendations."
That's the case in the Eagle Rock home of Katrina Dela Cruz. The 11-year-old sixth-grader and her older brother make most of the tech decisions for the family. For starters, Katrina wants a personal computer "with Windows XP and a CD burner" so she can edit photos and create slideshows. She also has her eye on an iPod. And she's bugging her parents to buy a big-screen plasma TV.
What Katrina and her brother want holds considerable sway because her parents acknowledge that they are pretty clueless about technology.
"I didn't know anything about them or how they work," said Katrina's mother, Fevelyn.
By contrast, said youth marketer Greg Livingston, " 'Tweens' have grown up with technology; in sixth grade they're doing PowerPoint presentations. They're fearless about pushing the wrong buttons. In five minutes they'll know how to do more on your phone than you do."
Microsoft, Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co. have advertised to kids for years to promote their video game consoles. Recently, more button-down tech companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. also have turned their attention to so- called tweens, kids at ages 8 to 12.
By some estimates, tweens influence $60 billion in spending annually.
It's not clear how much tech companies spend to reach young kids, but Dell's former youthful pitchman "Steven" — known for his enthusiastic, "Dude, you're getting a Dell" — aimed squarely for younger audiences. Sony tried to appeal to 11- and 12-year-olds with a campaign for its iPod rival Walkman Bean on MTV. For its part, HP executives spent part of this year brainstorming how to make the company's staid printers and PCs more appealing to kids.
"We think about not only future customers but future employees," said Shirley Bunger, HP's director of brand innovation. "If we don't understand what they're doing now and if we don't' start developing products and services, by the time they're old enough to be employed or spend a lot on technology, we may not have the right solutions."
Getting the message across is made more difficult by some of the very technology that manufacturers want to plug. Gone are the days when an ad during Saturday morning cartoons would do the trick. Kids today split their free time among TV, video games, cellphones and the Web.
"The way to reach preteens is getting more complicated," said George Harrison, Nintendo of America's senior vice president for marketing. "We used to do TV; now we do a lot online."
Plus, kids of all ages are more savvy to advertising. So campaigns are more subtle and diffuse.
Nintendo, for instance, sells cellphone ring tones of the original Mario Brothers theme song. The Japanese game maker also sponsors an annual Fusion Tour, which has featured such bands as Fallout Boy, Story of the Year and Evanescence.
Not everyone thinks that hawking $1,500 computers or $5,000 televisions to grade schoolers is healthy for children.
"I find the concept of marketing to kids in order to influence their parents problematic because it creates dissension in families," said Juliet Schor, chairwoman of the Sociology Department at Boston College and author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture," a book critical of corporate marketing to children. "It's driving a wedge between parents and kids."
Suzanne Humphrey encourages her 9-year-old son, Nilsen, to use the Web safely. But "he can't go online without seeing tons of ads like, 'You've won a free Tamagotchi,' or cellphone, or MP3 player," the Novato, Calif., mom said. "He sometimes believes it."
But marketers understand the power of brand loyalty — and of establishing it early.
"Tweens are learning brands earlier, and if companies are looking to breed familiarity, they need to start earlier," said Jane Buckingham, president of the Intelligence Group, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in youth trends. "They're certainly aware of what's cool."
Perry Osgood is. The Claremont seventh-grader got an iPod shuffle, made by Apple Computer Inc., when it was released early this year. But he already wants a newer, more expensive iPod nano.
"Technology gadgets are important," he said. "Without our gadgets, like music and TV, you can be bored to death."
Perry has a cellphone too, and it didn't take him long to figure out how to use it to take videos and photos and do goofy editing like adding Zorro masks and Arnold Schwarzenegger biceps to snapshots of friends.
"He's learned more about it in two months than I have in seven years of using the things," said his mother, Nancy.
Apple doesn't target younger children with its advertising. It aims instead at older teens and college students, using appearances by such music acts as U2 and Eminem. "If you want to advertise to a tween, you're going to show a teen, not an 8-year-old," Buckingham said. "It's the shrinking of the tweens age. Ten-year-olds are acting more like 12-year-olds than they used to."
Youth marketers call that "kids getting older younger." Children grow out of toys at an earlier age and gravitate toward more grown-up diversions, influenced by TV, popular music and movies.
"If I'm going to launch a product to teens and tweens, I need to build awareness, and brand awareness really kicks in at age 7," said Malcolm Bird, senior vice president for kids and teens at Time Warner Inc.'s America Online.
Nilsen, the Novato fourth-grader, persuaded his parents to buy Sony PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Game Cube game consoles. Now, he said, "it's really hard to choose between a PlayStation Portable and Lego Mindstorms robots. They're really cool." The PlayStation Portable sells for $250; Mindstorms can cost $200. Lest there's any doubt of what he has his eyes on, Nilsen maintains a wish list of 674 items at http://www.lego.com— ; which he can e-mail to his parents with a few keystrokes.
Not that it's easy to connect with tweens.
And that could open up doors to more customers
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