Wednesday, February 29, 2012

5 Reasons Why Classic Toys Should Stay Classic

I'm intrigued with this recent New York Times article: Go Directly, Digitally to Jail? Classic Toys Learn New Clicks. On one hand, it's another one of those 'yup, not surprised'-type articles, like the recent My iPad, My Babysitter study results via Mashable, or Screen Time Higher Than Ever for Children, Study Finds, also via The New York Times, or Always-Online Future Good for Our Kids? via The Globe and Mail.

We know, we know. Speaking from experience, not a day goes by where my own children aren't clamoring for my iPhone or whining to watch YouTube videos or play games on my computer, which is precisely why I'm not buying and iPad or upping their screen time allotment anytime soon. Our house is buzzing too much already! Now. Don't get me wrong. Apps are great. I love kids apps! Some of my most favorite clients are children's apps. But... app-propriately... there is a time and a place and for us that means not ALL the time.
Will I buy the new digital camera/Barbie for my daughter or the Match Box app for my son? Absolutely not. Do we still love classic Barbie and collect toy cars? Of course! Still, I have to say that Barbie and other classic toys like Match Box are treading into dangerous territory. Just because a brand can leap into high tech and take on some clever new features, does not mean it should. Here are 5 good reasons why.

1. There’s a reason why they call then classic toys. Classic toys are "classic" precisely because they stand the test of time. The playability is consistent, the barriers to entry are low, the product is durable, and the toy can be enjoyed via multiple generations. That’s the reason why “evergreen” brands have longevity. They aren't fads. People buy these products year after year. If you are a children's toy manufacturer and you are lucky enough to have a toy that is considered a classic, why would you want to mess with a good thing?

2. Bells & whistles aren’t necessarily better. Just because you are “upgrading” your product doesn’t mean consumers will see it that way. In fact, added features can really detract from a brand's core purpose. Remember "new" Coke? It was a branding disaster. Think about all of the classic products you've enjoyed over the years that suddenly altered their features in a "new and improved" way that were a huge turnoff to you as a loyal customer. And what did you do? You switched brands.

3. People are getting tired of technology. Not in the broad sense, of course. High tech is a hugely important part of our lives and the economy. But not everything needs to be or should be technologically-enhanced. There are plenty of us who type away on our computers and smart phones all day and can't wait 'til we can get to a place where we can turn it all off and snuggle up with a good paperback book. Kids are the same way. They need a break from the constant high-tech distractions in our lives and it's our job as parents to ensure they have some down time. And what better way to experience some quality down time than with a trusted classic toy that doesn't come with any annoying bells or whistles?

4. It dilutes the brand integrity. Say what you want about Barbie. She’s not a good role model, she creates body image issues for young girls, whatever. These things are not new. But when "new" Barbie now comes with a built in digital camera she loses her core identity, which is a terrible thing for a toy. I say Mattel is missing out on the real point of Barbie, which is that she teaches girls about self-expression and identity. Barbie can be a doctor, Barbie can be a teacher. Barbie can be a race car driver. Barbie can be the next Queen of England. But should Barbie have a battery pack? No! It's a totally different archetype and puts her in the category of toys that click and whir and magically "do stuff," which is all fine and good, but the fact of the matter, it has nothing to do with what Barbie is all about. Case in point: the uber successful American Girl dolls. Although the brands are very different and they market to alternative niche audiences, Barbie and American Girl actually have the same archetype. Both brands are about self-expression and identity. There are about a million different and wonderful ways to go in terms of types of dolls, themes and accessories, but I’m willing to bet real money that you will never, ever see an American Girl doll that requires a technological download. It would ruin - I repeat- ruin, the American Girl brand.

5. Classic toys are cool. Anyone who cherishes the Melissa & Doug brand of wholesome no-tech toys, the simple, yet highly interactive Alex kits, watched their kids spend hours creating Lego masterpieces or role play with dolls will tell you that it's the classic toys that kids cherish most. These are the toys that they go back to again and again. The ones that mom or dad save for the next generation. The ones they are willing to spend a little extra money on because of the quality and durability, and not for the latest download.

How about you? What are your favorite classic toys?

Friday, October 28, 2011

My kids are watching TV so I can write this blog post

We must all be obsessed with children's media.

Seriously. It feels like not a day goes by without a headline touting the ill-effects of kids' media use and screen time. And that's just for this week.

More Kids Sleep With TV, Study Finds (Wall Street Journal)

Screen Time Higher Than Ever (New York Times)

Infants and iPads? It’s Not As Farfetched As You Might Think! (ABC News)

Kids Increasingly Staring at Glowing Screens, Study Finds (PBS NewsHour)

Trying to gauge the impact of growing up digital (Boston Globe)

Common Sense Media released a report this week, and the results are not surprising: Kids ages 0 - 8 spend an average of 1.44 hours watching TV or videos in a typical day. Forty-seven percent of babies (gasp!) watch TV too; up to two hours a day. And...(double, draw dropping gasp!!) kids have TVs in their bedrooms.

And here I sit, writing about all of this as my kids sit in front of the Disney Channel so I can write this blog post.

I'm not so shocked by the results of the study or the news media coverage, but by our collective obsession as a culture. Are we in denial? Clearly, the TVs and iPads and mobile devices are ON. And despite YEARS and YEARS of negative coverage when it comes to the ill effects of children's media consumption, we're not slowing down. Maybe it's the American Way. More, not less! Why should someone tell me what, where and when my kids can watch?

Meanwhile, apps abound. Good apps, too. And really excellent educational TV. It's all part of living in the modern age... or is it?


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pop! Goes the Brilliant Marketing Strategy: Teen Vogue Gets it Right

As any teen fashionista knows, shopping malls are SO yesterday. To get a head start on the hottest trends, fashion-savvy teens are browsing online boutiques, Googling their favorite designers and devouring images from the hippest fashion blogs. And then there's Fashion Week.

Which is why Teen Vogue is so smart to drop their pop-up mall store strategy and move to Lincoln Square where the real action is about to begin. As Ad Age reports, Teen Vogue's "Haute Spot" will be open from Sept. 8 through Sept. 15, including makeovers sponsored by Maybelline, book signings, IMG Worldwide casting agents, fashion bloggers and editors, and "screenings" where visitors can view runway show videos.

Okay, so it's not like anyone is going to actually get a front-row seat at Fashion Week, but it's pretty darn close to the action, and a brilliant marketing promotion. Here's how Teen Vogue gets it right:

1. Fashion focus. Teen Vogue isn't another run-of-the-mill teen magazine. It's the sister publication of Vogue and that means fashion, fashion, fashion.

2. Awareness of core audience trends. The trendiest, savviest, most fashion-forward youth aren't shopping at the mall. Or maybe they are... but they no longer want to admit that. Downtown New York City in the middle of Fashion Week is way, way cooler.

3. Perfect partnerships. While Maybelline is not exactly high fashion, it's price point and accessibility is perfect for teens. Paired with makeovers, style experts and runway videos, the package is sure to draw visitors in.

4. Image is everything. Did someone say casting agents?? Attracting a bunch of gorgeous would-be models is sure to draw in... more gorgeous would-be models. Not to mention anyone who wants to be seen standing next to a gorgeous would-be model.

5. Brand synergy. The entire promotion not only promotes the magazine Teen Vogue and its partners, but everything the brand stands for. Fashion, high style, and savvy insider tips. Oh yeah, and high magazine sales, too.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Scholastic Ceases In-School Corporate Propaganda Program

Way to go Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood! After more than 55,000 people signed a petition through last May, Scholastic has just announced that it will limit its “InSchool Marketing” program so that school kids are less subjected to corporate marketing propaganda via their classroom materials.

The black mark on Scholastic’s image began with coal, a lesson packet paid for by the American Coal Foundation, which contained all kinds of information about benefits of coal - but none of the nasty stuff like toxic waste and greenhouse gases. Oops.

So now Scholastic is on the retreat. According to an article in this week’s New York Times, “in addition to the coal curriculum, Scholastic distributed a program stressing the environmental wrongs of plastic water bottles, sponsored by Brita, which sells water filters. It also had a $3 million Microsoft campaign in which schools could earn points toward prizes for each Microsoft search, as well as a program featuring Playmobil’s small plastic figures. Those programs have ended, according to Kyle Good, a Scholastic spokeswoman — and last week, after a reporter inquired about them, all traces of them were removed from the Scholastic Web site, as other programs, sponsored by Disney, NestlĂ© and Shell, already had been.”

Cool! Gotta love what can happen when parents speak out. As for me, I'm not really sure why corporate marketing has any place in school curriculum in the first place, but maybe that's just me.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rethinking kids, COPPA and online safety

Do you let your kids use Facebook? MySpace? Club Penguin? Webkinz? How about Imbee, KidsWorld, Togetherville, Everloop or Yoursphere?

Maybe you haven’t even heard of some of these sites. Which is too bad, since most are terrific and offer wonderful, safe online experiences for young children. Believe it or not, the tween space online is extremely competitive and has been for a long time. It’s also extremely difficult to create a sustainable business model. But not everyone knows that. On more than a few occasions, I’ve received calls from the CEOs of promising new startups, business plan and beta website in hand, claiming “we’re going to be the next Facebook for kids under age 13!”

The question we should all be asking ourselves is: do parents – or kids for that matter – even need or want a “Facebook for kids?” Isn't it just easier to lie about your kid's age? But wait - what kind of message does that send?

This recent NPR article, Social Networks: Thinking of the Children, got me thinking. The conversations still very much focuses on online safety. But is that even the main decision factor for parents?

When COPPA was enacted back in 1998, I was running a website for tweens called Online safety was a big deal for us and we worked closely with the FTC and CARU in getting it right. Chats were monitored. Ads were labeled. We had each and every parent fax in a signed registration form before we'd allow their kids to interact on the site. Yup, pretty labor intensive. Maybe that's why the site isn't around anymore.

We wrote to the FTC in 1999: “Our business is based on the highest possible safety and privacy standards that have become our competitive advantage in drawing kids into the FreeZone community. We are eager for technology to catch up to our standards, so we can implement more convenient and cost-effective ways to gain parental consent.”

Today online safety PSAs abound. It seems like there isn't a day or an hour that goes by without a well-informed article about online safety, cyberbullying, sexting,"Facebook depression," predators and the like. The general public is more aware. Yet COPPA hasn't changed since 1998. It's clunky and it forces tween sites to stay within antiquated boundary lines, creating a permissions process that is a pain in the ass for both parents and website developers. Meanwhile, Facebook is allowed to keep paving the way into the 21st century simply by stating that their site is open to anyone over 13 years of age. Leaving parents two choices:

1. Lie about my child's age and let them go on Facebook, where I will keep tabs on what they are doing.


2. Let them play around on one of the tween sites listed above, safely, of course - which means active, parental involvement.


Actually, there's a third choice: Skip any sort of online social networking until the child turns 13.

Crazy? That's what I'm going to do. Easy for me to say. I've got an 8 year-old and a 4 year old (neither of whom has expressed any interest in Facebook let alone any other social networking site) so ask me in a few years. Maybe this whole dilemma will be solved by then.