Monday, October 08, 2012

The Selling of Generation I

With two teen-aged nieces, iPhone-carrying members of Generation I, I’m used to the natural way in which the “young folks” pick up any electronic device and seem to know intuitively how it works. Seen one, seen ‘em all.

Still, I was a bit surprised this summer when, at a family event, I watched my cousin’s 20 month old toddler grab her mother’s iPhone, navigate to the tunes, find “Call Me Maybe,” and (more or less) sing and dance along with it. Now the singing and dancing part of this performance was echt 20 month old – not all that tuneful, not all that smooth. But the iPhone maneuverability. Wow! The younger end of this Gen I cohort sure knows how to work it.

This gang may never experience the joy of finding change in a phone booth slot; put a penny on the stereo arm so the needle moves over your scratched Rubber Soul LP without skipping; or take pride in the accomplishment of learning how to parallel park. But, damn, they can deftly work those handy-dandy handheld devices in ways that make the rest of us look like all thumbs. (Of course, the Gen I-ers risk becoming all thumb. The better to text you with, my dear.)

But, as the WSJ reported recently, there is a downside to all the mobility. And that’s marketers using mobile apps to push over-processed snack foods, obesity-causing sodas, and sugar-laden treats to kids.

Marketing to kids is nothing new. I grew up bombarded by ads for Sugar Jets and Kool-Aid, neither of which is to be confused with a carrot stick or a bunch of grapes. Farfel the dog puppet not only entertained, he (it?) also pushed Nestles (“makes the very best”) chocolate. (Farfel was mighty cute, that’s for sure.)

But over the years, selling to kids has gotten more pervasive and more insidious. And now:

U.S. food companies are reaching children by embedding their products in simple and enticing games for touch-screen phones and tablets. The new medium is far cheaper than Saturday morning TV commercials and could prove as effective.

And, unlike Saturday morning TV and the Web, where there are pressures on advertisers, and even FCC regulations, putting the squeeze on what they can and can’t do, the gaming world is unregulated. And makers of stuff that’s bad for you:

…are now finding the unregulated medium of mobile devices an effective substitute to trigger demand and cinch brand loyalty.

And, oh yeah, kids may increasingly have their mitts on mobile devices 24/7.  Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration, but for the most part, kids aren’t watching TV or using laptops while they’re in the backseat of the car. If they’re not staring out the window – so yesterday – or watching a video, they may well be occupying themselves with smartphones and tablets. (Which 37% of 4-5 year olds – and at least one 20 month old – use, vs. only 22% who use laptops.)

J&J Snack Foods is completely upfront about targeting ads apps for kids via free games that “feature” their products – SuperPretzel and Icee drinks.

Players love racing against a timer to mix bowls of dough in "SuperPretzel Factory," which since mid-July has ranked as one of the most popular free children's games in Apple Inc.'s iPhone App Store. "Icee Maker" has been downloaded from the Apple store more than eight million times since its release last year, the app's developer said…

"Kids are our No. 1 consumer," said Susan Woods, Icee's marketing chief. "The fact that they may think about getting an Icee next time they see an Icee machine is a lot more likely if they've engaged themselves with something to do with Icee."

And parents hoping to keep their kids occupied for a few minutes are apt to forgive a few ads in exchange. Just part of the Great American Commercialization – sections of the highway “brought to us by” someone or other, streetcars and buses shrink wrapped in what we used to call billboards, that big old Polo logo on our Olympians uniforms.

One game mentioned in the article – which, fortunately, never came to fruition -  was for Dum Dums lollipops. To me, Dum Dus are perhaps the very second worst candy ever foisted on the American public – second only to horehound drops. A design firm came up with an app in which players would:

… ingest a virtual Dum Dum lollipop by licking their smartphone before a clock ran out.

Apple put the kibosh on that one, so “Dum Dums Lick-A-Pop” became “Dum Dums Flick-A-Pop.”

Although I’d certainly rather flick than lick a Dum Dum, this particular time-waster has no appeal to me. But 1.5 million Dum Dummies have:

…spent the equivalent of more than 112 years swiping through the company's virtual lollipops. About a third of the traffic is coming from iPod Touches, which are popular with children.

No word on whether more Dum Dums are being sold, but at a cost of $10K in app development, this is a pretty effective way to reach an audience.

But pretty said to see so much yucky stuff marketed to the kiddoes, no?

I realize parents can just say “no” – my parents were certainly passed masters of it – but why make their lives that much harder by having them have to spend all those cycles explaining why Super Pretzels, Icee drinks, and Dum Dums aren’t necessarily as advertised.

Meanwhile, if you have a tablet toddler, you may want to take a look at Craig Sender’s new blog, Tablet Toddlers. Craig, who’s the father of a couple of Gen I’s, is keeping his eye out for what’s up and what’s new with mobile apps for kids.

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