Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Fairest of the Mall

Since the '70s — when kids back then, like me, were to be "seen and not heard" — man have things changed.

Recently, on a luxury automotive account with which I'm highly familiar, I witnessed first-hand that kids' opinions really do influence their parents’ purchase of a $70,000 automobile. Yep, I wrote "luxury auto," not cereal or peanut butter or school supplies. This fact is as nauseating as it is indicative of something much larger and even more dyspeptic.

The marketing plan was not built to position the car as a “family vehicle,” which is a perfectly valid way to present a machine that carts around your offspring (and while you sleep, is driven by them without your knowledge, even though they’re 14).

No, this was marketing to the kids themselves. The 13 year-old set mandates to be treated to the “cool factor” — ostensibly so that a “trickle-up” theory of influence will guarantee a successful sale.

Does this disturb anyone but me? Does this mean that the nation’s well-off are so brain-dead they must look to their know-nothing kids to push the “okay” button on a purchase representing a quarter of their discretionary income?

Watching ads anymore is akin to seeing that old Star Trek episode where children controlled a distant planet and the adults were laughing-stocks. (Actually, the grown-ups ["grups"] had perished from a plague decades before the Trek crew landed, the result of a life prolongation experiment which also made it so the children only aged an hour every hundred years.)

For example, a Lexus spot from last winter went like this: we open on the fa├žade of a classic Northeastern private elementary school being hit hard by a snowstorm. The principal informs the kids over the P.A. that class is cancelled due to inclement weather, just moments before the teacher pleads with the cheering section to settle down. “It’s going to be a while before your parents can get through,” she warns the viewers (er, children).

Oh, but not that Lexus mid-size SUV. Its intrepid form slices through the snow drifts and pulls up confidently to the front of the school building.

Now up to this point, this spot hardly differs from any other seasonal auto claim (one which I’ve made in my work seemingly hundreds of times). It’s what occurs next that transparently reveals the strategy’s ass:

The little boy and girl traipse through the snow and climb in to the waiting SUV, as the boy rolls down his window to sneer smugly at his classmates, whose parents evidently have inferior vehicles. The pupils stare back with great sadness as the boy visibly chuckles, making it known he’s the coolest kid in school because his parents got there first.

Now, we never see the parent driving during the spot. In fact, the only adult we see during the entire ad is the teacher, long the hated adversary of kids everywhere.

It's obvious to the attentive viewer that this spot isn’t aimed at parents; it's targeting kids who tell their parents what to do, which millions of dollars spent on market research must've proven at some point or we'd never see the evidence. What’s more sad is that parents not only listen to this pre-pubescent advice, they actually seek it.

Has the bloated, lazy American culture gotten so stupid that we’re left to look to our own kids for clairvoyance before purchasing big-ticket items? Or are we so obsessed with them — their standing among friends and classmates, their opinions toward us, their misguided sense of control over adult issues, and our own self-esteems’ intrinsic dependence on theirs — that brands are spending millions of dollars to advertise to people who aren’t even legally permitted to buy the product?

Either way we’re really, thoroughly, sadly messed up in this country.

When I was a kid, I got marketed to by shoe companies and soda manufacturers. And that was fine. I’d mow enough lawns to buy a new pair of handlebars or a Rush record, and that was that.

But if I even opened my mouth to tell my dad he should or shouldn’t buy a particular car, for whatever reason, there wouldn’t have been any teeth left inside by the time I closed it.

It’s obvious that children now run the family in America. The genius of The Simpsons sheds light on this fact in a unique way. Lisa is by far the smartest, most mature member of the family, while Homer acts like the impetuous child. In this case, the youngster assumes the adult role and would therefore be the appropriate receiver of marketing messages. But The Simpsons is fiction, a discourse on American culture that takes failures to the extreme for comedic purposes.

To me, that’s hilarious; unfortunately, nothing’s funny about the modern American parent letting kids wear the pants in the family. Of course, about 15 years ago, if you were seen spanking your kids, it might have resulted in some neighborhood talk. Today it’ll land you in jail. Children, as they are wont to do, seized upon this opportunity with military efficiency. Those kids are now parents themselves, heads-of-household with no idea how to say ‘no’ to an entire generation of youths who can’t find Iowa on a map.

Yet these dolts take the word of their children before buying a car that 97% of this country can’t afford. Hmmm.

Before MTV, marketing to minors came in the form of those famous (if not misleading) ads for X-Ray Specs; the one-inch square illustrations asking kids to collect 2,000 Bazooka Joe gum wrappers for a squirt gun; and an entire page of confusing six-point type recruiting the Grit Newspaper salesforce. Obviously, such initiatives were holdovers from the late '60s. Through the advancement of technology and the proliferation of mass media, kids just became too savvy for such “aw-shucks” kinda stuff.

Enter Music Television — coincidentally, right about the same time that the ‘80s of Ronald Reagan rendered itself the Me Generation. Parents worked more than ever, and latchkey-ism skyrocketed. Kids were often left to their own decisions and devices, which were buoyed by effortless allowances and discipline-free homes bestowed upon them by parents compensating for not being there (or for splitting up their marriages, another steep trend of the era).

The result: marketing to the youth audience (particularly the one we now call “Tweens”) boomed. We began reading about the hysteria of murders committed by teens for pairs of Air Jordans, as well as reports of parents fist-fighting in record stores at Christmas over the last copy of Like A Virgin.

The sea-change was impossible to stop. Culture, marketing, and technology (the very soul of the “Life imitating art/Art imitating life” argument) converged upon unwary parents raising kids with nothing but a remote control and a $10 bill next to a hastily written “Luv yoo hunnee” note on the kitchen table each morning.

The currents were set in motion, and all we could do was stand and watch as kids began to dictate to parents for the first time in the history of the world.

(As such, I’ve named these see-through adults Trans-parents.)

Today it’s hard-wired into the familial structure so profusely that brands don’t even have to sell youth products to beg for youth approval. It’s now obvious: unlock the kid and you unlock the family vault. Also known as “pester power,” the authority exhibited by kids over their parents is worth billions.

To prove it, if you’re ever in doubt about anything that matters to the corporate world, just look to demographic research. There, you can always find a treasure trove of unbelievable crap that doubles as our national bellwether, as the free-market economy is usually a good mirror of whom and what is most important to Americans. (I’m not degrading our free-market economy by the way, just making an observation on its correlatives.)

Take a look at some new demographic groups you may or may not have heard of:

- SKIPPIES – School Kids with Purchasing Power
- DINKs – Double Income No Kids
- SWAKs – Single Women And Kids
- SWANKs – Single Women And No Kids
- SMANKs – Single Men No Kids
- WOOFs – Well Off Over Fifty

The most influential of the above? You guessed it: SKIPPIES. With time on their hands (and heavily favoring their consumer life-cycle), yet with time-starved, apologetic parents who exert no control over them, they’ve become a marketer’s dream come true — an overweight, socially inept Richie Rich comic come to life, waving Benjamins in the air like Paris Moron herself looking for a cab in the rain.

SKIPPIES have billions of dollars to spend of their own — $6,000,000,000 at last estimate — and ostensibly hundreds of billions more of their parents’.

Now, look at many TV spots and other marketing messages these days (very much including the web), and you’ll see it. And once you’ve caught a glimpse of it, you’ll never miss it again. The sad thing is, the vast majority of our adult nation is as inebriated and slow-witted as a junior prom — and they’re actually falling for it.

When I was a kid, my mom took my little sister shopping so she could buy my dad a Father’s Day gift — an Ohio State sweatshirt — with my mom’s money. Of course, the age-old tradition of one parent taking care of a little kid’s gift for the other parent is nothing new.

What was notable was that my sister got to pick out the garment, and chose one that she knew for certain would be just a little too small for my dad.

Fashion being what it was at the time, 7th-grade girls everywhere were wearing too-large boys’ sweatshirts that hung down to their knees like dresses. Knowing this, it was obvious to my brothers and me that her surreptitious hopes lay in my dad not wearing it himself, and not returning it (that would hurt her precious little feelings), but handing it down to her. Bingo, she inherits the perfect sweatshirt, free-of-charge.

Gina was in fact buying herself a sweatshirt with my mom’s cash.

Of course, I raged with jealousy over the ingenuity, simplicity, and efficacy of the 12 year-old girl’s ruse, and couldn’t help but exhibit contempt. This was sheer brilliance, and no one could do a thing about it.

Of course, it went down just as she predicted. I’ll never forget the sight of my dad dropping her and her four friends off at the movies the very next week, each wearing some variation on the same sweatshirt theme. He grinned from ear to ear, watching them all hop out in excitement, 100% cotton clones giggling at whatever girls at that age find entertaining. My dad positively beamed as they all skipped to the ticket window.

And so it is with American kids and their wealth, the fortune made not by them but spent by them. The robbery isn't merely successful more often than not — rather, when it happens, it actually makes the American parent happy.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Trusting a brand

requires the engagement of a consumer in a long-term relationship, one that hasn’t failed expectations sufficiently to warrant reconsideration.

Gee thanks, Steve. Didn’t know that.

Okay smarty, so howsabout I throw in a wrench? What would you say to revisiting Marshall McLuhan’s golden rule — The Medium Is the Message — and applying the authenticity of the media upon which brands stake their consumer touchpoints?

Throughout history, messengers have pleaded not to be killed for the bad news they’ve been tasked to deliver. But couriers, usually, are people. What happens when almighty television is the conduit of crap?

Oh, it’ll be killed dead.

At least the TV we know today will be. Ya know, it’s funny to see traditional brands and their marketing agencies fighting the metamorphosis that’s been upon us in earnest for a few years already. Oh, losers, stop whining and start running. The time to catch up is nigh.

With the opposing bullet-trains of the web’s (re-gaining of) credibility and television’s loss thereof, we’re knee-deep in a dilemma we’ve been reading about with increasing frequency: is this the death of the :30 spot? Why o' course it is.

But here’s where my opinion differs from the industry — it’s neither the technology nor the consumer that’s expediting the death of traditional, ad-supported TV. It’s the brands which once supported TV that hasten its demise. Et tu, Brute?

The fumes rising off the incessant b.s. delivered by television (particularly cable) have become so noxious, the clean can barely stand in the same room. The tables have turned because, now, the web is the medium Americans use most when seeking information on their own time and terms, while TV’s standards — lowered by everything from CBS News’ non-validation of the Bush memos to constant Girls Gone Wild ads to innumerable miracle weight-loss pill peddlers — are being exposed.

Wherever consumers are in control (most of the web), brands find an environment conducive to interacting with fans and prospects on an equal playing field.

The web’s improprieties, and there are many, largely aren’t caused by the big players (brands, networks, news organizations), but by other private citizens with malicious intent. (And as long as people are in control of the content, that’s going to happen.)

These major players know that if they’re caught lying on the web they’re done-for, because the web’s a two-way medium. Act any other way and the repercussions will be as swift as they are damaging and final.

Television, on the other hand, is a one-way street. So when an action that a consumer deems unacceptable is taken by a brand or content provider, the only recourses are to change the channel, to complain to the FCC, or to send an email to a complaints department which responds with the ever-effective form letter/email.

So now it's fair to extrapolate: the trustworthiness of the medium conveying a brand to its audience members has as much effect on its own credibility as it does on the brand’s.

TV, kinda like fascism, isn’t democratic. It has a mouth and no ears. The web, like democracy, is by and for the people. Neither is perfectly good or perfectly evil, but which system does a better overall job of communicating in a believable manner?

Think about it this way: when was the last time you took seriously a headline from the Chinese Ministry of Information? Even if the words you read were absolutely accurate, you (as a prudent consumer) are forced to second-guess integrity for obvious reasons. Just like we're forced to do anymore with television. Last time I checked, that ain't trust.

These examples are by design extreme, for they shed light on why the web has already surpassed television as the arena of choice for brands that seek trust from their audience members. The old system absolutely must perish by its very nature, and it’s well on its way to doing so. (See also: USSR in its final years.)

Consequently, brands catalyze the process by moving their offline messages (and budgets) online, rendering TV the domain of singles chat phone line advertisements, Fox News, and anything else that doesn't invite honesty and candor.