on the tween dream
IN AN AGE of consumer scepticism and saturated markets,
the 21st century has seen the creation of one great
marketing idea: the tweenager. Tweenage — somewhere
between six and 12 — did not exist 15 years ago.
It's a market thriving on padded bras for flat chests,
dolls that look like hookers, electronic makeover games
your six-year-old daughter can plug into the TV set, and
magazines that tell her how to look hotter, and older,
faster just like the tweenage heroines, Lindsay Lohan
and Nicole Richie.
Parents see the compression of childhood and wonder how
their cute three-year-old turned into a "gimme that"
six-year-old, then a sassy 11-year-old tween whose doll
days are well and truly over. They may mourn the loss,
but it's too late. The marketing juggernaut has spoken,
especially to the female tween.
If Katie or Ruby or Roxy has an almond-eyed, fat-lipped
Bratz doll, then your daughter wants one, too. If you
don't buy one, you're a mean mummy or daddy. If the
other girls wear a padded bra, then your daughter nags
for one, too.
Just as teenage, as a concept, was created in the 20th
century, so the tween is an idea whose time has come.
Julie Kearns, marketing manager of Barbie marketer,
Mattel, puts it succinctly and honestly: "Someone
identified this gap in the marketplace between the girl
who is still a child under the age of about nine, and a
real teenager of 13 or 14 who has reached puberty. They
identified this girl getting older younger (and thought)
'here's a market we could cater for in the right way and
increase our sales'."
The creation of tweens, and the launch of the
phenomenally successful Bratz doll, marketed in
Australia by Funtastic, means that Barbie is now aimed
at three and four-year-olds, while Bratz appeals to
seven to nine-year-olds. By 10, dolls are, well, so last
The tween market has been driven by MTV, the
globalisation of brands, more money in the hands of
children, powerful peer pressure and by the increase in
separated families, with parents plagued by guilt and
played off against one another by children.
Belinda Payne, general manager marketing and creative
services of Funtastic, admits that children are often
the first to the letterbox — and the catalogues — "and
are circling what they want".
A survey in March by youth magazine Dolly estimates the
personal income of 10 to 17-year-olds in Australia as
$10 billion-plus a year. The amount had nearly doubled
in real terms since 1992.
Roy Morgan Research Centre figures show children and
tweens have a major influence on buying decisions; 54
per cent in the case of toys, and 43 per cent for youth
While the median tweenager is about 10, (also the
average age of the start of female puberty) the segment
now stretches from the ages of six to 12. In Australia,
that means a potential market of 2.23 million people —
half that, if one counts only the more susceptible
segment, female tweens.
Last month, a group of 12 doctors and other
professionals working with children warned that the
compression of childhood, in the rush to turn them from
toddlers to high-spending tweens, might have serious
Among them was Dr Louise Newman, director of the NSW
Institute of Psychiatry, who is concerned about
sexualised looks and images presented to the tween
market, but also believes "there's also the broader
risk, which is about the loss of childhood itself".
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, psychologist and author of The
Princess Bitchface Syndrome, Surviving Adolescent Girls,
says girls are growing up so fast they are missing the
latency period entirely — that "waiting room en route to
He regards the craze for sassy (read sexy) fashion dolls
with horror, aligning their look with "behaviour we see
on morning TV video clips. It's all about sexualisation
and the objectification of women … about being
attractive to boys and I hope there are generations of
collective feminists rolling in their collective graves
looking at his stuff because it's so retrograde. There
is absolutely nothing positive about it, and I think
it's sending all the wrong messages to an already
confused and bemused bunch of kids, and what worries me
is that it's the parents who are very often talked into
buying these things." He blames what he calls "Tamagotchi
parenting", ("They put up a white flag, too busy to get
involved"), and biology.
"Kids are growing more physically mature earlier. The
justification that parents go through is that the kids
look like adults, so maybe they are."
Pester power, peer pressure and successful market
positioning mean that the No. 1 fashion doll in the
Australian market for the past two years has been the
sultry-looking Bratz and its little sister spin-offs,
Bratz Babyz and Bratz Kidz. The basic Bratz, a range of
four girls — Cloe, Yasmin, Jade and Sasha — are pitched
as fashion-crazed teenagers, and therefore aspirational
figures for the main Bratz market, girls aged six to
Holding 57 per cent of the $60 million retail fashion
doll market, the Bratz brand is the second highest
selling toy brand in the Australian market, after Fisher
Among the many "little hotties" as The New Yorker called
them recently, is a talking Bratz, in knee-high,
high-heeled boots, a miniskirt that flicks up to reveal
bikini briefs, gold earrings that reach to the shoulder
line, a faux fur bolero, a T-shirt labelled "Pretty" and
streaked hair that falls to the back of her knees.
The doll, who talks with an American accent, says her
name is Yasmin, "but you can call me 'pretty princess'
". She has bedroom eyes, pink, bee-stung lips lined with
red and, like Barbie dolls, long and skinny legs out of
proportion to her torso. Since Bratz was created in
2001, the American manufacturer, MGA Entertainment, has
sold 125 million dolls worldwide amounting to sales of
$US2 billion ($A2.5 billion).
Licensing takes the brand much further than the toy
In the US, MGA Entertainment has 350 Bratz licensees but
in Australia, the brand is licensed by intermediary,
Haven Licensing, to about 25 marketers including
Breville (with a new Bratz hair styler), and Playworks
which sells Bratz pencils, lanyards, watches, diaries,
book labels, lever arch folders, scrapbooking kits,
clocks and library bags.
Hot Springs, a Sydney clothing company, markets Bratz
outerwear and swimwear, and Lil' Bratz underwear,
including tiny bras.
Payne denied the dolls looked like sex bombs. Rather
they were "teenage and fashion-focused' and resembled
animated characters. Their lips and eyes were
accentuated, she said, which removed them a little from
reality and took them into the realm of anime and manga.
"They are not real-looking people," she said. "It's
adults that perceive them as real people."
Mattel, MGA's rival, and maker of Barbie dolls for four
decades, is fighting back for the tween and sub-tween
hearts and pockets.
Four years ago it launched a vampy range of My Scene
Barbie dolls including My Bling Bling dolls whose
packaging promises "totally blinged-out jewellery, super
fabulous fashions" and includes a plastic tiara for the
girl owner. The Bling Blings wear high boots,
pelmet-like skirts, and skimpy tops and come complete
with a range of jewellery, mobiles, and rings for the
Another themed doll, the "My Scene Fab Faces", wears a
tiara and fake fur scarf and changes expression if one
pushes buttons on her upper back. An ad in the current
issue of top tween magazine Total Girl translates the
expressions as "no way", "bummer", "don't go there" and
Julie Kearns says: "My Scene is part of our fashion
dolls range, launched to combat the entry of Bratz. It's
positioned quite differently. Barbie is very much for
younger girls, a princess line, dream time, fantasy"
with the target group two to five or six-year-olds. My
Scene was aimed at six to eight-year-old girls and "very
much driven by fashion".
Kearns, like her counterpart at Funtastic, said "we do
not target any of our products in an overt sexual way".
The company no longer sold its Barbie Lingerie doll, a
collector's item which wore a black bustier, matching
robe, golden hoop earrings and high heels.
"Our mission statement," said Kearns, "is about fun,
fashion and friendship, so we do not endorse sexual
overtones even in licensing products in clothing".
The most favoured magazine for marketers of female
tweens products is Pacific Magazine title Total Girl,
with a readership of 287,000 tweens in the year to
September. Total Girl, whose circulation in its
four-year life has grown from 55,000 to 80,000, has a
core market of eight to 11 years but its readership
ranges from six to 12.
Last month's issue is a perfect example of tween
marketing, carrying full-page ads for My Scene dolls and
Barbie perfume, five full pages for Bratz products,
including the new Bratz hair styler.
Total Girl also carries an ad for Optus' new broadband
"Disney Connection" with the headline "I Want! I Want! I
Within the magazine is a Target store voucher which
reads: "Your mission if you choose to accept it: Spend
$50 or more Get $5 back."
Target stocks the retailer's range of bras for three to
four-year-olds, along with Bratz bras for three to
four-year-olds, Saddle Club bras for four to
six-year-olds, and a lightly padded Target brand bra for
eight to 10-year-olds.
Target also offers a wide range of imported make-up
collections, some made by Markwins, an American company
whose website shows heavily made-up little girls. It
promises "trendy fun cosmetics and collections packaged
for young girls to teens" as it was "building a bridge
of beauty into the teens". Target is not alone in
marketing such items. Big W's girls wear department
includes a Just Girls padded bra for eight to
10-year-olds and a My Little Pony bandeau bra for two to
three-year-olds. Bonds is now marketing My First T-Shirt
bra, for ages eight and up.
Should parents just stand by and shrug their shoulders?
Carr-Gregg says: "As someone who grew up in the
anti-tobacco lobby and in public activism, I don't think
we should sit back. People can be outraged but not
shrill. I give as an example a group of parents in the
US that hit the roof when Teen Vogue ran an ad for pills
which were breast enhancers. They successfully lobbied
and kicked the ads out."
But once a market has been created, it is hard to
un-invent, especially as the tweens products are
creating an early appetite for shopping.
(In Dolly magazine's latest issue, Holeproof advertises
"new sassy knickers". The words "shopping makes me
happy" are printed across the back of one pair of
knickers.) The Age asked Target and Kmart if they would
comment on the tweens market. Six days after the initial
approach, both declined. Target's corporate affairs
manager, Deb Johnson, said there was "very little time"
to answer. The questions were "too broad" to answer on
the phone. She was trying to find someone to talk "in a
meaningful way" but in the end, no one was available.
Kmart's corporate affairs manager, Lynn Semjaniv, was
sorry to "have to decline the opportunity due to a lack
of resources to pull the information together this close
Melinda Smith, controller of hard goods for Big W, was
more relaxed, agreeing that tweens were "a very
important part of our market. That tweens age group has
quite a fair amount of purchasing power, particularly
female tweens." Reducing the price of technology, she
said, "has helped it (the market) grow".
Tamagotchi, for example, retailed at Big W for under
$20, Smith said.
In the new Big W brochure, Girl Tech Digi Makeover, an
electronic makeover gadget for girls aged six and up, is
priced at $96 compared with the recommended retail price
of $149. The product is being promoted in girls'
magazines, but stand by for a more sophisticated
At a time of declining circulations in many kids'
magazines, tween marketers are increasingly using the
internet for promotions.
At Mattel, Kearns has recognised a major change in "the
way you communicate to this generation. They are
spending so much time on the internet on websites and
talking with each other electronically. We are spending
on the internet and subscription TV."
Funtastic, in turn, has linked up with Total Girl's
website in its "search for Australia's favourite Bratz
Readers are asked "do you you own any Bratz dolls" and
if so, how many. If not, "why don't you own any Bratz
dolls?" Answers include "I don't have enough money" and
"my parents won't let me".
They are also asked to give their full name and address
with their answers.
Funtastic's Belinda Payne said the company would not
have access to this personal information.
In the face of the tween onslaught, Louise Newman
remains worried that an "unnecessary focus on physical
appearance at the expense of other qualities is an issue
of values that, as a community, we need to think about.
We have enough problems with anorexia and other body
image related problems without this."
So the juggernaut rolls on?
"Yes. It's huge and it works."
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