Cashing in on the tween dream

Valerie Lawson

The Age (Australia)

January 6, 2007

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 century.

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 magazines.

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 consequences.

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 teen years".

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 nine.

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 Price.

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 shelves.

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 doll's owner.

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 "love it".

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 Want!"

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 to Christmas".

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 approach.

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 doll".

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."