drive or vote, but 8- to 12-year-olds are
holding sway in the home when it comes to
By Terril Yue Jones
Times Staff Writer
LA Times, November 25, 2005
When it comes to technology, Arden Arnold is
the go-to guy in his house.
Mulling over an emergency backup power
generator for the family, he researched all
the choices before picking a Black & Decker
Corp. Storm Station. He's interested in a
new desktop computer, but it needs to have
at least an 80-gigabyte hard drive, 512
megabytes of RAM and "a pretty good video
card." And he's trying to persuade his
mother to switch from Microsoft Corp.'s
Hotmail to Google Inc.'s Gmail service.
"She pays for 1 gigabyte of storage, but
Gmail gives you more than 2 gigabytes for
free," he said. "And it has a very intuitive
Arden is just 12 years old. But the
influence the San Francisco sixth-grader
wields makes marketers take notice.
Technology and consumer electronics
companies increasingly are crafting messages
aimed at kids to pitch such big-ticket
gadgetry as flat-panel televisions, personal
computers or high-end stereos.
Kids can't afford much of the gear
themselves, but the tech industry is wising
up to what cereal makers, resort operators
and even carmakers have long known: Even
young children have an outsize say in how
Mom and Dad spend their money.
With tech products, kids hold even more
power because they may be the only ones in
the house who understand how things work.
"Kids are really the chief technology
officers of their households," said Jim
Malcolm, senior marketing manager at Sony
Electronics Inc. "They're the ones who have
the answers and make the recommendations."
That's the case in the Eagle Rock home of
Katrina Dela Cruz. The 11-year-old
sixth-grader and her older brother make most
of the tech decisions for the family. For
starters, Katrina wants a personal computer
"with Windows XP and a CD burner" so she can
edit photos and create slideshows. She also
has her eye on an iPod. And she's bugging
her parents to buy a big-screen plasma TV.
What Katrina and her brother want holds
considerable sway because her parents
acknowledge that they are pretty clueless
"I didn't know anything about them or how
they work," said Katrina's mother, Fevelyn.
By contrast, said youth marketer Greg
Livingston, " 'Tweens' have grown up with
technology; in sixth grade they're doing
PowerPoint presentations. They're fearless
about pushing the wrong buttons. In five
minutes they'll know how to do more on your
phone than you do."
Microsoft, Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co. have
advertised to kids for years to promote
their video game consoles. Recently, more
button-down tech companies such as
Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. also have
turned their attention to so-called tweens,
kids at ages 8 to 12.
By some estimates, tweens influence $60
billion in spending annually.
It's not clear how much tech companies spend
to reach young kids, but Dell's former
youthful pitchman "Steven" known for his
enthusiastic, "Dude, you're getting a Dell"
aimed squarely for younger audiences. Sony
tried to appeal to 11- and 12-year-olds with
a campaign for its iPod rival Walkman Bean
on MTV. For its part, HP executives spent
part of this year brainstorming how to make
the company's staid printers and PCs more
appealing to kids.
"We think about not only future customers
but future employees," said Shirley Bunger,
HP's director of brand innovation. "If we
don't understand what they're doing now and
if we don't' start developing products and
services, by the time they're old enough to
be employed or spend a lot on technology, we
may not have the right solutions."
Getting the message across is made more
difficult by some of the very technology
that manufacturers want to plug. Gone are
the days when an ad during Saturday morning
cartoons would do the trick. Kids today
split their free time among TV, video games,
cellphones and the Web.
"The way to reach preteens is getting more
complicated," said George Harrison, Nintendo
of America's senior vice president for
marketing. "We used to do TV; now we do a
Plus, kids of all ages are more savvy to
advertising. So campaigns are more subtle
Nintendo, for instance, sells cellphone ring
tones of the original Mario Brothers theme
song. The Japanese game maker also sponsors
an annual Fusion Tour, which has featured
such bands as Fallout Boy, Story of the Year
Not everyone thinks that hawking $1,500
computers or $5,000 televisions to grade
schoolers is healthy for children.
"I find the concept of marketing to kids in
order to influence their parents problematic
because it creates dissension in families,"
said Juliet Schor, chairwoman of the
Sociology Department at Boston College and
author of "Born to Buy: The Commercialized
Child and the New Consumer Culture," a book
critical of corporate marketing to children.
"It's driving a wedge between parents and
Suzanne Humphrey encourages her 9-year-old
son, Nilsen, to use the Web safely. But "he
can't go online without seeing tons of ads
like, 'You've won a free Tamagotchi,' or
cellphone, or MP3 player," the Novato,
Calif., mom said. "He sometimes believes
But marketers understand the power of brand
loyalty and of establishing it early.
"Tweens are learning brands earlier, and if
companies are looking to breed familiarity,
they need to start earlier," said Jane
Buckingham, president of the Intelligence
Group, a marketing consulting firm that
specializes in youth trends. "They're
certainly aware of what's cool."
Perry Osgood is. The Claremont
seventh-grader got an iPod shuffle, made by
Apple Computer Inc., when it was released
early this year. But he already wants a
newer, more expensive iPod nano.
"Technology gadgets are important," he said.
"Without our gadgets, like music and TV, you
can be bored to death."
Perry has a cellphone too, and it didn't
take him long to figure out how to use it to
take videos and photos and do goofy editing
like adding Zorro masks and Arnold
Schwarzenegger biceps to snapshots of
"He's learned more about it in two months
than I have in seven years of using the
things," said his mother, Nancy.
Apple doesn't target younger children with
its advertising. It aims instead at older
teens and college students, using
appearances by such music acts as U2 and
Eminem. "If you want to advertise to a tween,
you're going to show a teen, not an
8-year-old," Buckingham said. "It's the
shrinking of the tweens age. Ten-year-olds
are acting more like 12-year-olds than they
Youth marketers call that "kids getting
older younger." Children grow out of toys at
an earlier age and gravitate toward more
grown-up diversions, influenced by TV,
popular music and movies.
"If I'm going to launch a product to teens
and tweens, I need to build awareness, and
brand awareness really kicks in at age 7,"
said Malcolm Bird, senior vice president for
kids and teens at Time Warner Inc.'s America
Nilsen, the Novato fourth-grader, persuaded
his parents to buy Sony PlayStation 2 and
Nintendo Game Cube game consoles. Now, he
said, "it's really hard to choose between a
PlayStation Portable and Lego Mindstorms
robots. They're really cool." The
PlayStation Portable sells for $250;
Mindstorms can cost $200. Lest there's any
doubt of what he has his eyes on, Nilsen
maintains a wish list of 674 items at
http://www.lego.com ; which he can
e-mail to his parents with a few keystrokes.
Not that it's easy to connect with tweens.
HP came up with 44 ideas on how technology
could be used to enhance how children could
play for instance, a high-tech skateboard
of the future. The products were research
exercises not necessarily designed to go to
market, and the program was dropped this
year, although HP says it's still interested
in the tweens market.
AOL, the most popular Internet service
provider, developed its online service for
kids, KOL,, which is full of content aimed
at keeping children happy and their eyeballs
logged on. Nintendo and phone maker Motorola
Inc. are among KOL's sponsors. Their ads are
more interactive and engaging than 30-second
TV spots and can hold users' attention for
several minutes at a time as youngsters view
preview clips and sign up for news and
games, all accompanied by ads.
Companies are barred from collecting e-mail
addresses and other personal information
from children younger than 13, so keeping
kids engrossed enough to keep watching ads
In December and January, KOL will stream
live broadcasts from the Mission nightclub
in Miami, which sponsors expect to attract
teens as well as their younger siblings.
"Advertisers are totally waking up to the
realization that it's far more valuable to
put money into the online, tactile
experience than to put all their money into
TV," Bird said.
Instead of creating products for children as
AOL did, Sony extended its Walkman music
player to the tween market with the Walkman
Bean, a jellybean-shaped digital music
player in splashy colors.
"We didn't de-feature it to make it
appealing to these kids; we put a fun shape
to it," said Malcolm, the Sony senior
marketing manager. "We focus on what's hip
One marketing campaign Sony devised for the
Walkman Bean was a tie-in with the MTV show
"My Super Sweet 16," in which teens turning
16 get to throw a dream birthday party with
a budget of hundreds of thousands of
dollars. On an upcoming episode, one winner
recorded the party invitation on Walkman
Beans that were sent to his guests who
then could keep the device.
And that could open up doors to more
"Because tweens are so attuned to new
technology, they're actually a gateway into
the family," said Matthew Glass, chief
executive of Grand Central Marketing, an
event-promotion company in New York that
frequently works with preteens. "These kids
network, and from a viral perspective, if
you get on their radar, they're talking
about it all the time: 'I gotta have this, I
gotta have that.' "
And the list of what they "gotta" have often
grows with each purchase.
Phoebe Maddox got an iPod nano for her 14th
birthday. But her family, which lives in
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., has an aging laptop
computer that can't play CDs. So after
spending $250 on the iPod, her parents had
to shell out an additional $100 for an
external CD drive so that Phoebe could use
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