Understanding youth

'Anyone who doesn't understand ants are for stepping on doesn't understand kids.'

‘Anyone who doesn’t understand ants are for stepping on doesn’t understand kids.’

So says J.K. Benton, our cartoonist. And when it comes to understanding youth, he gets it. J.K.’s young daughter allows observational research, and he’s endlessly delving into all manner of arcane media (and, perhaps most scurrilously, the Web) for grist for his youth-premises mill. The licensed characters he’s unleashed upon the world (many in the form of rude Ts) include It’s Happy Bunny – a cute bunny who says terrible things (currently on a 30% turn at teen chain Hot Topic, and in 30 product categories). J.K. is also a TV show creator who counts The Secret Files of The Spy Dogs to his credit and currently has series concepts in the pipes at MTV and Noggin.

His cartoons for monthly kids biz mag KidScreen always take the side of the shorter people, depicting them as a much-put-upon breed who come through the barrage of media and weird new entertainment trends unscathed, unruffled, and wiser than the elders who dish it out. And we believe his insight is on the money.

So, we asked J.K. to share the secret to understanding youth: ‘Giving kids what they want is just a matter of knowing where they’re looking,’ he says. ‘There are certain places they won’t be looking, and it doesn’t matter how much significance you attach to it, they won’t look there.

‘If I’m in a class explaining how a TV show works, unless I’m drawing or doing a voice, I’ve lost them. If you’re not talking about effluvium or violence, they’re not interested. I know that probably their whole world is focused on frivolity; there’s nothing more important than the things that aren’t important.’

Basically, kids want to laugh. Using humor is a formula all the kids advertising gurus agree with. Maybe kids know that when they get older and the allowance is gone, there will be less to laugh about.

‘I knew you as a sub-human youth so don’t tell me about kids today.’

The reality check above was directed at a buddy of J.K.’s who had the temerity to whine about ‘kids today’.

Point being, that kids today are remarkably like kids of yesteryear.

Some things change – computer games, the internet – and yet Barbie and Lego still always crop up on ‘want’ lists.

To help you get a handle on some of the more specific trends kids are currently into (leads as to which hamster is hot this week), see our Understanding Youth report, ‘Cracking the kid code,’ p. 20. We also look at alternate ways to connect with kids, by tapping into their interests through niche media, like skateboarding and gaming mags. These are the mags in our house that are meticulously archived (unless they’re spread out over the entire floor in a search for some game tip), well-thumbed, and typically missing a lot of pictures (sacrificed to collage posters).

But don’t be afraid to venture past the ‘what’s hot now’ trends and think like a kid, because some things really haven’t changed. Like comics. They ebb and flow in popularity, but now they’re back. There’s still a kid in the playground looking for a frog to ‘play’ with. And some kid still gets to take the hamster home for the summer (except in Dewey’s class).

Also keep in mind, that despite the fascination with violence and effluvium, they’re very media savvy.

I’ve heard nine-year-olds do sophisticated plot deconstructions of series (which subsequently spoiled the shows for me), and I’ve seen rooms full of tweens hoot derisively at the TV when the host or ad is lamely over-hyping stuff.

Teen Nostradamos

Prior to the launch of TeenScreen magazine, a couple of us editorial types had lunch with a teenager, who overwhelmed us with info as he coherently rattled off everything you needed to know about his generation – from music and TV faves to fashion trends – and also the ‘Whys’ behind them. All of which I’ve later seen confirmed in various research studies, but often without the kid take on ‘why.’

This goes back three summers, but a lot of it is still valid, like they follow the Top 40 on the local pop radio station, and are into hip hop and crossover artists. Some of the pop stuff they don’t like musically, but the video’s eye candy was more the draw.

What else was cool according to our teen guinea pig? Will Smith. On TV? Just Shoot Me for funnyman David Spade, Will & Grace because of its ‘really amusing pop culture references,’ but Dawson’s Creek was deemed ‘pretentious and annoying.’ South Park was huge, and reviving old shows like Transformers from the ’80s could work, as teens would smile as they remembered them in a ‘what were we thinking’ vein. Teen dramas were deemed bad ’cause teens want to be young adults, but MTV movies would be huge. Family Guy is hysterical due to the pop culture references, and likewise the Kool-Aid guy is also hysterical. Teens will stick with shows like The Simpsons, but not embrace King of the Hill.

And as to Web sites, FREE is huge. ICQ & AOL messenger are huge. The Cool games are not the RPG games because ‘a lot have gotten too complicated.’

Teens are more into brands than licensing, e.g. Abercrombie & Fitch. Why? ‘It’s the style that the names come with.’ Boys apparently want to keep things simple, so follow the style trends more to avoid looking geeky than to look like part of the tribe. Retro licensing is huge, ‘if it was a well-done funny shirt’ like Dukes of Hazzard or Hawaiian Punch. Cool? Spider-Man boxer shorts.

They go to films a lot, preferring ‘stupid comedy that makes you laugh.’ Adam Sandler.

So, either I was talking to the Nostradamos of the teen set, or the snapshot of what they’re into doesn’t change quite so radically as some fear. Yes, some individual artists, shows and brands will change from year to year, but not all will be subjected to the much-touted mercurial fickleness of teen tastes. The ‘whys’ pretty much remain the same.

The take-away? A reliance on available stats, and avoidance of media without kid-demo specific numbers (like how many kids are reading a comic book or gaming mag), means you may be erring too far on the side of caution. Talk to kids, and sometimes go with your gut.

As per J.K.: ‘They’re exactly the same as you were when you were a kid (which, he explains, is why you can’t trust them). Think of it as looking at yourself in a rearview mirror. So if you want to know what kids want, just ask yourself what you want.’

cheers, mm Mary Maddever, Editor