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The Spiderman Trojan Horse

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I have pointed out on these pages that the average US citizen gets hit with more than 5000 commercial messages a day.  Everything from "I'd rather be driving a Titleist" to the logo on your watch.  Your brain is under constant assault.  You know it.  We all know it.  We are marinating in marketing all the time.




* * * * *

Kung fu ...
That was one of my good ones
Well what's a few broken bones
When we all know it's good clean fun?
Skateboards ...
I've almost made them respectable.
You see I can't always get through to you,
So I go for your son.

- Joe Jackson, "I'm the Man"


I have pointed out on these pages that the average US citizen gets hit with more than 5000 commercial messages a day.  Everything from "I'd rather be driving a Titleist" to the logo on your watch.  Your brain is under constant assault.  You know it.  We all know it.  We are marinating in marketing all the time.


And as the guys over at YourMarketingSucks.com know, my wife and I run a pretty tight ship when it comes to what our four kids can watch on TV.  Look, I'm not a bad guy.  I love marketing, but I know how effective it can be.  And what marketers are doing to kids today isn't much different than what the spy-ware companies try to do with your computer.


My kids need things, and I want to buy them things.  The latest things, in fact.  But there's a limit to what's productive for them to want.  My 8-year-old girl is chomping at the bit to be the next Hillary Duff.  However, I'm not gonna buy her thigh-high boots no matter who she sees wearing them.  Call me Tipper Gore if you want.



Hollywood sees it differently.


spiderman3.jpg

Several weeks ago, the makers of the new blockbuster movie, Spiderman 3, started running trailers on Cartoon Network.  Naturally, the trailers looked really cool to all of my kids, age 11, 8, and 5 (twins).  Normally, Cartoon Network is pretty innocuous.  What's not to like about cartoons, right?


So the trailers run and say "This movie is not yet rated."  And I'm thinking "Right.  It's a $50 million dollar movie coming out in 14 days and they don't know what it's going to be rated?  My eye."  Meanwhile, my kids are getting amped about seeing Spiderman 3, even going so far as to plan out when I'm going to take them.


Finally, this afternoon a Spiderman 3 "sneak-a-peek" airs on Cartoon Network, immediately followed by a showing of Spiderman 1.  My kids have got the popcorn and Sprite all teed up in the rec room, and they're rubbing their little hands, w a i t i n g ... Then the bomb drops when the announcer says


"Spiderman 3 and 1 are rated PG-13."


Now I've got a fight on my hands.  Only Jack, my 11-year-old, is OKed to watch PG-13 flicks, and then only selectively.  He's 11.  He doesn't need to watch graphic gun-fights and make-out scenes and the usual PG-13 fare.  Soon, but not now.  And I'll be damned if my 8-year-old girl is going to soak in that -- let alone my twins.  But when I broke up the party, you'd have thought I was Osama Bin Laden.  All hell broke loose, and you could hear the uproar a mile away.


As a marketer, I'm impressed with what Hollywood did.  If they had said from the get-go that Spiderman 3 was going to be rated PG-13, then things never would have gotten so far out of hand.  I would have red-lighted Project Spiderman immediately for everyone but Jack.  Hollywood knew that, so they kept a lid on the rating until my all of my kids were literally screaming to see the movie.  Literally.  Screaming.  Now that's marketing.


The New Economics of the Entertainment Business


My kids get me and their grandparents to buy them a lot of entertainment -- and neither me, their grandparents, nor my kids are inclined to download it illegally off of the Web.


Which is exactly why young kids are such a hot market for media companies:  They or someone who loves them actually pays for what they consume.  Miracle of miracles!  According to a recent WSJ article, this explains why Hannah Montana is one of Disney's most profitable entertainment franchises.  There's a "near zero" piracy factor among very old and very young people.


So here's what I've learned from this episode ...


Hollywood is like a drug dealer.  They know who watches Cartoon Network.  Little kids who are too young to attend their movie without my accompaniment -- which is tantamount to my endorsement.


Hollywood knows that if they give my kids a free taste of their stuff, my kids will come back for more -- at my expense (which makes it better than the "real" illegal drug business, where the addict pays).  And like a real drug dealer, Hollywood doesn't care how their product effects my kids as long as they make money.


What do YOU think?



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Harry Joiner is an executive recruiter specializing in integrated marketing and "new media." He has been featured in MarketingSherpa's Great Minds in Marketing series and received coverage in the Wall Street Journal's Career Journal Online. According to Viral Garden's weekly rankings, Harry's weblog MarketingHeadhunter.com is one of the top 25 marketing weblogs in the world.

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  • by Jason Moore Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    I couldn't agree more. Until I let my 3 year old watch a few PG movies (Barn Yard, Cars, etc.) I had no idea how effective the rating system was. Is there anything inappropriate in those movies for him? They'll throw an adult joke out there every now and then that more than likely flies safely over children's head. The problem, though, were the short-term nightmares (stronger word than necessary here) about some of the intense scenes. This new parent is now a believer in the rating system, and I expect to see it being more and more effective as my children get older. p.s. Sprite, 38 grams of sugar / Coke, 39 grams of sugar ;)

  • by Jani Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    Thank you for the nice post

  • by Cam Beck Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    Good post. This movie and this subject must be considered in their proper contexts. As parents, we're responsible for knowing what our children can handle and having a clear picture about the messages they might get from movies they want to see. I didn't have a problem with my son seeing Spider Man 1 or 2. I think he was 6 or 7 when the first came out. However, I did take the time to watch it first, and I made a point to ensure he knew that he couldn't actually walk on walls or swing between buildings. This was fiction. But the moral message was outstanding, so I didn't want him to miss it because of stylized fantasy violence. The fights had reasons, and the line between the good guys and the bad guys was clear. There's a big difference between the PG-13 movie, "Spider Man" and the PG-13 movie "Accepted." Treating them as the same just because of the rating is problematic.

  • by Ann Handley Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    Great post, Harry, and an issue equally near and dear to my own heart as it is to yours. There are a lot of marketing to kids "Trojan horses" (nice metaphor!), aren't there? I'm thinking of Anheuser-Busch's much criticized "Spykes" -- beer flavor shots that seem targeted to teens. It's not a clean comparison to Spiderman 3 marketing as you describe, but it's nonetheless baiting of a different sort, with higher stakes.

  • by Harry Joiner Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    What amazes me about little kids is how sharp they are while remaining simultaneously naive. For example, my little girl, Charlotte, age 5, currently prefaces everything she says to me with the words "FYI ...". As in, "Dad, FYI, I'm going downstairs to watch Wonderpets on Noggin." She sounds like a little teenager, which I suppose is why she does it. But until I this morning, she had no idea that "FYI" stood for "For Your Information." Compare this to the fact that she DRAWS out the grocery list rather than write it: An apple means we need apples. A loaf of bread means we need a loaf of bread, etc. It's hilarious. The point of my post isn't to bust on Spiderman as a movie. I was mostly commenting on how Hollywood usurped my decision making authority by appealing to my kids over the course of a two week period. As a marketer, I loved it. As a dad, Hollywood created problems for me. Either way, their marketing method was similar to what I have seen in profiles of drug cartels on "60 Minutes".

  • by Ann Handley Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    "As a marketer, I loved it. As a dad, Hollywood created problems for me." Right -- this is a familiar feeling for me, too. I am constantly impressed by marketing as a tactic, but cringing when it comes to my kids, or other kids, for that matter.

  • by Cam Beck Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    "I'm thinking of Anheuser-Busch's much criticized "Spykes" -- beer flavor shots that seem targeted to teens." Ann - A bit off topic, but your comment reminded me of my teenage years in Berlin, Germany, where they sell a common alcoholic beverage they call "Kinderbier." Literally (more or less), this is translated "Children's Beer." It's essentially a pale ale with flavored syrup. Debate all you will the merits (or scandal) of having a legal (public) drinking age of 16, as it is in Germany, but can you imagine marketing such a thing in this country?

  • by Ann Handley Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    Cam -- LOL... only if it's packaged with MyFirstMeth. This is the way it happens in the US: beer makers market products like Spykes to get kids drinking early and often, then they sponsor PSAs like I read about on MediaPost just now, urging parents, "Don't Be A Pushover; Be A Parent." Essentially: Anheuser-Busch has a new 30-second spot to educate parents about ways to curb underage drinking. Beautiful, huh?

  • by Cam Beck Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    "The point of my post isn't to bust on Spiderman as a movie. I was mostly commenting on how Hollywood usurped my decision making authority by appealing to my kids over the course of a two week period." I see your point, Harry. Ultimately, you still have the decision-making authority, though. It just so happens that one decision, if you choose to make it, has the potential to disappoint your children. That's not altogether a bad thing, necessarily (when compared with the alternative), but it does cause complications we understandably don't want to have to deal with. Ann - LOL! Kid friendly. Mother approved.

  • by ann michael Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    Harry - I find this whole post and conversation very interesting. It's almost an open admission that good marketing is deceptive and manipulative - that's what makes it good. Are there approaches you love as a marketer AND a parent? Perhaps a product that does something you find very useful very well? I would argue that if you don't love this approach as a parent (and in this case it's the parent that's enabling the consumption of the product) then it isn't really worthy of admiration as a marketer. You're the parent and you were just turned off! Just my 2 cents. Ann

  • by Ted Mininni Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    Harry, Excellent post. I wrote an article for Young Consumers magazine in the U.K. a while back, titled: "Maintaining Brand Relevance with Kids". In it, I cited this research: "In the United States, kids are brand-conscious at an early age. According to James U. McNeal, Ph.D., author of "The Kids Market: Myths and Realities", most children recognize the key attributes of product packaging, such as color and shape, and at least 200 logos by the time they enter school. 50% of kids, aged five, are asking for specific brands by name." Eye opening, isn't it?

  • by Blake Mon Apr 30, 2007 via blog

    This is exactly the reason my wife and I ponied up the extra $10/month to get a DVR. We have two young daughters and even the stuff on the Disney Channel gets to be a bit racy (one of the girls is 4). However, they have even gone as far as to merge their commercials in a way that isn't obvious to the kids and requires a second look on our part to notice it. It's causing us to cut down on TV watching more and more.

  • by Elaine Fogel Tue May 1, 2007 via blog

    It's interesting that most responses here are tilted towards your roles as parents with respect and admiration for the marketers who created these "deceptive" marketing tactics aimed at children. It's quite a paradox. It's a challenge monitoring what our kids watch and view, especially when we often get the, "But, my friends are allowed to..." We feel like the bad guys, but at the same time, it's our responsibility to enforce some boundaries. For those of you who have young children, there is hope. My now 22-year-old wasn't allowed to watch 90210 when she was eight, and she was pissed at me. All the other kids in her class watched and discussed the show at recess. My daughter felt ostracized and an outcast. The reality was that the show was highly inappropriate for her age group, but she couldn't see that then. Now, she thanks me for being diligent in my parenting style. See? You may get a thank you one day! :)

  • by Harry Joiner Tue May 1, 2007 via blog

    My father used to say about raising kids: "You can't talk your way out of problems you behave yourself into: By the time your kids hit their teens, they are who they're gonna be. It's better to impose slight over-control early in a child's life and slight under-control as they approach their teen years." While we don't have teens yet, judging from Elaine's comment I'm sure Dad was right. The slippery issue for me is, as Blake points out, the lines get very blurry on cable around 6:00pm. Ten minutes ago my son Jack was watching a show on FX when on comes a commercial for the 2004 Elisha Cuthbert movie "The Girl Next Door (was a Porn Star)." WTF!! Just 20 minutes prior, this same network was running an entirely different format. Bottom line: It's my own fault. I need to be more vigilant. The buck stops with the parent. To address Ann Michael's question "Are there approaches you love as a marketer AND a parent?" The answer is YES: I like any toy company that appeals to the kid with a well designed, age-appropriate toy. Beyond that, the people who market Thomas the Tank Engine are sheer geniuses. We took our kids to see Thomas in Chattanooga last weekend and there was an entire RABID subculture of Thomas fans on hand to snap up Thomas CD's, DVD's, tee shirts, trains, etc. Thomas' creators have taken a simple train concept and turned it into a lifestyle brand for little kids. The fans are like Star Trekkies or The Kiss Army -- only 5 years old. See http://www.marketingheadhunter.com/photos/family_photos/thomas_april_2007.j... Regardless of the target market, the difference between good marketing and cheap marketing is like the difference between Andrew Dice Clay and Jerry Seinfeld: It's all in the artistry.

  • by Chris Kieff Wed May 2, 2007 via blog

    I beg to differ. As eBay says, and as I too believe; "most people are basically honest." And I believe that most marketer's are honest hard working people who are trying to pitch their products to the appropriate markets. I happen to feel that the kerfuffel over our billboard, www.YourMarketingSucks.com is overblown. But I know and respect that others disagree. (My child is 22 y.o.) However, I think that blaming Hollywood is foolish. As anyone who has worked in Marketing, or any large company knows- very often the right hand is ignorant of the left hand's intentions. The Media Buyer who placed the "Girl Next Door" commercial didn't think about what was on 20 minutes before, etc. It's simply a case of getting their job done, with a minimum of hassle. Human nature seeks to find "Someone" who should be to blame. But there isn't any one person responsible. There is no conspiracy that people are trying to pervert our kids. It's simply people doing their jobs with a minimum of effort. The buyer didn't know what the last show was. The seller didn't check, yada, yada, yada. The difference is that 50 years ago is was people not recognizing that rotten meat was being sold. Today, it's what commercial is being shown when... That's an improvement. My 2 cents.

  • by Harry Joiner Wed May 2, 2007 via blog

    "There is no conspiracy that people are trying to pervert our kids. It's simply people doing their jobs with a minimum of effort." Neither is there a conspiracy for factories to pollute our environment. It's simply people doing their jobs with a minimum of effort. That doesn't make it right. The rap on the air-polluting factory fat cats is that they don't care about who they hurt while they make their money. And that is precisely my rap on Hollywood.

  • by Cortlandt Minnich Thu May 3, 2007 via blog

    BLOG HOME ARCHIVES THE NEWSRSS/XMLBOOK CLUBMARKETING PROFS Harry Joiner Bio 04.30.07The Spiderman Trojan Horse "That doesn't make it right. The rap on the air-polluting factory fat cats is that they don't care about who they hurt while they make their money. And that is precisely my rap on Hollywood." This took an interesting turn. Let's not forget that marketing effectiveness is measured in dollars. When the Hollywood marketing genius attracts hundreds of thousands of additional attendees with a Cartoon Network campaign there is a celebration. The ROI is positive and everyone inside is happy. The next movie will push the model even further. If parents choose not to participate, or better yet create discomfort for studios that cross this line, the ROI is affected and the studio will retreat to its former methods. We have the ultimate power as consumers. Thank you for bringing this to my attention so I can add to the studio's pain.

  • by Steve Pickens Thu May 3, 2007 via blog

    "Now that's marketing." Pardon me for being a purist, but what you are talking about is promotion, part of which is advertising, and is a subset of marketing.

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