Selling to Kids – Before They Can Buy

Jun 14, 2006

By Rick Moss, a virtual meeting place for the sophisticated 8 to 15 set, has “places to go, things to do, and of course,
people to see,” according to the website’s “About Whyville” page. Children can join for free and, once “Whyvillians,” earn “clams” by playing educational games. This has pretty
much been the case since 1999 when the site went online, but it’s only been a recent development that the kids’ virtual currency will buy them a Toyota Scion (virtually speaking,
that is).

Kids of Whyville are represented by on-screen “avatars” and can place themselves within different online environments. With the “purchase” of a Scion, they can now impress their
virtual pals by driving around in a cartoon replica of a hot, trendy car, as well. For sponsors, such as Toyota, Whyville offers a good deal of exposure. The site claims over
1.2 million registered “citizens,” with daily visits from 25,000 boys and girls.

And Whyville is not bashful about its approach to kid marketing. It’s pitch to sponsors promises “a unique opportunity to reach and engage tweens.”

“Whyville sponsors become ‘part’ of the city,” the sponsorship page goes on to say. “We integrate your organization’s product, brand or message into destinations and activities
inside Whyville. Sure, we can do the banner ad ‘thing’ but there is so, so much more that we can do inside the virtual world of Whyville to promote your organization.”

From the point Toyota introduced its car in the U.S. two years ago, it has concentrated on attracting young drivers. With the youngest demographic in the auto industry (median
buyer is 31), Scion’s marketers have used various methods to build a “culture” that involves musical/sound options, nightclub events and Scion-themed gear, but the company’s sponsorship
of is perhaps its most forward-thinking marketing ploy to date.

Quoted in Julie Bosman’s New York Times Advertising column, Jay Goss, Whyville’s chief operating officer, is clear on the intention. “It’s not lost on us, and it’s not
lost on Scion,” he said. “By definition, this is a sponsor of Whyville that can’t have as its customers the kids who visit the site. But they know that kids influence parents,
and kids grow up.”

The “early branding” trend is emerging throughout retail. The article cites efforts by Staples and Office Depot, for example, to make an early impression with high school students
who are on the verge of financial independence. However, many would bristle at the idea of going after very young, indelible minds in their earlier, formative years.

Moderator’s Comment: What do you think about Scion’s product placement on, both from a business and ethical standpoint? What types of products
would be most adaptable to this form of future-loyalty marketing?

Scion, with its young, hip, carefree image may be a relatively safe bet, but it’s easy to imagine a parental backlash with consumer products that are deemed
unhealthy to the body, mind or pocketbook. It’s not often that a research stat will send a chill up my spine, but this one that the NYTimes columnist pulled from a Packaged
Facts report sure did and, if nothing else, it is one indicator of the marketing mindset at play: “Both boys and girls age 9 to 11 say they spend without thinking.”

My, my…kids sure grow up so fast these days. Used to be that you had to be an adult to be that clueless.
Rick Moss – Moderator

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6 Comments on "Selling to Kids – Before They Can Buy"

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Bernice Hurst
15 years 11 months ago

Product placement and advertising to kids may be unethical and below the belt but it has always and ever more shall be so. Maybe government should intervene but I seriously doubt that the industry and its highly paid lobbyists will permit; as for self-regulation, it makes me cast about to see those nice little pink piggy wigs flying past. All I can see here is yet more need for parents to watch their offspring’s activities 24/7 and find ways of resisting the billions that will be spent breaking down that resistance. After all, the US is still a free country where the fittest survive and the consumers consume.

Mark Hunter
Mark Hunter
15 years 11 months ago

Scion’s product placement strategy is perfect, since the parents of these kids represent a target audience of this brand plus the kids themselves will be buying cars soon. From an ethical standpoint Toyota (parent company of Scion) is pushing too far and in the end may only wind up causing more social backlash towards advertising towards pre-teens. This also shows how important the web has become to marketing strategies and the extent major companies will go to in finding ways to reach their audience beyond traditional print and broadcast advertising.

James Tenser
15 years 11 months ago
Took a look through the Whyville world and was fascinated. It’s been operating since 1999 and is primarily supported by several large foundations: Sun, NASA, Adobe, Getty and Ability First. The site is quite self-consciously “un-slick” in its design and seems designed to be safe for kids. On the other hand it’s full of socialization cues. These are value-laden and mostly commendable. Education and safety are certainly emphasized. Another of those values is consumption. A major part of interacting with the world is the accumulation of those “clams” or virtual currency that may be spent on a variety of virtual commodities, including the embellishment of one’s personal avatar (face parts). Now participants can save up for a virtual car too. Whyville openly seeks sponsorships and has a page offering them. The Scion promotion is not visible from the “front door” so it’s difficult to judge how it might be perceived by Whyvillians. As an experiment in brand marketing it seems innovative, but more like a long term investment in branding than an activity likely to… Read more »
Mark Lilien
15 years 11 months ago

For generations, marketers have been selling to children. Radio shows in the 1930’s sold to kids. Comic books have always sold to kids. TV has been selling to kids for over 50 years. Even clueless American auto companies have sold to kids for generations. Toyota and Whyville aren’t doing anything new.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
15 years 11 months ago

Kids between the ages of 8-15 already influence an amazing amount of household purchases from food to computers to cars to furniture, with or without product placement on Whyville. Obviously these people have gathered information about products from somewhere, have made value judgments, and do influence purchases. These people live in a media-rich world and receive product information in thousands of forms every day. Why is Whyville different?

Jim Bower
Jim Bower
15 years 10 months ago
I read your comments with interest. Nice to see intelligent and informed discussion somewhere in the blogsphere. 🙂 I also want to commend James Tenser for actually going to Whyville to get a sense for our virtual culture. It is endlessly fascinating and new to me, and I created the place. And I guess that is the point I want to make — what makes Whyville unusual is that it is a world that is created by its users, who expect to be treated with respect, kept safe, and most importantly to invest their own creative energy in the site’s content and growth. Turns out, Whyville’s emphasis on user created content, and “customer” engagement fit directly into Scion’s marketing strategy. So, the important point here, missed in the recent New York Times article, is that what Scion is really doing in Whyville is not so much marketing to kids, as it is trying to understand how the interactive, two way culture of virtual worlds is going to change marketing forever. For example, marketing in a… Read more »

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