To be fair, the Walt Disney Company is just behaving like the rest of the rat pack when they dispatch Kelly Pena, their expert on youth trends, to rifle through the dresser drawers of 12- year-old boys and to shadow them on shopping trips.

Still, “kid whisperer” though she may be, Ms. Pena is not doing the world any favors when she (and what The New York Times described yesterday as “her team of anthropologists”) spends 18 months decoding the likes, dislikes and proclivities of the boy market if the work results in what Disney has done so far.

Disney seeks to understand what resonates for the $50 billion 6 to 14 boy market in order to develop programming and merchandise that will get them a big piece of the pie. In that effort, they have studied the recesses of boys’ minds. According to the Times story, among the things Ms. Pena found were the nugget that boys identify with protagonists who “try hard to grow.” She’s quoted as saying, “winning isn’t nearly as important to boys as Hollywood thinks.”

Dis ney’s response? A TV show for its XD channel that showcases a mediocre basketball player who is a video game champ. In response to the data that shows it is important to acknowledge the minor achievements of this market, Disney has created prominent trophy cases for its game sites. (See right; image courtesy of the New York Times.)

Let’s pause for a minute here. We have had a steroid scandal in baseball. We have enormous signing bonuses for college athletes who show themselves to be winners. We stage parades for the Super Bowl victors and all the while young boys value effort more than triumph. That simple fact can turn the nation away from its distorted values and into a country where the every day joy of doing one’s best is celebrated. It can mean a nation that views ordinary people as heroes and generations of young men who feel good about themselves and treat others accordingly.

We don’t need to give these boys what they want. We need to program to their natural understanding of what is worth wanting. We need to, pardon the expression, capitalize at their natural interest in trying and making meaningful small steps.

We need to listen to what they are telling  us   — not to sell them plastic toys and rubberized T-shirts, but to get them to buy into a better world. Why not shows about the heroes of history who did make the world better by persistence? Why not showcase real boys who do real community service, like the third-grade class at right who started Kids for Darfur? Why not be a company that redefines the bottom line by building better citizens?

It’s a lot to ask from a corporation that measures itself by profits. Billions of dollars of merchandise sales are a lot to walk away from. But the company that gave the world the roaring-est mouse ever could probably figure out a way to redefine profit. Those of us who grew up watching Davy Crockett have a say in this. A letter encouraging Disney to consider meaningful programming on its XD channel (mentioning that we buy a lot of gifts for grandbabies, of course) can go a long way.

President Obama has said about the economic recovery effort that America is not a cabin cruiser but rather that it’s an enormous ship that takes a long time to turn around. Today we read that young American boys value trying more than winning. To let that stunning truth go to waste on selling things would be to truly miss the boat.

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  • Snesich April 20, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    I’m a marketing professional. But marketing should be an “adults only” arena. Just as we don’t sell cigarettes and alcohol to children—nor allow children to have access to great sums of money—we shouldn’t allow the sharpest, most manipulative techniques to be used on the minds of our daughters and sons.

    I can defend myself against messages that scream “YOU MUST BUY THIS OR YOU WILL BE VERY UNHAPPY!!!” I’m an adult. I’m responsible for the choices I make or don’t make. I can negotiate with hucksters, shills and exaggerators all on my own.

    But I don’t want my child’s brain to be a “gotcha” for a bunch of people using the most sophisticated tactics available. Go pick on someone your own size—who might be able to stand up to you.

    There’s a special place in hell for people who market to kids. Take it from a marketing guy.