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The Preteen Tech Consultants

They can't drive or vote, but 8- to 12-year-olds are holding sway in the home when it comes to choosing devices.

November 25, 2005|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

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 search function."

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 about technology.

"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 lot online."

Plus, kids of all ages are more savvy to advertising. So campaigns are more subtle and diffuse.

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 and Evanescence.

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 kids."

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