In general, having kids has been pretty detrimental to my brain, at least in terms of raw cognitive ability. I’m tired a lot, I have way less time to think, and I have a lot of hilarious conversations that are enlightening about say, the human condition, but aren’t exactly sophisticated technical or policy discussions.
I think this is why so many ambitious people (with the resources and social privileges to match) wait forever to have families. No matter how many resources you have, being a good parent just takes a lot out of you that only you can provide. It’s one thing if you’re rich and don’t care about building an actual relationship with your kids; then you can pay other people to give you free time back. But the insidious thing about parenting is that you probably don’t want that (even if you can afford it, which almost no one can). So it comes back to you to explain the difference between Iron Man and Spiderman to your son two or three hundred times a week to your son not because it’s a great conversation or because it’s on your mind, or even because it’s enriching for him. It’s just what he wants to talk about.
In between these conversations (if you can call them that), my poor, addled brain usually uses it’s remaining horsepower to think about one thing — unsurprisingly, that thing is “why he is so obsessed about X”, where X is one of several very random things we keep coming back to. These include the Paw Patrol franchise, firefighters, and most recently, the Avengers.
Before I had kids, I assumed children became obsessed with random things like comic book franchises due to media saturation and advertising. Basically, the world wants little kids to badger their parents into going to theme parks and buying toys and seeing movies, so they indoctrinate kids with messages saying these things are cool at young ages. I can’t be the only person who assumed this, and to be honest, I kind of always assumed this is why I liked things like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever when I was growing up, even though I don’t specifically remember being advertised to this way. I figured the whole thing was insidious and subconscious, because I am a cynical marketing person.
But a crazy thing happened with my kids, who as of my writing this are 3 and nearly 4 and a half — they haven’t really been exposed to much of anything. They don’t go to school yet, and we’ve moved four times in their lifetimes (hopefully that’s done) so they don’t even really have friends they see regularly. They don’t browse YouTube or the internet or whatever, so the algorithm isn’t getting them. The only things they get exposed to are, basically, individually chosen by me and my wife. We’ve always worked from home a fair amount, and they’ve had the same daily caretaker who never puts them in front of a TV or a phone.
I’m not putting a moral component on this life of theirs — I’m just saying the result is kind of a controlled consumer experiment. My kids really aren’t saturated with anything they don’t ask for, and they only ask for things we showed them, because they don’t know about anything else.
What consumers inherently love
Where this gets interesting is in what my kids become obsessed with. I like all the things I introduce my kids to pretty equally, although obviously I’m a little more amped up about certain personal passions, favorite bands, and things like that. But they get exposed to almost all of my favorite bands/etc. to some degree, and only become obsessed with certain things. And with no marketing, no peer pressure, and no saturation you actually get a window into what ideas, art — and yes, products — are just inherently compelling.
There is no reason for my son to love Paw Patrol, except that, by his standards, it’s f$#@ing awesome. And when I think about it, the concept is kind of awesome, even if the particulars don’t appeal to me as much as they would if I hadn’t already spent 38 years on earth. But little kids love animals, they love vehicles, and they love saving the day, because when you think about it, those things are all fantastically entertaining. Paw Patrol combines them in a way that is both interesting and easy to process for a little kid. It doesn’t need any marketing at all, outside of literally getting a kid to know it exists.
My son has never seen the actual Paw Patrol cartoon. He doesn’t know one exists (thank God). He doesn’t need to — he saw a library book with a picture of all the characters and simply wanted to know more. What are their names? What do they do? Why are they doing it? What does that one do? Does he drive that awesome looking truck? Can I be one of them? He didn’t need marketing material to drive these questions in his brain — he just looked at an exciting, intriguing thing and came up with all of them.
Superheroes are another example. Like many consumers (I assume, based on their box office returns), I have a soft spot for Marvel movies. I wouldn’t say those movies are in the Top 100 of my interests, but they are enjoyable distractions and I think they are good stories told well. There is also a five year old in my brain that likes cool robots and explosions and awesome fighting scenes where bad people get what’s coming to them. It’s hard to argue that these Marvel movies aren’t good products for all of these reasons — but given how much promotional money goes into releasing them, I think there’s also an assumption that people like me partially like them because we’ve been convinced to like them.
I had zero intention of introducing my kids to superheroes for several more years. Number one, it wasn’t really on my list of priorities compared to things like “ride a bike” and “use a toilet”, because I figured they’d eventually discover entertainment like that on their own timeline. But then one day, their babysitter bought me a kind of awesome, definitely ridiculous t-shirt with 1980s style versions of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Spider-Man on it that says “TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK” in huge block letters. It’s great and very comfortable, but it’s not really office wear even for me, so I mostly wear it around the house.
My kids were obsessed with it immediately. Unlike Paw Patrol, which my daughter is only semi-interested in, this one fascinated both of them immediately. With literally no additional reference material, we talked about those four comic book characters at least once a week for months. What are their names again? Are they friends? What do they do? How are they different? Where did they meet? I always answered honestly, with both whatever plot information I was aware of (“Thor is from space”), as well as logistics (“they are all made up”). This just made them more interesting. Eventually, I cracked and showed them one or two little tiny, non-violent scenes from a couple of MCU movies. Spider-Man swinging around. Iron Man trying out his new suit. Captain America jogging. Nothing epic, nothing more than once a day, and certainly nothing longer than two or three minutes.
Doesn’t matter. Both of my kids are completely obsessed with these characters, to the point where my son took my USB camping light and asked my to put it on his shirt so he could pretend to be Iron Man.
But you know what? Who can blame him? Iron Man is totally badass as a concept, and the limited amount of information/validation my kids have confirms, without a doubt, that he is in fact totally badass. They don’t need to be saturated with Marvel marketing to convince them of the quality of these ideas — the only thing the marketing needs to do is make sure they know these ideas exist. That’s important, but it’s a different job from what a lot of people expect promotions to do; i.e., make us interested in something.
It’s the product, stupid
I thought back to my childhood obsessions and realized most of this applied. I loved Jose Canseco because he was an amazing freak of a human specimen (yes, manufactured by illegal drugs, but like I knew that in 1987, or would have cared either way). I loved Legos because they’re an absolutely incredible idea that lets you do awesome things. I loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the same reason my son loves MCU characters — they’re awesome, and exciting, and awe-inspiring and just basically cool as hell. Sometimes I loved something kind of stupid, like Starcom, because the other kids in my kindergarten class liked it, but those things never lasted. I still like Legos.
I run into this problem all the time as a person who does product marketing (and not consumer product marketing either, but no one seems to think that matters). No one straight up says it, but the edict is clear — make people want this. They should want it, and if they don’t, that’s nothing we can’t fix with the right message.
I see a lot of value in good product marketing, and to this point specifically, good product promotional marketing. You gotta get the word out, and when you aren’t selling inherently jaw-dropping concepts like armor you can fly into space and shoot lasers out of, you have to articulate value propositions and make arguments. It’s totally true, and if it weren’t, I would deserve a major pay cut.
But I still think people wildly underestimate the importance of good or great ideas executed in jaw-droppingly good ways. That’s why people truly love things, whether it’s some IT platform for remote wiping laptops, or a movie. They might buy something for another reason; social pressure, some emotional weak spot, or whatever, but at the end of the day those things are fleeting. And yet still, even back in 2010 we had alleged product people looking at the iPhone — the iPhone! — and saying “this is a marketing creation, Nokia has been doing this for years” and just completely and totally missing what was going on around them.
Now, there’s probably a whole other post about how this entire argument is what great product marketing — not product promotion — is actually about; building the right thing. But I have kids, so I’ll probably have that one ready in about five years.