If you haven’t been paying attention, Nintendo’s recent Wii U marketing campaign is targeting parents who play video games with their young children. This is a much more specific, smaller market than just marketing to kids. The theme of parents playing with their children is consistent throughout commercials for “Wii Party U” and “Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympics”.
Nintendo invests so much time and money into promoting “family time with video games”, but the Entertainment Software Association says only 35% of parents have time to play video games with their kids at least once a week. In February 2013, Disney conducted a study where they found out that parents, on average, only have 15 free weekends each year to spend time with their kids. That means parents are usually too busy to spend time with their kids on the other 37 weekends throughout the year.
During the weekdays, family time is spread thin by work, school, after-school activities, spending time with friends, spending time on the internet, texting, or doing chores around the house. According to a recent study paid for by Universal Studios and Virgin Holidays, parents and children only spend 36 minutes (average) of actual family time with each other on weekdays (Monday through Friday).
Should Nintendo accept that most parents buy game consoles as babysitting devices (instead of family time devices) to keep children occupied for a few hours? There was even a poll reported by New York Daily News where 58% of parents said they use gadgets to babysit their kids.
Families are lucky if they find time to sit down and have a dinner together. NPR found that 46 percent of parents said eating together is difficult due to limited time. Another study from the NYU Langone Medical Center says family dinners have declined by 33% and family vacations have decreased 28%.
Less and less families have time to eat dinners with each other, but Nintendo believes families have time to play together like those families in the Wii U commercials? That just isn’t realistic, but should we expect realism when the families in these commercials look like they came straight out of the 1990’s?
If parents and kids already have limited time with each other, why should parents choose video games over any other ways to spend quality family time? Aren’t parents already concerned about their kids staring at screens and gadgets all day? Wouldn’t responsible parents prefer doing something more social like going to the park, visit Grandma, or playing basketball with your son?
In June 2013, Northwestern’s Center on Media and Human Development asked parents about the effects of media on their small children.
“Parents had a positive view of TV, computers, and mobile devices when it comes to the effect on their children’s academic studies and creativity. They did not hold the same view of video games, however. They shared concerns about the effect of video games on children’s attention span, academic studies, behavior, and sleep. And parents’ biggest concern about the effects of digital media related to children’s lack of physical activity,” writes Joystiq writer Karen Bryan about Northwestern Center’s study.
When parents still believe games have negative psychological effects on children, how likely will they believe games are the best way to spend family time? Let’s not pretend that every parent was a gamer before becoming a parent.
Wouldn’t Wii U’s marketing be better off advertising kids playing with their friends instead of kids playing with their parents? Wouldn’t there be a bigger market for that instead?
When kids watch Wii U advertisements of little kids playing with their middle-aged parents, they feel like Nintendo is talking down to them like babies. Kids see Wii U commercials like the “Mario & Sonic Winter Olympics” commercial and think, “My family is nothing like this.”
The Wayne Brady Wii Party U commercials reinforce the idea that parents/adults are too stupid, incompetent, or embarrassing for kids to be around. If you want kids to spend family time with their parents, why would you make adults act like fools in your advertisements? When you run ads where kids are smarter than adults, playing games with your parents doesn’t seem cool to kids anymore.
If a kid sees the Wayne Brady advertisement (gif above), he/she would think:
- If I buy a Wii U, will I be as bored as those kids look?
- If I buy a Wii U, will my parents act embarrassing like this?
There was an article on PsychologyToday.com written by a Ph. D. professor named Jim Taylor that summed up my thoughts.
“Over the past two decades, children who, for example, watch television, have received messages from popular culture telling them that parents are selfish, immature, incompetent, and generally clueless, for example, from Malcolm in the Middle, Tool Time, Family Guy, Two and a Half Men, and I Hate My Teenage Daughter, not to mention reality TV shows such as SuperNanny and the Housewives franchise,” says Taylor.
Kids are told over and over by television shows that adults are stupid, and the Wayne Brady Wii U ads tell kids, “Yeah, adults are stupid and embarrassing! Do you want to play video games with us?”
Nintendo’s software provides an alternative to a market over saturated with gritty shooters, and they work hard to maintain a family friendly image that parents can trust. But over the years, I’ve wondered if the definition of “family entertainment” has dramatically changed. Two months ago, a video game retail veteran wrote a Kotaku article saying, “Last week my store sold over a thousand copies of GTA V, at least a hundred of which were sold to parents for children who could barely even see over my counter.” These were parents who understood quite well what they were buying their children, and they just didn’t care for whatever reason.
In 2012, U.K. parents were asked if they checked the age restrictions of their children’s video games before allowing them to play — 64%, answered “no”, and 55% of those people said age restrictions didn’t matter on video games. There’s no reason to be surprised when a 2008 study from PEW researchers asked kids what their favorite games were, and 50 percent of boys listed at least one M-rated game.
Is it a wasted effort for a company like Nintendo to emphasize clean family entertainment when many of today’s parents believe their kids are mature enough to handle most violent games? Have kids become so immune to violence in movies, television, and games that the word “family entertainment” has lost its meaning? The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports that the average American child will view 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence in entertainment (movies, games, etc) before the age of 18 years old. Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, told CNN, “Ninety percent of movies, 68% of video games, and 60% of TV shows show some depictions of violence.”
Children are more connected to the world than ever before with social networks and mobile devices. The internet makes it impossible to shelter your children from news stories about a gunman shooting up a movie theater during the latest Batman movie. It’s impossible to shelter kids from stories about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary or the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, kids have learned to accept that they live in a violent world, and perhaps parents have decided to stop sheltering their children from those grim realities.
Many parents view M-rated games similar to how parents perceive PG-13 films. According to Fandango.com, 78% of parents said PG-13 rated films are featuring more adult content than ever before. But 75% of those same respondents said they believe PG-13-rated movies should be suitable for their children. Think about that for a second. Parents acknowledge that PG-13 movies are becoming increasingly violent, but they still believe PG-13 movies are acceptable for their children. The PG-13 rating allows filmmakers to cram in “borderline” R-rated content without restricting young children from watching it. This allows studios to maximize their revenue potential by appealing to a diverse range of age groups.
The “Mature” (M) rating has now become the game industry’s PG-13 — a rating that most parents understand but don’t take very seriously.
The ESRB’s Mature rating has become synonymous with big blockbuster video games similar to how PG-13 is synonymous with big budget, blockbuster films. PG-13 films such as “Batman” and “James Bond” are advertised as big movie events that everyone should participate in viewing. In comparison, M-rated games such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty” are always advertised as the “big AAA blockbuster events” of the year. When it comes to both movies and games, parents are left feeling guilty if their children can’t participate in these highly anticipated, highly publicized events.
M-rated games — equivalent to an R-rating — receive the same mass-market advertising that only PG-13 films would have. It’s rare to see many (if any) R-rated films advertised at Burger King or Pizza Hut, but nobody has a problem with advertising M-rated games like Call of Duty all over food products like Mountain Dew or Doritos that children eat and drink.
In 2003, Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president, was asked why Nintendo focuses so much on children. Here was his response.
“This criticism has always confused us for a couple of reasons. First, youngsters are the people with the most time to play the games, and often the most passionate. The fact is that Nintendo is the only manufacturer who seriously targets this market.” said Satoru Iwata.
I would have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Iwata on one tiny thing. Nintendo is not the only manufacturer who seriously targets kids.
Earlier this year, Microsoft said 51% of Xbox Live subscribers have children. Instead of advertising Xbox consoles directly to kids like Nintendo does, kids become familiarized with the Xbox brand through their parents. All of these “hardcore gamers” — the audience for Xbox consoles — are now reaching the ages of becoming fathers. Microsoft doesn’t need to spend significant amounts of money marketing to children when they can build Xbox’s kids audience indirectly through their gaming parents.
Also, Sony and Microsoft will never admit this to the public, but their popular M-rated software such as Halo, Gears of War, and Killzone are targeted at all ages (kids through adults) — just like Nintendo software. Game development costs are spiraling out of control, consoles are losing money for every unit sold, and studios continue laying off staff. When you invest millions and billions of dollars into the console market, who wouldn’t want to reach the largest and broadest audience possible?
At elementary schools across the country, kids are sharing their Xbox Live gamertags with each other, and games like “Call of Duty” are regularly discussed during lunch and recess. Parents feel guilty taking away violent games from their kids when those games are how their children form friendships inside of the classroom. When children become friends due to a shared interest in a violent game, not many mothers want to be blamed for ruining friendships.
- But back to my previous point — Nintendo shouldn’t become super comfortable in believing that they are the only console maker who takes the kids market seriously. In December 2012, Venture Beat writer Dan Crawley walked through a Toys R’ Us where he found Gears of War toys on the store shelf.
“Wandering around Toys ‘R’ Us with my two children last week, this marketing strategy and the in-store placement of the new Meccano range struck an odd chord. Nestled snugly alongside pictures of Sonic the Hedgehog and brightly colored constructable cars, Gears of War protagonist Marcus Fenix’s face staring out from its Meccano box looked strangely out-of-place. It made me wonder why such a range is being aimed at young children,” says Crawley.
That same year, Meccano announced their plans for a television campaign to promote these “Gears of War” licensed toys.
“The new ads will run for four weeks on channels including Cartoon Network, Disney XD, Nicktoons and CITV, with the company estimating that 60% of six to 11-year old boys will see the ads seven times on average,” said Meccano’s press release.
Oh, and those Gears of War toy commercials airing on Cartoon Network had gameplay footage with blood splattering. You can watch the toy commercial here on Meccano’s official YouTube channel.
If these toys were just some generic G.I. Joe brand then there wouldn’t be much of an issue. But this is a licensed toy to familiarize children with a license they shouldn’t be familiar with. On top of that, the strategic promotional plan to target channels and air times to reach kids as young as six years old (those are the words of the company, not mine) would raise anyone’s eyebrows. Furthermore, the placement of Gears of War toys in the middle of all these bright, colorful, toys is a questionable strategy.
But as Dan Crawley mentions in his article, there are other toys licensed off M-rated games that could be found at Toys R’ Us.
There was an entire shelf of “Halo” toys conveniently mixed in with the Power Ranger toys and Spider-Man toys. Now imagine a child walking down the aisle and he sees “Spider-Man”, “Power Rangers” and then “Halo”. It’s obvious that these toys exist in Toys R Us to build brand recognition for adult licenses among small children. Once the toys make the child aware of the license’s existence, it will lead the child’s interest toward playing the real thing (the video game).
What Can We Learn From Wii’s Marketing?
Before the Wii launched in 2006, Walmart had a rack where consumers could grab a Wii Buyer’s Guide to learn about the system. The front of the guide showed young adults, not families or small children, having fun with the Wii. Instead of showing Nintendo characters, the front of the buyer’s guide showed the type of people that Nintendo wanted to buy their products. These were the type of people that Nintendo couldn’t convince to buy the GameCube, but Nintendo was working hard to change that with the Wii.
Young adults picked up those Walmart Buyer’s Guides because they could identify themselves with the people on the cover. That cover spoke to young women who didn’t have any interest in video games before. Showing attractive people on the cover fought against the stereotype of gamers being ugly nerds or children. Images of young adults were plastered all over Wii kiosks and promotional displays before launch.
What if Nintendo characters, instead of real people, were shown on the covers of those Walmart Buyer’s Guides? Most consumers would have dismissed it as “just another machine to buy Mario,” and they would have walked by without giving that buyer’s guide any attention.
I’m not saying Nintendo didn’t advertise to families or children with the Wii — because they did. But before Wii launched, the 2006 Wii ads skewered more to older teens and young adults than families with small children.
When Nintendo effectively marketed Wii to young adults/teenagers, the kids market became more attracted to the Wii. Wii promotional material showed young college students looking cool and sexy while swinging a Wii remote, and this made kids view Wii as an experience instead of just a toy. Young adults in the 2006 advertisements didn’t make the Wii look embarrassing or corny like the Wii U television families — they made it look hip, social, and interesting to kids.
But in November 2012, Wii U’s marketing took the GameCube approach, and completely focused on families with small children which creates a perception that the console is childish. Nintendo became over-reliant on Mario and nostalgia (Nintendo Land) to market the Wii U. The Wii U’s 2012 family-heavy marketing campaign has extended into 2013, and it feels like it was designed by people who don’t even understand children.
The message behind Nintendo of America’s Wii U marketing campaign is you can’t have fun with Wii U unless you have children to play with. Nintendo does not intentionally mean to give off that message, but their advertisements do heavily imply it.
When family-heavy marketing isn’t executed properly, it runs the risk of alienating everyone else outside of the family market. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what is happening with the current Wii U advertising campaigns. Nintendo’s games are designed for all ages, but Nintendo of America’s recent commercials completely ignore older kids, and focuses on parents with small children.
Kids always want to be older than their actual age, and when most of Wii U’s television ads are starring 7-year-olds, this will repel 10-year-old kids away from Wii U. Nintendo’s advertisements from previous console generations did a better job showing children from different age groups instead of skewering to the youngest ages possible. Instead of attracting the kids market, Nintendo of America’s Wii U commercials are dividing the kids market.
When Nintendo effectively marketed Wii to college students, the kids market automatically came to them, and they sold over 100 million consoles. Nintendo didn’t have to make dark, gritty shooters to be effective at marketing the first Wii to young college students.
When Nintendo focused on marketing to families and children with GameCube, the console gained a kiddy image, and they lost both the adult and kids market to PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
As I’ve mentioned before, family marketing is tricky because if you don’t balance it correctly, it can alienate audiences from your product. Once you alienate them and create a perception around your product, it’s difficult to get those consumers to return. The Wii’s marketing struck a perfect balance between adults and children without alienating either audience in the process. I’ve seen people compare it to politics where if a candidate is too liberal, it might push away moderate liberals, or if a candidate is too conservative, it might push away moderate conservatives.
If you don’t strike the right balance with Wii U’s marketing, you’ll end up pushing away most people, and you will end up with a niche audience.