Perspective: Boys Keeping Busy

At one time, 80 percent of tween lads built plastic models. Not any more.

In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh became the first aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic, the death-defying feat had a curious effect on thousands of preteen boys across the United States. Using glue, paper and popsicle sticks, they started to build model airplanes. By 1945, a new company called Monogram introduced kits with prefabricated parts to help. Soon, its offerings included cars and ships. Plastic would replace balsa wood. By 1956, model building was the hobby of choice for 80 percent of American preteen boys, and it was still a rite of passage in 1979, when Monogram portrayed the two tweens at right, visibly proud of that B-26 Marauder they’d just built.

The 7-14 age group didn’t have the name “tweens” in 1979, but that didn’t matter. It was a demo that, unless you made adults-only goods like cigs or vodka or condoms, was well worth targeting. And with $40 billion in annual buying power, they still are, especially if, like the two ads here, the brands are in the toys and games category. But apart from his physiology, yesterday’s tween differs dramatically from his contemporary counterpart, not only in the brands he buys but the marketing he responds to. As Beardwood & Co. senior partner Ryan Lynch summed it up: “The Monogram ad is about aspiration and quality, but the Gamefly ad is just an extension of a franchise.”

Thirty-three years ago, Monogram did a brisk business with the use of an inspired pitch line: “Nothing Beats Something You Build Yourself.” According to Lynch, that message promised an enticing reward that resonated especially well with the tween-male id. “Men and boys are motivated by accomplishment, the desire to do and finish something,” Lynch said. “This ad was a little bit of chest beating: Do this and feel cool.” Nowadays, branding executives call it aspirational marketing, but by any name, it was a powerful sell to the 7-to-14-year-old. For a few bucks plus some paint and glue, a preteen guy could feel a sense of accomplishment. He could, in other words, buy a piece of adulthood in a box.

It’s easy to assail video games for turning the brains of American youth to mush since then—until you consider that the average gamer these days is 37. Still, it’s clear that the coming of the digital distractions has truly changed the tween demo. The stream of instant information in which tweens have grown up, Lynch said, “makes them fundamentally different in how they interact with society.” In sum, the volume of diversion has been turned up—and the marketing along with it. If yesterday’s tween was content to watch the glue dry on his B-26, today’s has to burn his Mario Kart’s virtual rubber on his Nintendo. And if the lure of building a toy yourself was good enough for the tween of yore, his modern counterpart responds instead to Gamefly’s promise to give him access to over 8,000 games—quicker fixes, and more of them too. “If the Monogram ad was about quality,” said Lynch, “Gamefly is quantity.”

Which makes it hard not to end on a lament. Sure, a recent survey from the Entertainment Software Association revealed that 68 percent of parents believed that video games can “provide mental stimulation or education” to their kids. But name the on-screen game that requires the sort of creativity and sense of craftsmanship to complete as one of those old model kits. If there’s one thing missing from that 2012 ad, Lynch said, it’s a “sense of accomplishment.”

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@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.