Just Kidding Around: The Rise of the Kidult (pt 2)
Feb 14th, 2023
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This is part two of our pair of episodes about kidulting! In this episode you’ll learn the brands and companies that are changing their business to meet this new market. And you’ll also learn why I’m being bombarded with ads for wine guzzling teddy bears. So grab yourself a gogurt, put on your Strawberry Shortcake nightgown, and get ready for more adorable kidulting trend info.
Anyone who was a child in the late 1970s and later has all kinds of characters, brands, and licensed properties sort of “branded” onto their psyches.
A lot of our nostalgia is (for better or worse) explicitly drawn from things we saw in movies, on television, and in all of the commercials we watched in between. The things that make us nostalgic are more “universal,” (meaning we share this nostalgia with many more people) because so many of us were exposed to these things at the same time. And thanks to social media, it’s easy to find others all over the world who share your memories and love of that character or toy.
Before the mid-70s, toy makers were focused on innovation. What would the next big invention be in the realm of toys or adjacent technology? So many toys that we take for granted as sort of “classic” toys were actually huge technological leaps at the time they emerged:
- The Slinky was accidentally invented by mechanical engineer Richard James while trying to create a spring to hold shipboard marine torsion meters steady. No one thought a random spring could be a hot toy for generations, but there it was.
- When the Viewmaster was invented in 1939, it was a major leap forward in photographic technology. The U.S. government purchased millions of special View-Master reels and used them to train servicemen on how to spot planes and boats within shooting range.
- Hungry Hungry Hippos and its entire concept were imported from a Japanese inventor in 1978.
Through the 1960s and early 70s, it was all about inventing new kinds of toys. But in the late 70s, toy makers were kinda like “well, we’re running out of new things to invent. Let’s focus on how the things we already make can continue to sell in a big way.” And that meant shifting into licensing, focusing on toys (and other categories of product) based on movies, cartoons, and other characters/properties.
I quoted Jeremy Padawer, chief brand officer at toy company Jazwares, earlier in the episode. Jazwares is cashing in on a lot of brands/toys that kidults are loving right now, including Pokemon, Squishmallows, and Star Wars. So I would consider him an expert in this world!
He told CNBC, “In 1977, ‘Star Wars’ launches, and you started seeing a lot more licensed product at retail, where we were celebrating our fandom with toys and collectibles.”
And I’m just going to jump in here and say that you could buy just about Star Wars anything at that point (beyond toys): Halloween costumes, bedding/home decor, towels, lunchboxes, glasses, pajamas, you name it!
Basically kids of this era were seeing Star Wars in every realm of their lives, even if it wasn’t specifically of interest to them. But it was a key component of so many memories! Like, seeing an item from this time could spark a lot of nostalgia, potentially motivating them to buy something similar NOW or even just to rewatch the movies (which could intensify the relationship and lead to buying something).
The success of Star Wars really changed the nature of the toy industry, as companies began to see how the value of these licensed properties was so much bigger than just a regular toy, because you could expand into other non-toy categories. And we saw that pick up momentum in the 1980s, when you could buy Rainbow Brite bedding, Barbie pajamas, Wonder Woman Underoos, Punky Brewster sneakers, JEM makeup, and just about anything Strawberry Shortcake.
Things got a little bit more insidious in the industry in the 1980s. And it all began with cartoons.When I talk to people about the things they are most nostalgic about from their childhoods, whether it was food (Gushers, Kool-Aid, Dunkaroos, Fruit Roll Ups), toys, those “The More You Know” PSAs, or songs…it all goes back to the cartoons we watched and the commercials we saw. Kim, do you have any specific cartoon ad memories? Anything you just had to have?
The reality is that kids have always had a hard time distinguishing ads from actual content. A study released by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission, the agency tasked with regulating children’s content here in the US) in 1978 stated that television advertising did indeed mislead many of its younger viewers. Finding it difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy, many toddlers viewed the commercial with the same eagerness and fervor as they would the actual show.
The FTC study showed that many children:
- 1. have difficulty differentiating television commercials from programming;
- 2. show little understanding that the purpose of commercials is to create product demand; and
- 3. repose indiscriminate trust in commercial messages, particularly if they are among the group that fails to recognize the selling purpose, or otherwise understand or evaluate, the commercial
Therefore, it was really important to protect children from advertising.
But in the 1980s, the Reagan administration changed everything. Business and growing the economy was the number one priority, and not being able to sell stuff to kids via the television was standing in the way of business growth. So every regulation around children’s programming and advertising would be obliterated.
After that, more than 40 shows based on toy lines flooded the airwaves. The cartoons were created solely as 30 minute commercials for the toys, with commercial breaks about other toys, candy, and stuff. Toy companies began to work cartoon production into their budgets because it was a key marketing technique. Ultimately many of these properties became the best selling toys of the 1980s. Some are still popular, others are not. These included some toys that are still driving sales right now, as products and films:
- He-Man, and later She-Ra
- Jem & The Holograms
- Care Bears
- My Little Pony
- Rainbow Brite
Basically this created an entire generation that has all of these licensed properties as the backdrop of their memories. From the cartoons, to the theme songs, to the toys, to the other “stuff,” they are baked into everything we remember. We are attached to these characters and shows. And even if we were kinda “meh” about the Care Bears back then, if we see something related to it now (candy, a magnet, even just a pen), we are more likely to buy it because it makes us feel good. It feels more important than it should be. And because we share these memories with so many other people (because they are essentially mass produced) it’s easy to find others (thanks to social media) who share those fond memories. You can make friends and build entire communities around this nostalgia.
Going back to Jeremy Padawer, he said (regarding all of that Star Wars merch), “At the time, the intended recipient was almost all kids. But those children that were born in the ’70s and ’80s were really the first generation that had this much licensing and this much product that was available for them to demonstrably attach to. And it’s not a big surprise, then that those kids are in their 30s and 40s, that they continue to demonstrate that.”
I am a major fan of Hello Kitty–I even have a tattoo–and that really stems from my own nostalgia for what Hello Kitty meant to me as a kid. I had a cancer as a small child, which meant I spent a lot of time in the hospital. And hospital gift shops tended to have a little corner of Sanrio stuff–small gifts like stickers, stationary, pencils. And I would often receive them as gifts from visitors. Hello Kitty represented a shining light, something fun, in an otherwise pretty miserable time. And as I grew older, I carried that affection for Hello Kitty with me.
Sanrio has definitely built a business off of selling to people of all ages for years now. When I rode the Hello Kitty Shinkansen in Japan a few years ago, the train was filled with generations of women: grandmothers, mothers, and daughters (also some free range adults like me) and we were all giddy and teary eyed. We gladly plunked down ridiculous amounts of money for dry cookies and cute pins and gifts.
According to a 2014 study by the Journal of Consumer Research, we are more likely to spend money when we feel nostalgic. There is something about nostalgia that makes people feel less like they need to hold on to their money. It’s very odd. According to the study, "We found that when people have higher levels of social connectedness and feel that their wants and needs can be achieved through the help of others, their ability to prioritize and keep control over their money becomes less pressing.” The study also implied that leaning into nostalgia during a recession can help get reluctant customers to spend some money.
So let’s talk about some of those brands that are having major success with Kidults:
Legos has its own “adult section” on the website, featuring cars, Optimus Prime, Van Gogh paintings, orchids, and so many other incredible building sets. And these are not cheap, starting at $50 just going up from there. The company began releasing these “18+” sets in 2020, and they have seen sales to adults increase more than 400% over the previous decade. Today the company offers about 100 adult sets. And 20% of total company sales are adults buying for themselves.
I’m not surprised to see this brand on the list of companies thriving in the era of “kidulting,” thanks to all of the American Girl meme accounts on Instagram. I also think that the introduction of Courtney, a new 80s American Girl with an acid washed skirt and a walkman, is definitely part of pandering to adults.
The brand has seen an influx of millennials and zoomers buying dolls AND visiting the American Girl stores/hanging out in the restaurants. In fact, the company has begun expanding its menus to appeal to more mature palates and it has added alcohol.
Last February, the New York Times published an article called “Dolls and Drinks for Likes and Clicks: The American Girl Cafe has become an unlikely party spot for influencers and their imitators.” The article is kinda annoying because it focuses on some annoying influencers, but it gets better toward the end. The writer, Shane O’Neill, begins to explore the idea that pretty much underscores all of this kidulting: we buy ourselves these things as adults because we couldn’t have them as kids. And American Girl and all of its expensive trappings is no exception. In fact, it’s kind of the most ideal example!
The writer spies a group of six adults with no children at another table.
“They were visiting from Austin, Texas, to celebrate Timothy Flitton’s 33rd birthday. They were inspired to have their birthday party at the American Girl Cafe after seeing Ms. Griffin’s TikTok video. Like Ms. Griffin, they ordered mimosas.
“We’re living our millennial fantasy,” said Mx. Flitton, who sported aquamarine hair and a rainbow sweater. Kaylan Howard, a friend, agreed.
“They were too expensive when I was a child,” Ms. Howard, 32, said of the dolls. “And now we can afford it, should we want it.” She didn’t want it, but said she appreciated the gratis loaners they were each given for the meal.
A server emerged from the kitchen carrying a birthday cake shaped like a giant petit four. Mx. Flitton and the rest of the party erupted in applause.
The cheers died down as the waiter walked past the table. The cake was for someone seated behind them who was celebrating her ninth birthday.
I stumbled across another piece called “I Bought An American Girl Doll At Age 34 & Here’s What Happened,” written by Shani Silver in 2019. I really enjoyed reading it because it once again underscored how the independence of being an adult can mean being able to give yourself something you always wanted. And I think that’s another key to the kidulting trend.
Silver writes,“There’s something about childhood that never leaves you. I think there are certain things and experiences that build the scaffolding of who you’ll become later in life, and not having a Molly doll left more of a mark than I was comfortable admitting for a long time. Because her absence was a symbol of a lot more, a symbol that I didn’t believe I was worthy of, not just nice things, but anything I ever wanted. So in my early 30s, I started to address the childhood moments that left me feeling sad, angry, and simply less-than. I decided it was time for Molly to be mine.
There are few moments as gratifying as holding a Molly doll for the first time, after a childhood of being told you can’t have one, and a lifetime of believing you don’t deserve one. She was beautiful, she was expensive, and she was finally something I got to have. I don’t care what age she came into my life, to have something you’ve held in high regard from a place of innocence and imagination is a beautiful thing. It was a triumph. An acknowledgment that I deserve nice things, and a confidence that only comes from buying them for myself. Holding my Molly doll felt like I was closing a loop in time, and satisfying the kind of desire you only have as a kid. My inner child and I were together and happy for the first time in a long time that day. We got along just fine.”
Squishmallows–and I’ll admit it’s hard for me to imagine Kim owning one of these–are super soft stuffed animals that are shaped roughly like marshmallows made by Jazwares. And more than 100 million units of them have been sold! I try to not think about this too hard because I worry about 100 million Squishmallows ending up in a landfill. I recently learned that more than 65% of Squishmallows are purchased by adults for themselves. And it turns out there is an INTENSE community for them online, with groups on every social media platform. Posts tagged #Squishmallows have been viewed more than 4 billion times.
Many Squishmallow fans say that the plush helps with their anxiety, but there is also a Beanie Babies-like “collectability” factor, with rare styles fetching as much as $1000 on the resale market. They are available in a lot of places, from Five Below to drugstore chains to Costco (and even Squishmallows has its own DTC site), but because they are sorta scattered all over the place, it’s kind of a scavenger hunt to find them. We tried to buy them for my day job, but the company that distributes them told us that we couldn’t pick what we could get or when we could get it…and that’s just too chaotic for me. So we passed.
Despite Squishmallows helping so many people with their anxiety, the online community for fans can get a little…unpleasant. An Input article from last year called “Squishmallows are adorable, but their online fandom has a dark side” by Jessica Lucas lays out some particularly disturbing behaviors that remind me way too much of the Beanie Baby era.
Most Squishmallows retail for $20 or less, but the perceived rarity has lead to “shelf clearers” aka “people who wake up really early and buy all of the popular Squish” to resell often at double or triple (or more) the ticket price. The collective disgust with shelf clearers has lead to doxxing of suspected culprits. A collector named Tabitha told Input, “People are so scared now that they make up stories about how they got a Squish — pretending they got it from a cousin or something — just to avoid the backlash.”
Go read the article for more details (you can find it at thedepartment.world) but wow, this reminds me SO much of Beanie Babies.
I’m just going to start by saying that I hate these. I don’t know why these bother me so much. Because they are solid plastic? Over 10 million units have been sold over the last 3 years. The average age of a Funko Pop customer is 36 years old. And you can find Funko all over the place: drug stores, big box stores, Hot Topic, toy stores, etc. The characters are primarily licensed with the company owning more than 150 licenses to make these vinyl characters.
Former Disney CEO Bob Iger was part of a group of investors that dropped $263 million for a 25% stake in Funko. These figurines are less about play and more about collectibility, and there is a certain level of that “Beanie Babies thinking” at play here, with people assuming they will appreciate in value.
It’s important to call out here–before I forget–that Mattel owns American Girl. So they have been aware that adults are buying toys for themselves. In 2020, they launched “Mattel Creations,” a subsidiary of the company that partners with celebrities and fashion designers to create limited edition toys that sell at a pretty steep price. A Gucci collab with Hot Wheels sold out online in less than a minute. Mattel is predicting triple digit growth for Mattel Creations over the next few years. Mattel president and COO Richard Dickson told Time magazine, “The adult form of play is really about collectibility and display. It’s conversational. It’s art. It’s levity. It’s joy. It’s fun. When you look at the world right now, we need lightheartedness.”
Bob Mackie Barbie, $150
Lastly and not leastly…BUILD A BEAR WORKSHOP launched its own 18+ section on its website (called The Bear Cave) and…well, let’s just see what they have to offer.
So will this “kidulting” trend continue? I think yes, for a lot of reasons. As I mentioned way back in the beginning, Gen X and Millennials are redefining what age and adulthood means. We have changed our habits around socialization and these toy related communities are a big part of that. And I’ll also just add that Boomers have been collecting trains and sports cards for years, so I don’t think nostalgic collecting is anything new.
I’m going to end this with a quote from someone from the beginning of this story, Juli Lennett of NPD Group. “I think once adults have rediscovered their love of toys, that love doesn’t go away.”
So Kim, what do you think is next for kidulting? Any categories or particular products from your childhood or teen years that you would like to see again?