For the Kids and the Wallet: Market Manipulation of Children in Media | Big Daddy Digest

Oh yes, the doomsayer is back to call out more bad media company practices. I have previously covered predatory marketing practices in a prior piece. And I really suggest you read that one if you haven’t so that you can have a little more background to the types of manipulation I am going to be discussing here. You can find that article here.

This time around I want to focus on companies that more specifically target children in their media practices. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that marketing to all age groups is important, but I want to touch on what certain companies seem to do with their various intellectual properties that are specifically targeted towards children. Mainly because we have been seeing some rather interesting examples of manipulating these brands with the growth of the digital market and the standardization of certain questionable market practices. Without further ado, let’s take a little trip in the past where the market first started to target children manipulatively and work out way to the present.

Children TV Prime Time

Remember when you were a little kid, running downstairs on Saturday morning to catch those ever present cartoons. Well, that trend was around for a while, dating all the way back to 1964 in most countries, and 1959 for the first children’s program on BBC. What has also been the case, and this really should come as no surprise, but those programs were mainly designed to sell you stuff. And no, I don’t just mean the increased frequency of toy commercials aired during that time of the week, but most of the programs themselves. 

I don’t intend to sit here and go through every single cartoon that has ever done this. Mainly because neither of us have the time and I don’t intend for this to be over 100 pages of text just describing what TV has done to children. But, I do want to call out some of the biggest offenders of this. Let’s start with Barbie and the whole media empire that surrounds her. The first animated movie for her toy collection, though the toy line has been around for over 60 years, was the 1987 film Barbie and the Rockers: Out of this World. In which Barbie and her whole gang travel to space for some reason and manage to achieve super stardom, and wouldn’t you know it but they just happened to release a line of Barbies portraying her as a Rock Star. Though this just falls in line with the cartoon era that this movie came out in.

Speaking of the period of the time, the 1980’s saw a major shift in children’s programming to directly market toy lines in their cartoons. While there are a ton of examples I could pick here, I still have a special place with the 1985 series ThunderCats. This show follows the adventures of humanoid alien cars that were forced to leave their home planet and end up on Third Earth. They proceed to protect their new home from mutants similar to the ones that chased them from their home world. Want to know why I called this series out particularly though? Because it was so set to sell toys that its toy line ended up launching in 1983, when the series was originally set to air. A show designed strictly to sell toys to children.

Those however are the methods of yesterday. Children aren’t watching nearly as much TV as they used to. So, how did media companies adjust to this change in viewer location? Simple, going where the kids are.

Luigi Where Are You Brother

While we are talking about toy lines, let’s dive into LEGO and some innovations they have done recently. With the new Super Mario Bros. line of LEGO sets, they have managed to make Mario himself electronic. With sound effects and a light up screen to excite the children playing with the set and building their own maps. So what is the problem with an innovation like that?

Well, as it turned out, LEGO Mario could connect to your wireless internet to receive updates such as new effects for upcoming products for the LEGO set as well as new effects and bug fixes for the current product. Well, the internet went crazy one day as one of these updates for Mario in which he started calling out for his canonical brother, Luigi, upon  booting up. At the time, a Luigi for the set was not even announced and had parents voicing concerns. As this type of update was not announced prior and seemed under-handed by others. I for one feel that this was not an “igneous marketing strategy”, but rather a manipulative tactic to get kids bugging their parents to get Mario’s brother for them because they had to keep hearing about it. 

It just makes one wonder. As toys become more electronic, and also linked to the internet in some way. What is to stop another company from doing this same thing. Hell, what is to stop LEGO themselves from updating Mario and Luigi to pitch other LEGO sets and not just their line? I would imagine Nintendo would stop them, but that would probably be more retroactive after it has already been done.

Fortnite and Bullying

Now I know, I have certainly mentioned this story before, but I feel it is ever more relevant here, when we are talking about media platforms and how they manipulate children. So, this story broke about a year and half ago as of writing, and I am sure the problem discussed has grown since then. A private school teacher came forward discussing the disparity between normally just physical items amongst children at the school. What he started noticing is that kids were starting to be bullied for a different reason.

Kids within his class had started bullying other students over what their classmates wore in-game in Fortnite. Basically alienating a student in the class because he could not afford to get any skins in game. Prior, I said that companies would absolutely love to have this kind of influence and peer pressuring going on. 

But, the fact is that as Fortnite moves more into their Metaverse position and becomes a hang out spot over a video game, issues like this will continue, and hierarchies that come with that hang out status will follow. All of this is exemplified by the fact that Epic Games knows its primary audience is around the ages of 12-15 years old.

The absurdity of that story is that people can no longer just play Fortnite, but rather there exists this need to “experience” Fortnite and I shudder to think how Epic Games will monetize these new experiences outside of the game that they intend to add to their Metaverse. I guess you can’t really blame the company that funnels people hardcore into their premium store and battle pass when they just log on to check out the MLK event. (Like what happened to our Editor Mel when she attempted to join that experience.)

But, I suppose we expect this of free-to-play games. And of the companies that make their money off of them. What if it comes from a company that is basically a child-centric power house? 

Nintendo’s Dive Into Mobile Gaming

Nintendo has a tendency to always stay behind current trends. Essentially they have a habit of being fashionably late to the party, but when they do arrive they certainly arrive in a big way. So to start, let’s take a look at Nintendo’s inevitable entrance into the mobile gaming space. 

Nintendo didn’t originally enter the mobile-gaming market with a microtransaction riddled application. Their first mobile game, Super Mario Run, was considered a big commercial success and was rather fun actually. Instead of a microtransaction model, Nintendo went with a trial version of the game and a $10 price tag. This however would be the only game in Nintendo’s mobile games library to avoid the microtransaction model and as I said prior, when Nintendo does something they go at it pretty hard. 

Nintendo started with general time skips and gacha-grab styled games like Dr. Mario World and Fire Emblem: Heroes, but they have certainly reached out and taken on more expensive monetization models for their games. Before we get into that, I want to mention that Nintendo is not only doing this out of their own house, but also co-published several mobile Pokémon games (Pokémon Café Mix, Pokémon Quest, and Pokémon Shuffle) that all include rather aggressive microtransactions. However, there are a few titles of note that I want to talk about here as being particularly properties geared towards younger audiences. 

Animal Crossing: Open Your Wallet

Image courtesy of Riroto_ via Discord

Alright, so I used to be a fan of the Animal Crossing series. I have certainly enjoyed my fair share of Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS. So, when Nintendo released an Animal Crossing game for mobile devices, I was down to give it a shot. From personal experience it was by far one of the greediest designed mobile games I have ever touched, and I have played my fair share of shameless IP cash grabs before. 

Not only did this app incorporate time skip microtransactions, but a gacha styled reward system that you could buy into, among other things. Nintendo wasn’t satisfied with just that either, they had to add a subscription plan, in which part of locked quality of life changes to the game behind a monthly pay wall. The two plans up for grabs were a Camp Helper Plan and a Furniture and Fashion Plan. The Camp Helper Plan allowed people to pay a monthly fee of ~$3 in order to have someone to help you manage camper requests while you were away from your camp, either in-game or offline. The Furniture and Fashion Plan would allow players to unlock five gacha mechanic cookies a month out of most of the special gacha cookies in the game so far, but also added furniture loadout saving at ~$8 a month. And trust me, if you bought into one of these you were heavily monetized to buy the other. 

This was a main Nintendo title, and while it didn’t get worse with monetization models until around two years after launch, it just seems to try to get all the money it can out of its remaining player base. Don’t forget that this series is primarily marketed towards children all over the world. It seems that Nintendo is banking on the cute aesthetic of this series to bring in children too, which makes this aggressive marketing all the worse. Though the subscription model was yanked from our next child focused series with its drop to the mobile gaming space.

It’s A’Me Credit Card

Mario Kart Tour is another rather hard monetization model. Before we dive into what exactly is wrong with this game, remember that this is usually marketed as a family party game, and rated ‘E’ for everyone. Which ties into the idea that rated ‘E’ games not having microtransactions at all, which I personally believe is a firm argument. 

Where to even begin with this game. At the point Mario Kart Tour was released, Nintendo had a fairly good idea of how to work a mobile game into a money making machine. It launched with gacha mechanics for karts and racers, or pay to play in a Coin Rush Mode which gave them coins to purchase some racers on a rotating store. But as I said prior, Mario Kart Tour is where the subscription model for Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp came from. So what is the subscription model like for this game?

The Gold Pass, sold for ~$5 a month, locked unique rewards behind a paywall. Though at least this doesn’t have the social pressure to get these unique items like Fortnite does since Nintendo lied about the live online racing part of the game.Though the bots certainly pressure you to buy for the newest racers. Anyway, the rewards in the Gold Pass weren’t even guaranteed. It was simply that you could unlock them in the gacha pulls if you paid the premium price each month. Plus the 200cc racing mode was locked behind this paywall. Effectively making the game less exciting for players unless you opened your wallet and fed some numbers to paywall. 

I feel as if it is less disgusting that Nintendo used age-old monetization methods, not to mention stacked so many of them. But spoiled the whole enjoyable Mario Kart series with a joke of a title like this. Oh, but I recall mentioning that Nintendo also likes to co-publish and co-develop some of these cash grabs against their younger player base. And you best believe I didn’t forget their most recent and possibly grossest example of manipulative marketing and targeting children in the modern world.

Pokémon Cough It Up

Oh boy, we are going to dive into what might be one of Nintendo’s biggest money makers of all time. The series that started as a simple monster catching game has certainly exploded to contain so much more. With that explosion into other forms of entertainment, such as a toy line, a collectible card game, and an animated universe, came a bigger push to market Pokémon.

While Nintendo had dabbled in the mobile gaming sphere with the previously mentioned co-published mobile  Pokémon games, and certainly had those stuffed with microtransactions that would make EA blush at this point. We have come full circle with the marketing of this purely child’s product line, in the newest game Pokémon Unite.

So, I have actually played this game when it came out. It is part of the reason I wanted to do this piece to begin with. Because I have never seen a MOBA so riddled with monetization, and so obviously targeted towards children, to make me want to never touch the thing again. But what exactly did they put into Pokémon Unite?

First off, they put five different forms of monetization within the game, which stands out to the two that you see most MOBA’s employ. They are Cosmetics for your trainer, a Battle Pass system, a Gacha Pull system that you can actually buy pulls for, buying character licenses for more playable characters, and actual game stat boosting items that directly influence the game. Now, I wouldn’t even call this MOBA predatory with monetization if it didn’t shoe horn so much into it, as well as providing reminders to buy into the Battle Pass (that is overpriced compared to other MOBA’s), but there is a serious issue when you sell game boosting items. 

This isn’t to say that the game itself is unplayable, but I wouldn’t recommend a child even touch this game without highly financially conscious adults standing by. Also, this game could only truly be enjoyed for a short while before you run into people in your games with heavy money into the game and the stat boosting items I mentioned prior. Meaning the game is not balanced around anything other than how deep your pockets go. With the game having been out for a while at time of writing, this problem is probably just ever more present, and exists as Nintendo’s grossest form of monetization in a product that has always been focused towards children.

Final Stretch

While I understand a lot of the stuff that I have mentioned here today won’t matter to some. I hope that there are some out here that can see this as clear examples of what they actually are. A growing tendency for various media outlets to target children focused markets in a rather predatory fashion. Sadly, these examples are only a small example of what I could have proved to show this to you. As technology grows, and children adapt to it at younger ages, we will see more unregulated predatory strategies used on younger and younger children, because corporations don’t only want some of the money, they want all of it.