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Disney's Marvel Deal and the Pursuit of Boys


Behind that purchase is a mediawide story: the chase for the attention of distracted young males—and their billions in buying power

Ask media executives what audience they covet most these days and they will likely tell you: boys. The U.S. has 30 million males aged 5 to 19, and capturing their attention with a TV show, movie, or magazine article is a boon to advertisers. Boys (or their parental proxies) are ravenous consumers who spend billions each year on apparel, toys, and video games.

On the other hand, boys are easily distracted and much harder to reach than girls. Big Media, faced with the loss of auto and financial advertising, is charging hard at this elusive demographic. Exhibit A: Walt Disney's (DIS) $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment (MVL) and all its superheroes. Besides attracting more boys and balancing out Disney's big following among girls, the Mouse House believes the Marvel acquisition will bolster Disney XD, a channel it is now using to target boys. News Corp., Time Warner, and others are doubling down on young males, too. "There are not that many media vehicles to reach boys," says Jill Steinberg, senior director of media and promotions at the video game maker Ubisoft. "So when you find options where boys gather, you take advantage of that."

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When ratings at Time Warner's Cartoon Network began to falter last year, the channel decided it needed to find new ways to reach young males. "In our focus groups, we were hearing that boys wanted to see more of themselves on-air," says Stuart Snyder, who heads the network. So Cartoon added more live-action shows to its animation mix. In mid-August, Cartoon premiered its two latest shows, Bobb'e Says, about a kid who goes around telling people what not to do, and Dude, What Would Happen, about three curious teens who conduct quirky science experiments. Shortly after, Cartoon had three shows in the top 10 most viewed programs for boys in prime-time cable. These and other boy-centric offerings have been greeted favorably by Cartoon's stable of advertisers, which includes cereal maker General Mills (GIS), Mattel (MAT), and Lego. The latter created tie-in toys for George Lucas' Star Wars: The Clone Wars program that airs on the cable network.

Cartoon is even beginning to dabble in sports programming, traditionally watched by boys with a parent. The channel is betting it can get boys to watch sports together. That's why it teamed up with the NBA to create My Dad's A Pro, a series following the children of professional basketball players. In turn, Cartoon will launch a basketball section on its Web site, already loaded with video and online games.

News Corp.'s FUELTV, an action sports channel for ages 13-24, has attracted such advertisers as Mountain Dew, Red Bull, and game maker Electronic Arts (ERTS). But the channel is currently seen in only about a third of U.S. homes. General manager CJ Olivares hopes a Saturday morning block of shows aimed at the 13-and-under cohort will give FUELTV a wider appeal. One show, New Pollution, is hosted by pro surfer Matt Beacham, who introduces a new generation of action sports stars. Camp Woodward gives boys a glimpse into the inner workings of a camp for kids interested in action sports.

Even magazines are finding pockets of strength in the young male market. Sports Illustrated's SI Kids is a 1 million- circulation spinoff whose readership is more than three-quarters boys. In recent years, SI Kids has added special editions, including one that anoints the best kid athlete of the year and another about video games. Going even more niche with boys seems to be paying off. Advertising pages at SI Kids were up nearly 5% in the first half of 2009—a rare feat in this economy.

Lowry is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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