All I want for Christmas

As a keen observer of kids’ trends over the past couple of decades, Lesley Salem’s noticed very little shift in the play drivers behind children’s gift choices – particularly at Christmas time. Of course, technology is ever-present and impacting on toy design. However, much of what’s on this year’s wish lists are merely iterations of traditional play…

Promoting care and nurture

Kids develop their understanding of other’s needs, and demonstrate love and care, through role-play. Therefore, dolls and animals have always dominated in children’s play choices. AI and robotic technology have transformed the market, so today’s toys are able to learn, evolve, and be more responsive to their owner. Young children have animistic thinking and believe objects are living, so AI and robotics have created more realism and are able to inspire loving moments and emotional bonds with children by responding to touch.

Popular examples include Luvabella Doll which has over 100 phrases and different facial expressions, Zoomer Chimp and FurReal’s Roarin’ Tyler the Playful Tiger learn commands and tricks over time, encouraging longevity of play. These kind of toys are not ‘just for Christmas’.

Promoting fantasy play and safe risk-taking

Some parents might feel uncomfortable purchasing toy weapons but it’s natural instinct (particularly for boys) to enjoy fantasy play involving weapons and super hero role play. It’s critical to their development with regards to safe risk-taking. It also allows kids to feel empowered in a world where they have little control.

Nerf guns continue to storm in sales but desire for action and love of cars are combined with this season’s Nerf Nitro LongShot Smash. Kids can design their own stunts and fire foam cars with powerful, high-performing Nerf blasters. The set includes two foam cars, plus a long-jump ramp for long-distance jumping challenges. Lazer X is another game expected to do well this Xmas and is a twist on laser tag. The set is designed for two players. Each player wears a chest plate that has energy for 10 lives. The experience is likened to being inside a video arcade game with various features that stimulate the senses.

Star Wars continues to be a popular franchise and with Hasbro’s Bladebuilders, users can choose between being a goodie or baddie and customise their weaponry in over 100 different combinations.

The joy of the unexpected

More than ever, kids love games that have an element of surprise or randomness in them to provide unexpected, shared experiences. Combined with humour, games like Pie Face and Toilet Trouble (both by Hasbro), work on the principle that after some time, one unlucky player will either get whipped cream or toilet water splashed on their face. Other toys are also tapping into the idea of surprise. L.O.L. Surprise! by MGA Entertainment is expected to surge this Christmas. Kids are encouraged to peel through layers to reveal treats and accessories before reaching a mystery doll in the middle. As there are so many different combinations, this has also increased its value as a collectable. Then there’s Hatchimals Surprise by Spin Master Toys; small eggs that hatch over time to reveal a unique animal inside.

Promoting skills

The lines between education and entertainment have merged, so edutainment is an important trend to the toy industry. LEGO Boost allows kids to build and code interactive, motorised robots and models with distance, colour, and tilt sensor technologies.

Mattel’s Bloxels allows kids to create and animate play spaces, characters and objects, enabling them to become the artist, game designer, storyteller, programmer, publisher and player in their very own virtual reality.

Cozmo by Anki joins a range of friendly robots that explore the environment, repeat phrases said by their owner, and show off their epic moves. Kids can take advantage of Cozmo’s Code Lab feature which enhances its movements, actions, and animations. SAM Labs is a bit like Meccano for the internet generation. It teaches kids how to code and also develops STEM skills. It includes a light sensor, a tilt sensor, a motor and buzzer.  

Little stars

Kids are growing up in the selfie era, following YouTubers and watching talent shows, so it’s no surprise to see a rise in toys that promote kids’ starring performances. DreamWorks’ Trolls Selfie Karaoke Mic Stand and VTech’s Kidi Super Star are definitely something the parents can mess around with when the kids have gone to sleep!

What about gender neutral?

With all the chat this year on the importance of promoting gender neutrality in play, there’s little evidence of this in toy packaging this Christmas. Cars, weapons, and gaming toys still feature traditional ‘boy’ colours and male models whilst dolls and performance toys come in pinks and purples with female models on the packaging. The reality is, from our research, that whilst girls are more open in their play choices, boys are very traditional and steer clear of anything that has a hint of ‘girl’ on it.  Media, parents, schooling and other cultural/socialisation mechanics have a long way to go to make play more gender neutral.

*Lesley Salem heads up Razor Kids, our specialist kids and family unit. You can reach her on [email protected] .

“You call THIS archaeology?”

When I first told people I planned to get my master’s in social anthropology, the most common reaction I got was a blank – at best quizzical – stare. From my dad (who, it should be mentioned, does want what’s best for me but is absolutely positive that what’s best for me is an MBA) it was a “that’s great, Ashley!”, in a voice multiple octaves higher than his normal one. He then began to send me National Geographic articles about excavations of ancient sites which, while vaguely interesting, had nothing to do with anything as far as I was concerned.

It is a common mix-up, anthropology and archaeology. But I wanted to end up in a different kind of field than the ones archeologists find themselves digging through. Rather than dusty artefacts, I imagined working with people, interviewing them, observing them participantly, discussing things collectively; in short, doing ethnographic fieldwork.

I say this as though anthropology is obviously a more logical and relevant career choice than archeology, but we did learn some very niche things in the master’s program that makes the degree an even tougher sell to people like my father. Recently at Razor, I thought maybe I had been given an opportunity to prove anthropology’s pertinence to real life and work. I was assisting in a fact-finding mission for a potential project with regards to a topic that is endlessly fascinating to anthropologists: menstruation.

We had spent a week on this theme in my kinship, sex, and gender course, and, consequently, I had done a lot of reading on the subject. I enthusiastically began to tell some of the other Razors about an ethnography I had read in which epidemics of mass hysteria were inexplicably erupting on Japanese-owned factory floors in Malaysia. The Japanese managers had no idea how to explain this phenomenon or treat the women – it took an anthropologist and some on-the-ground research to determine that the women thought they were falling prey to spirit possessions because of cultural beliefs about crossing spatial boundaries from rural areas to urban ones while having their period. It’s a gripping image – spirit-possessed women in hysterics on factory floors – and captured the imagination of other Razors who asked me to send along the article.

That was when I realised that it had been written in the early 1980’s.

Anthropological content is absolutely fascinating, if potentially outdated and esoteric. In my course I learned about things ranging from the affective nature of fake-official documents in North Cyprus; the strategies enacted by patient activist groups to draw attention and funds to racialised diseases like sickle cell anaemia; little houses in Tanzania, and modern polyandry in Russia. I got to write my dissertation about the intersection between DIY biologists, the punk movement, and ethical democracy.

While the content is admittedly arcane, anthropology’s methods and theories are extremely valuable. In the early 1900s, Bronislaw Malinowski, the founding father of the discipline, noted the importance of distinguishing between what people say they do versus what they actually do. Now researchers in all capacities, not just academic ones, must engage with this distinction. In fact, it is what distinguishes market and design researchers (who focus primarily on attitudes) from user-experience researchers (who focus primarily on behaviours).

There are even times when someone in the Razor office mentions some kind of social pattern that is emerging from fieldwork we are conducting, and I think to myself, ‘Ah, another example of Foucault’s technologies of the self!’ or, ‘No wonder Bruno Latour interrogates cultural understandings of what is ‘natural’!’. In these moments, anthropology is incredibly relevant to my work and my life, and opens up insights and ideas I may never have made the connection to, had I not studied it.

Then again, there is a reason I keep those thoughts to myself; even I roll my eyes at how pretentious I sound in my head.

Appointment to view

‘Seriously. Do you guys schedule time to watch TV commercials?’

That’s what our intern, Ashley, asked us this morning with a bewildered look as we gathered to watch the new M&S Christmas offering.

‘Of course we do. This is our Super Bowl – except it’s not all crammed into one day.’

Strangely enough, I’d never consciously thought about Christmas ads in this manner until I said the above words out loud. But it’s true. They’re the closest thing we have when you take into account the kind of effort and money that goes into producing and airing these (mostly cinematic) numbers. Not to mention all the build-up to each of them. And I’m not just saying this because I’ve worked in media and with brands most of my adult life. My non-media/marketing pals are also eagerly waiting to find out which character/song they and/or their children will fall in love with this year.  

Unlike during the Super Bowl, we’re pretty safe in the knowledge that our (mostly) quintessentially British brands will be vying to charm us with magical moments, feel-good factors, and the kind of Christmas that is likely to be unattainable for a large chunk of the population. While those ads might have made me cringe in previous years, I’ve realised that one way to counter the hopeless feeling I get from reading about current affairs is to embrace this escapism for a wee while.

So bring it on, retailers! Spread some joy. And let’s hope this isn’t the year that some of you have decided to go all political on us, Super Bowl style.

The story so far (click on titles to watch):

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Asda: #BestChristmasEver 
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Argos: #ReadyForTakeOff 
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M&S: Paddington and the Christmas Visitor 
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Tesco: Everyone’s Welcome
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Vodafone: A Christmas Love Story (multi-episode) 
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Talk to me

If I were to distill the role of a qualitative researcher into two words, I would probably go for ‘professional conversationalist’.

Having great conversations underpins everything we do – yet how many times have you had, or viewed, a conversation with consumers where ‘it’ just doesn’t happen?

You know what I mean…low energy, basic answers, dead-looking eyes and real boredom both in front, and behind, the glass. 

Like most quallies, I recently had such an experience and tried everything I could to get the conversation going – energisers, breaks, changing seating positions, challenging participants – all with no success. It was a dud.

Rather than deciding to just chalk the experience up to being ‘one of those groups’, I’ve been looking for solutions.

Drum roll please…

Allow me to introduce Celeste Headlee. She’s a veteran radio journalist who recently wrote the book We Need to Talk; How to Have Conversations That Matter

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to…well pretty much everyone – but especially to my fellow professional conversationalists. In her book, Celeste looks back on her career in journalism and shares what she’s learned to help her have great conversations – interviewing everyone from Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to truck drivers.

Rather than giving a long-winded review of the book, I’ll share three ideas it’s inspired me to try out:

  1. Showing consumers behind the curtain more
    According to Celeste, good conversations happen when everyone understands what the topic is and what the interviewer is expecting of them. I want to play with this insight in future consumer conversations and try being a little more honest; letting them know more about what we know, what our hunches are and – most importantly – what we want to understand from talking to them. Too often, we try and shield our conversation partners from the bigger picture to avoid biasing them and they leave slightly confused asking ‘I hope that was useful?’ with a puzzled look on their faces. I want less of that.

  2. Rehearsing conversations and developing lines of questions
    What comes across in this book is the sheer level of thinking that Celeste and her team put into the conversations they have – rehearsing and refining lines of questions and developing strategies for different potential avenues of discussion. Clearly, good conversation doesn’t just happen; it is crafted and planned. I want to put some of Celeste’s ideas into action and spend more time trying to pre-empt the conversations I have. I want to move beyond the discussion guide and think bigger.

  3. Shorter conversations for shorter attention spans
    One of the big themes in this book is that the art of conversation is disappearing. Celeste attributes this change, in part, to our shortening attention spans caused largely by technology. Incredibly, an academic test to measure attention spans has shown a fall from 3 minutes in 2004 to just 59 seconds in 2014. Knowing what we know about our attention spans, why are we surprised that when putting 6 strangers in a room for 2 hours to talk about something they were not prepared for, they’re likely to become bored and lose interest? It’s time to start doing things differently and I want to find new ways of having shorter bursts of meaningful conversations with consumers. I want to learn how journalists maximise their time.

I’m now off to do some professional conversationing. I’ll let you know how I get on…