A recent New York Times article recounts children’s persistent use of words and phrases such as “duh,” “yeah, right,” and “like.” The author hypothesizes that these and other related figures of speech have emerged because children need them to help sort through the vagaries, the hype, and even the lunacy that fill the airwaves and thus their lives.
In a world where children are misunderstood and underestimated, falling back on “duh” helps them. When they are bombarded by spin and oversell, their defense is “yeah, right.” When they can’t discern an easy yes or no or sort things from among confusing shades of gray, it is comforting to feel that everything is sort of “like” something — not definitive, just sort of out there.
This jargon is not isolated in big cities or major markets. Wherever a cable system or satellite dish feeds images of the Cartoon Network, MTV, and Nickelodeon, children put various responses and defenses in place. These children are your campers — and, equally important, your prospective campers. When you send forth messages about the value of the camp experience and the unique value of your camp, remember to understand the dialect and “talk the talk.”
If you communicate the overly obvious, you risk getting the response of “duh.” If you communicate with superlatives, you risk the response of “yeah, right.”
The following suggestions can help you sidestep the child-response land mines and speak directly to your market.
Avoid Parent-Only Promotion
Children are major participants in the camp decision process. Regrettably, they are often allowed too much impact on the final decision, but so be it. You should promote to the child while promoting to the parent. Understand what gets children interested, intrigued, and excited.
Do Not Underestimate the Child
Today’s youngsters (by the way, they would bridle at the word “youngster”) are wise beyond the number of years for which you sometimes give them credit. In short, they get it. Portraying a child as less mature than appropriate or portraying camp as an environment of tight control is likely to be a turnoff.
Do Your Homework
To better understand the world that surrounds your campers when they are home, watch TV on Saturday mornings and then channel surf over to The Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and — yes — even MTV. Finally, check out the prime-time situation comedies. Network programming during the early prime-time time block will help you understand children’s media environment and the issues to which the media responds. In addition, read the magazines produced for children.
Soften Up Stilted Imagery
Today’s children seek honesty and naturalness. They are more-than-willing consumers, and they want the status of being decision makers. They do not want to be blatantly told, “Be the first kid on your block to have. . . .” Give a child more credit for sophistication, and you will almost always be on the right track.
Resist the Urge to Preach
You know the superior value of a summer camp experience, and you also recognize that a well-trained staff member can do more for a child in a week than some parents can do in a lifetime. But making camp seem like even more than a highly valuable investment — you know, “the ideal way to save a soul, a psyche, and a society” — will point your message straight toward “yeah, right.”
Most importantly, you have an urgent need to make the camp story appear relevant and vibrant by looking and sounding current. If your marketing package appears ready for consumption by Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson, you need to adopt an open and accepting approach toward changing your image.
Invest in the value of color
Modernize image along with facilities
Project your fun expertise
Use humor appropriately
An important point of clarification: do not use sarcasm, aloofness, self-deprecation, or offensiveness, which often characterize children’s own interactive styles. You should never consider any camp advertising that even approaches questionable taste. However, you must be willing to study the marketplace to see if your marketing style is competitive. You cannot afford a response of “duh” or “yeah, right.”
For those who answer to a board of directors or trustees, you must educate your overseers to the reality of today’s marketplace. New and exciting marketing concepts cannot be overruled by judgments such as, “We have never done anything like that in this organization.” Prepare for your next board meeting by coming equipped with copies of magazines aimed at children and show what and how children consume.
Your marketing program is not meant for current campers and their families, who remain loyal season after season. You invest in marketing primarily to reach people who do not know you. Your brochure, video, and all materials that pass between you and your prospects are your calling cards. They create the first perceptions that will influence those all-important decisions and the number of enrollments that follow.
The marketing planning you do during 1999 will help sell the summer seasons of 2000 and beyond. For the promotion of summer camp, you are indeed on the threshold of the millennium. What better time to adopt a proactive and progressive philosophy: If we only do what we’ve always done, then we’ll only get what we’ve always gotten.
Steve Cony is a marketing consultant who assists children's camps with the development of strategic plans and the execution of marketing materials. Camp directors may contact him at 914-271-8482.
Originally published in the 1998 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.