Kidzania, a branded world for kids, now has outlets all over the globe. Leith planner, Vic Milne, asks whether this really is a good thing —
for brands and for the kids.
We are all too familiar with the demonisation of brands targeting our sweet innocent children. Thrusting brain frying mobile technology into their chubby (and getting chubbier) hands. Force-feeding them high-fat, additive-laden rubbish at every opportunity.
Last month the issue reared its head again with McDonalds re-launching a schools sponsorship initiative in the States.
The media love telling us that this is a dreadful thing. We tut and shake our disapproving heads at this outrageous invasion and brainwashing of our unsuspecting kids.
A Google search on Marketing to Children throws up over 19 million news stories, the top ten of which outline government advice on how to minimise ‘intrusive and questionable’ marketing to kids.
So, given this backdrop, it was surprising to learn of the global phenomenon that is KidZania.
Where to start with this paradoxical concept?
KidZania is a globally successful theme park where children pretend to do adult jobs. They perform work and are either paid, in the theme park currency KidZos or use their wages to shop or to be entertained.
The theme park is built to scale for children, complete with a functioning economy and recognisable destinations sponsored by multi-national and local brands. All of this goes on under a fake sky, set permanently to represent twilight, as if it was always just past bedtime.
The advertising jingle sums it up as:
‘The only place on Earth where kids can think, work and play like adults. Turning dreams into reality.’
We can only assume that the next verse is a caveat stating — ‘only if your dreams are working as DHL delivery person, in a Coca Cola factory or making Dominos Pizzas.’
The founder and C.E.O, proudly describes the concept as:
“…a good platform in terms of building brand loyalty, Kids don’t have a lot of loyalty — they have a lot of options. In KidZania, the brands can work with the kids when they are young, and in the future build a more loyal client.”
He also says…
“This is their world and no-one tells them what to do.”
A bit more encouraging and liberating until he goes on to add …
“We don’t tell them anything. Just cash your cheque, get money, and start spending money — that is the only thing we tell them.”
I now want to scream and demand a full investigation into how a business built on these ideas can have 22 outlets worldwide, with the newest one coming to the UK this year.
But then comes the paradoxical part…
Kids love it.
We adults are constantly layering grown-up opinion upon kids. Just because we are horrified by something doesn’t mean that kids will care. They’ll simply turn it into a game or an adventure.
I’ve read loads of articles about KidZania in which the journalist has had a fit about how “stifling and unimaginative” this concept is, how “very un-childcentred and uncreative it is.”
One of them even went as far as to compare it to a religious cult with a “sense of malevolence that stripped children of any creativity and independent thought.”
But, every single article had to concede that the kids there were truly loving the experience.
We have to admit that it takes a lot more than an utterly controlled environment to stifle an 8 yr. old boys apocalyptic imagination. In his alternate universe he is either trying to save the world or destroy it. It doesn’t matter if it is a pizza shop or a tax office. It’s populated with evil geniuses, superheroes and mutants and he’s going to get in on the action.
And, of course the lady who works in the hairdressers is also a princess, the fireman a prince and the dentist the evil baddie. And why shouldn’t the muesli bars in the fake Nestle factory actually be made by fairies and elves.
True it’s a bit scary that brands are becoming so insidious. The more I read about KidZania, the more I feel like I am reading the screenplay for the new Black Mirror episode
But if I take a step back from my judgmental opinion of the use of brands in this concept and look at the basic educational pillars it is built around, it’s hard to fault them on the life skills they are hoping to instill in kids — good citizenship, road safety, environmental sustainability and the tolerance of difference amongst individuals and groups.
This is a weirdly controlling way of doing this. But, if some of those values rub off on the kids while they’re using the Emirates flight simulator to crash into imaginary asteroids, then I have to accept that this place may have one redeeming feature.