Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pixie Hollow's Mobile Butterflies

Today's edition of the New York Times has an article by Brooks Barnes on Disney's newest website revamp (code name "Project Playground"), which now includes streaming video of some of its most popular feature films. Counted among the new (and upcoming) features, of course, even more Pixie Hollow accoutrements. I'm not sure if this has come up before, but it seems that the new virtual world will also soon have a mobile component. As Barnes writes:
Mr. Wadsworth and his team are also working harder to link cellphones and Disney.com. So far, the company’s mobile offerings for youngsters — notably constrained by the slow adoption of next-generation handsets in the United States — have centered on casual games or personalization items like ring tones. But Disney now sees an opportunity to create an immersive experience that spans from the Internet to the cellphone.

Consider Pixie Hollow, an expanding virtual world on Disney.com that is built around Tinker Bell. (Visitors create a fairy avatar and then mingle with others in a fantasy world, playing games and decorating make-believe houses.)

In the coming months, children will be encouraged to log on to Pixie Hollow with their cellphones, which they can use to create butterfly pets for their avatars — which they can’t do online.

Barnes describes Disney's butterfly strategy as a way of keeping up with the company's fiercest competitor, Nickelodeon. The two are neck-and-neck for "most popular" (as measured by frequency of visits) among kids and families, with Disney slightly in the lead for now (with 28.4 million unique visitors in May, according to comScore Media Matrix). But while Disney visitors stay an average of 44.9 minutes, Nickelodeon visitors stick around for an average 79.8 minutes, mostly due to the continued "stickiness" of Neopets (again, all this is according to Barnes' article). With the Pixie Hollow butterflies, Disney hopes to attract some of that virtual pet love (i.e. affective labour) kids just can't seem to get enough of. From the NYTarticle:
"I'm going to want to use my phone to feed and love my butterfly all the time," said Larry Shapiro, executive vice president for mobile content. "That kind of emotional vesting is what we’re after."

See how they've replaced "emotional manipulation" with "emotional vesting"? Mobilizing children's affect for the purpose of commercial exploitation is becoming an increasingly common approach within kids' digital culture. After a few false starts, quite a large number of companies are now successfully reproducing Neopets' Pavlovian approach to "brand loyalty". Cute and funny virtual pets are quick to turn on a neglectful owner - just talk to my Moshi Monster, who is now sick and cranky from not getting enough attention from me or from my friends (i.e. viral marketing). Preying on the emotional bonds that kids are able to develop with various inanimate (see "transitional") objects, and using the language of this relationship in their interactions with kids, these companies are able to be quite overt about their true intentions -- directing kids to online shopping sites, asking them to get their friends to visit as well, showing them ads and rewarding them for good consumer behaviours. Although most of the marketing going on in kids' digital culture is covert and embedded, this is one area where commercial imperatives shine through loud and clear. Just spend twenty minutes "interacting" with a virtual pet and you'll see what I mean. With the incorporation of cell phones into the mix, the newest goal is to make these relationships more-or-less ubiquitous...a neo-Tamagotchi with a dedicated link back to the advertisers, market researchers and all the transmedia intertextuality of the Disney mega-corp. Eep!

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