It’s hard to think about kid culture without thinking about the undying appeal of superheroes. From the classic Marvel heroes and heroines and their iconic foes, to modern day do-gooders like Word Girl (secret power: vocabulary!) and Super Why (secret power: reading!),superheroes seem to find a place in the hearts of kids and in their canon from generation to generation. It’s true that the nature of superheroes tends to change from season to season, from cohort to cohort…Today, superheroes are often seen spruced up by the magical tricks of modern filmmaking, and Superman capes show up on toddler t-shirts, but also in elaborate (albeit, always authentic) form on the men and women of Comic-Con. But there’s something inherent to superheroes in their most basic form that continue to captivate the imagination and the play time of kids in a way that few other motifs and characters can.
- They help kids feel bigger than they are. The experience of childhood involves constant reminders of how little power they have in the real world. “Inside voice,” “please, please,” and “hand to yourself” (or even the sweeter exhortation, “hands are for hugging!”) reinforce the fact that kids are constantly being redirected and wrangled in. When they go to the amusement park, they stand on tip-toes, hoping that their height matches the boost of bravery that has made them want to test out the roller coaster for the first time. Size matters to kids, and playing superhero changes all that…It’s not just that Superheroes are big and strong. It’s also that Superheroes often show that even a diminutive person can transform into a tall and strong one with a little radioactive energy in their corner…
- They honor kids’ secret identities. Speaking of making the little guy more powerful, Peter Parker makes Spiderman not only more relatable and approachable, but teaches kids that beneath the surface of every overachiever is a person who is a little insecure, who might be struggling to figure out what’s right. For kids in this cohort, who are increasingly required to perform, the idea that you sometimes have to be yourself (humanity and all) is not seen as a weakness, but as just one more strength. And it’s no surprise that just when our leading men started to look a bit nerdier (and we say this in the most affectionate way possible, Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen), the secret side of Superheroes took center stage in plays, in new TV shows on Cartoon Network, and even in the form of quirky toys taking on the image of our old favorites. Kids know more than anyone that it’s not always easy to be cool, and knowing that even their heroes have secret sides is reassuring, to say the least.
- They reinforce that the natural order remains intact. Translation: good triumphs over evil. Despite the bad rap that kids can sometimes get when they choose to play Superheroes over scientists on the modern playground, playing superheroes is generally a positive thing for kids. Playing Superheroes lets kids try on the role of bad guy in a safe space. It helps them negotiate the rules – what should get one captured? What should be punished with entanglement in a sticky web? And, when should you choose a disguise over confrontation? And it helps them feel confident on those days when they just might not. But mostly, it helps them play with right and wrong…Something that kids are fascinated by, even though they don’t always choose to be on the right side! Whether it’s the fantastic Justice League, or the very real “Extreme Justice League” of adults (real-life men and women who dress as Superheroes and hand out food to the homeless and patrol the evening streets), Superheroes can bring out the best in all of us, and kids are not immune.
So what can we learn from Superheroes?
- Be bold…Don’t be afraid to let your brand don its superhero cape!
- But be vulnerable, too. A superhero is only as believable as the real guy that lives inside.
- When you stumble, bounce back with dignity. Every Superhero has a bad day. Brands can too. When you’re down, don’t opt out. Muster your strength and stay clear of the Kryptonite.
- And finally, stick to your story. Even though special effects might make your brand look and feel bigger and better than ever, don’t forget that your timeless narrative is still the thing that makes a great brand stand out to its littlest fans.