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Preschoolers, kids and tweens have been shivering their timbers, yo-ho-ho’ing and seeking out gold doubloons all spring and summer, making pirates the latest craze among youth.

Disney Jr.’s Jake and the Neverland Pirates has taken what could be a scary concept and made it preschool-friendly. It’s hard to find a preschooler right now who hasn’t taken to the adventures of “good pirates,” Jake, Izzy and little Cubby, making it the premier show on the newest network from the children’s entertainment powerhouse.

The fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, has given Disney another hit among tweens, teens and their parents. Take a-listers Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Geoffrey Rush, put them in a story as seductive to adults as it is fantastic to kids, and infuse it with wit and it’s no surprise why this franchise has put seeking treasure and sailing the high seas back on kids’ radar.

These properties and the general pirate craze has spawned or breathed new life into pirate experiences across the country. In Ocean City, NJ last week, kids Paul Frank Piratesattended Pirate School at the boardwalk, and throughout the spring, summer and into this fall, they’ll take a ride on an authentic pirate ship where they’ll get painted tattoos, drink “grog” (root beer to you landlubbers) and battle an enemy pirate with water cannons. In Buena Park, California, or Orlando, Florida, you can get the full pirate experience at the Pirate Dinner Adventure. And of course, Disney has capitalized on the pirate trend they re-inspired with The Pirates League. If getting styled like your favorite Princess isn’t your thing, get your face painted, grab a sword, and transform yourself into your inner swashbuckler. The pirate trend is good news for Paul Frank, who has played with this motif in his designs for years, and providing pirate paper plates was big business for Target, who sold out of this party pattern pretty quickly!

But what makes pirates work with youth, beyond an association with a few hit shows/movies? And how, as a marketer, can you tap into what these pirate properties know?

  1. Look to the classics...First, many great youth stories have been written. The Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan serve as inspiration for the most modern of seafarers. These tales survive the test of time because they pit good versus evil, take youth on journeys to exciting places, and test the characters’ mettle (letting kids vicariously test their own). It doesn’t hurt that the nice guys usually walk away with the loot.
  2. 2.       …But create concepts that grow. These themes are far from grounded in the needs of one age group. Instead, Disney has translated a commonly admired concept to suit the very different tastes and aesthetics of its differing audiences. Jake and the Neverland Pirates make villains more silly than scary, and The Pirates of the Carribean’s Jack Sparrow has an authentic edge that makes him appeal to even the most jaded teen.
  3. Make it sing! Like any good evergreen theme, this one comes with a soundtrack. For little kids, music is essential to making a property sticky…For adults, a few tongue in cheek drinking songs provide the comic relief that affirms the movie’s fun-loving side.
  4. 4.       Give them treasure – but make them look for it! A pirate may be only as interesting as the treasure that he seeks – and the one that alludes him. Just as youth love to be recognized and rewarded, and the fantasy of riches that could transform their lot in life is a fantasy that begins with babes, the pirates they admire have the drive to go for something that wiser souls might label a longshot. Sound like the state of childhood? Kids and tweens alike identify with characters that throw a little caution to the wind, and they revel in telling the more sober cynics “I told you so” when that wild goose chase yields some gold.
  5. Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously. Pirates can be serious stuff – and perhaps a few parents, a few years ago, were conflicted about the whole idea of pirates, once real pirates started to dominate the headlines – and they weren’t good guys in disguise. But these pirates show that the pirate life is fun for a while, and that beyond their thin veneer, even the most evil villains might be more vulnerable than vicious.

So when you’re thinking about your brand this summer, think, what would Jack Sparrow do? Drink a glass of grog and contemplate what evergreens are ripe for a reinvention…