Pitching to Kids? Try Grossing Them Out

The New York Times Monday, February 16, 1998 Pitching to Kids? Try Grossing Them Out By DANA CANEDY Chocolate “dirt” cupcakes, a doll whose innards can be pulled out of its mouth, green slime that turns into bubble gum – they’re all the stuff of child’s play today. As if fretting over table manners were not enough, parents now have to contend with a glut of intentionally gross products that are gaining popularity with youngsters. From publishers to candy makers, companies are seeing yuck appeal as a way to slurp up children’s allowances, baby-sitting money and tooth fairy change. Although toys and games with a disgusting bent have been around for decades – remember whoopee cushions? – the items on the market these days extend the gross factor into new territory. Gone are the days when companies sold chemistry sets simply for their ability to simulate volcano lava. Now, they promote the kits for being able to make – yuck! – mucous. And in a truly new twist – call it road kill on the Information Highway – the Web site www.yucky.com enables youngsters to click on words like earwax for tidbits on this subject, complete with color graphics, and to hear the sounds of belches and other bodily noises that some adults would rather not be reminded of. Traffic on this Web site has increased more than threefold in two years, to about 32,000 page visits a day, according to its operator, New Jersey Online. “I think it’s neat, because you can see a whole lot of things that seem gross,” said Ronda Wallace, 9, a fourth grader in Pendleton, Ore., who is a regular visitor to the site. “It was talking about tapeworms, about how they could grow inside people and animals.” Yuck, indeed. Not everyone considers such crassness to be so neat. Grown-ups tend to turn up their noses at it, and many parents hope the interest will pass. But grown-ups are the ones who are marketing for gross appeal in the first place. The yuck factor is selling everything from snack foods to first-aid products. The targets are consumers 5 to 15, a group who spend more than $25 billion a year on toys, clothing, snacks, music and other items, according to studies by Find/SVP, a market research company in Manhattan. “It has got to hit a certain gross nerve to really take off, because kids are savvy consumers,” said Robert Horne, the president of Kid Fun, a youth marketing and consulting firm in Manhattan. Amurol Confections, of Yorkville, Ill., sells a type of bubble gum that looks like nothing so much as green slime. The Wild Goose Company, the Salt Lake City makers of the mucous science experiments, suggests on the package: “Don’t hold that sneeze! Let ‘er rip and compare it to what science has to offer.” And Gus Gutz, an all-too-forthcoming polyester-fiber doll made by the Rumpus Corporation of Manhattan, invites youngsters to “pull out my guts one gross handful at a time.” Random House has also found a way to reach young consumers with a penchant for the repulsive. It published “Gross Grub” by Cheryl Porter, an 80-page cookbook of “wretched recipes that look yucky but taste yummy.” You won’t get this from Betty Crocker – but with a cover illustration of what seems to be blood oozing from a worm-infested hamburger, how could it fail to appeal? One popular culinary delight is called Cat Litter Casserole, which uses rice and chunks of sausage. To wash it all down, there are recipes for “filthy fluids” like Day-Old Bath Water, made with juice. In two years, Random House says, it has sold 170,000 copies of the $5.99 book. Another popular children’s book is “Grossology” by Sylvia Branzei (Planet Dexter, $12.99). It would be hard to think of a bodily function it fails to include – and the 1995 book has spawned three sequels. Companies have even found gross angles for the most wholesome of products. Duncan Hines now offers a mix for treats called Dirt Kids Cups, which have a consistency an earthworm could love. Good Marketing, a company in Cleveland that develops children’s products, has created Gross Outs, adhesive bandages that come with decals of bloodsucking worms, bloody stitches and safety pins. And Comic Images, a trading card company in Saddle Brook, N.J., has a line of Meanie Babies, which spoof the wildly popular Beanie Babies. The Meanies include Upchuck the Duck, E. Coli the Baby Bacteria and Moldie the Dead Goldfish. Alan Gordon, the president of Comic Images, has a theory about the interest in all things gross. “I think grossness really has its roots in being a parody almost of how we are supposed to act,” he said. “As we have become more tolerant, the parody has gotten a little racier. I’m sure kids are always testing the limits of parents.” The current wave of gross-inspired products began gaining popularity after the introduction in 1992 of the phenomenally successful “Goosebumps,” Scholastic’s frightening and sometimes-gore-filled paperback series. Licensing arrangements produced a bevy of “Goosebumps” products, from toys to T- shirts. Movies like Jim Carrey’s unabashedly crude “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” also contributed to the appetite for merchandise that some people consider tasteless. Even the name of the hit television show “Beavis and Butthead” pushed the envelope for polite conversation. Is this trend just a sign of a healthy new openness? Not everyone thinks so. Stevanne Auerbach, the director of the Institute for Childhood Resources, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that evaluates toys for play value, is one of the naysayers. “If children are learning about sex and body functions, and they are asking questions about understanding the meaning of different things that are happening to their bodies, that really has to be dealt with in a real way, not in a way that makes fun of it and makes it trite,” she said. “I think it’s kind of dumbing-down to kids. It’s really downsizing kids and their mentality instead of really looking for higher opportunities to expand a child’s thinking and to go beyond what is a relatively quick shock value.” Not surprisingly, people who spend their time dreaming up these products think otherwise. Mr. Gordon of the Meanie Babies says grossness is harmless, “as long as kids are given proper lessons on the home front.” And then there are the children, who can’t seem to get enough of it all. Heather Thorgaard, 11, of Ottumwa, Iowa, was so engrossed in her copy of “Grossology” that she happily sat on the floor of a clothing store for hours reading about eye crust and scabs while her mother tried on outfit after outfit. “There were like these close-up pictures,” she said. “I never knew it was so interesting and gross.” Copyright © 1998 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission