A snaggletooth eight-year-old. A middle schooler with a punk rocker bob cut and big earrings. Tween siblings with a penchant for playing.
These are among the young power brokers who will determine the toys that will be under Christmas trees this year.
At a time when toy sales have stagnated for years at $22 billion, children who review toys on YouTube are wielding increasing influence. Toy makers are courting them for their ability to connect with a generation that views the online video sharing service like baby boomers do HBO.
“Kids trust other kids more so than they would an adult,” says Marc Rosenberg, a Chicago-based toy marketing consultant.
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Leading the pack of pint-sized YouTube personalities is Evan, 8, who has dimples and a few front teeth missing. With over 1 billion views between his three channels, he’s YouTube’s most popular kid. He gets over 800 million views from EvanTubeHD, where he reviews the toys.
EvanTubeHD, which features special effects thanks to his dad, Jared, who runs a video production company, is known for telling kids how to play with toys. Evan speaks directly to them, with occasional cameos from his little sister and mom.
In a review of Angry Birds Space Softee Dough playset, Evan apologizes for a noticeable lisp: “Sorry if I’m talking a little funny today because I just lost my tooth.” Later, after trying to bite an apple he attached toy “face pieces” to and called “Angry Bird Fruit,” he quips: “It’s too hard to bite without a tooth.”
Behind Evan are a few other young YouTube phenoms. Most of the children are identified by first name because their parents don’t want to risk their safety:
––Siblings Noah, 14, Jonah, 12, and Emma, 11 star in KittiesMama, which has nearly 400 million views. KittiesMama is a reality show that chronicles the kids’ daily lives, including birthday parties. They also review toys and Emma shows kids how to look like characters from toy lines like My Little Pony.
–– Gracie Hunter, 11, pairs up with her mother, Melissa, in “Mommy and Gracie,” which has close to 90 million views. Gracie, a redhead who sometimes sports black glasses with rhinestones, searches for hard-to-find dolls with her mom. They’ve even traveled to Canada from their New Jersey home to find a Monster High doll.
–– RadioJH Audrey has over 60 million views. Audrey, 11, speaks to tweens, frequently saying “cool” and “awesome.” She also streaks her bobbed hair in a rainbow of colors and wears big jewelry and studded tees. Audrey’s trademark: reviewing mystery toy bags that are sold at places like Toys R Us.
Julie Krueger, industry director of retail at Google, which owns YouTube, says the channels have “huge followings of fans.”
Toy makers – from Mattel to smaller ones – have noticed. In fact, Spin Master says Evan’s reviews helped boost sales of its Spy Gear toys 65 percent this year. The private company declined to disclose sales numbers.
“It gives the item more widespread exposure,” says Jim Silver, editor-in-chief and CEO of Time To Play magazine.
Toy makers regularly send the young reviewers products. And some ink paid marketing deals with them and their parents.
Spin Master hired Evan to appear in a TV ad for its latest Spy Gear toys. Anki, which makes robotic toy cars, teamed up with Evan and KittiesMama for reviews on a race car. WowWee is working with “Mommy and Gracie” on promotional videos for Elektrokidz collectible dolls.
The parents and companies declined to disclose financial terms. Most of the parents, who also declined to say how much ad revenue the channels make, have quit their jobs to focus on the businesses.
Rosenberg says kids “risk crossing the line of trust” with their audience when deals are made with toy makers.
For their part, toy makers say they’re careful to preserve the kids’ voices. Spin Master’s chief marketing officer, Krista DiBeradino, says it tries to maintain “the authenticity intended with each relationship.”
Parents also say they try to maintain authenticity. Jason, the father behind RadioJH, says the channel is doing so well with ad revenue that he doesn’t focus on partnerships. Jennifer, the mother behind KittiesMamma, says she’d only partner with brands that her kids enjoy. And Melissa Hunter of “Mommy and Gracie” says her family will only accept deals to benefit children’s charities.
“We aren’t just faces for hire,” she says.
Evan’s dad, Jared, says he works with partners that resonate with the audience. Evan’s deals came after Jared hired Maker Studios, a promotions and advertising production company whose sales staff also sell advertising on Evan’s channels.
Jared, who says he invests the money the channels make toward his children’s futures, says the success was unexpected. “It’s kind of surreal,” says Jared, who started the channel with Evan in 2011.
Evan agrees: “I didn’t think it would turn out like this when I first made the channel. I thought I would just get four views.”