In the study of a private house, several glass showcases are filled with Gundam models, replica guns, and miniature warships. Next to these are unboxed packages that seem to have lost their way because the showcases are already full. In the middle of the room, a white robot armed with multiple plastic weapons is held in the hands of not a seven-year-old boy, but an adult in a suit and tie. An adult playing with dolls and toys might seem awkward to some. However, this is not an unusual sight anymore. Consumers are changing, and so is the market.
Toys are no lad the starting point for a new sub-culture of adults who are in love with various gadgets. “Kidults are halfway between kids anonger the exclusive property of children but are insted adults who seek things that, in general, kids like to play with,” said Professor Emeritus Kim Mun-cho (Department of Sociology). Encroaching into areas previously dominated by adults, kidult culture is further empowering other seemingly unrelated industries as well.
▲ Professor Kim Mun-cho.PHOTOGRAPHED BY KIM SEUNG HYE
A Once-Veiled Industry, Now Slowly Unveiling
According to the 2017 Character Industry White Paper released by the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), the yearly average expenditure per person on kidult and hobby products featuring cartoon characters is about 58,163 won. This figure is higher than that of publications and children’s products (55,882 won) and that of toys and robots (47,713 won). Similarly, WeMef, a Korean e-commerce company, analyzed the sales volume of kidult items from May 1 to May 21 this year, including the Children’s Day holidays. They found that the average purchase per capita sharply increased by as much as 2.5 times compared to the same period last year.
These statistics are significant indicators of the changing toy market in Korea. Toys are now not limited to rag dolls, glowing yoyos, or plastic microphones that play ABC songs. They are sophisticated, made of the best materials possible, and possess special design features in their various editions. “Kidult toys are not simple imitations of real objects but are now even hyperreal in terms of design and function. They are advanced beyond our reality,” said Professor Kim.
This transformation of the market has been led by adults who crave these products. Consumers with higher standards and stronger personal tastes demand their toys to be of higher quality than ever before. Due to the rising demand, toys have consequently diversified to meet the needs of the market. As a result, in Korea, the toy market for adults is known as a blue ocean. Its sales last year reached over 11.5 trillion won, with annual growth of about 20 to 30 percent expected in the kidult market alone, according to KOCCA.
Releasing Their Desires
The newly emerged term kidult is the key to all of these changes. It is a combination of the words “kid” and “adult” and refers to those adults who have kid- like sensibilities and preferences. They are in love with the idea of imaginary characters in novels or games, so they play with and collect toys. For example, kidults choose to purchase toothbrushes with a small character on top, or dash to cosmetic stores to get a limited edition lipstick that has an appealing package even though they would not use it often.
“In the 1990s, when kids and adults were separated strictly, adults who looked for childish things were not welcomed,” said Professor Sung Young Shin (Department of Psychology). “Adults in the past had more responsibility in order to just live, such as taking care of their family and participating in the community they were part of. But as society has become financially much more affluent, now they are looking for ways to spend their free time.” Of those people with comparatively high living conditions, a few settled on playing with toys and figures.
In Korean society, where age is crucial and the elderly are prioritized, kidult culture is regarded as much more bizarre than it is in Western countries. In countries like the United States (U.S.), where age plays much less of a role in the social structure, the love of toys by adults is not considered retrogressive. “It is strongly believed in Korean society that adults must be mature and socialized. While the younger generation acts and thinks freely, the older generation should behave decently and conceal their instinctive needs,” said Professor Kim. Therefore, adults who acted on their instincts to play with children’s toys were regarded as peculiar before the kidult culture became properly established in Korea.
However, a few events have changed social attitudes towards the embrace of toys and juvenile entertainment. By the end of the 1990s, Japanese culture, which is based on comparatively naïve sentiments, entered Korean society. However, it did not really break into the mainstream, so it remained somewhat hidden from the public. This was until the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup became a point of ignition. “Korean culture, not only with regards to toys, changed a great deal due to the arrival of Japanese culture. This is why the period after the World Cup is called the postconventional age of Korea,” stated Professor Kim. Afterwards, consumers did not have to struggle to hide their appetite for toys, eventually leading the kidult culture to become as widespread as it is now.
Kidults—the Next Peter Pans?
In the past, kidults were also misunderstood as people who have Peter Pan syndrome. The syndrome, by definition, appears among those who wish to remain as a child, refusing to become responsible adults. Those with the syndrome are mentally immature compared to their actual physical age. The syndrome is named after Peter Pan, the famous fictional character who is known as “the boy who would not grow up.” Those who have Peter Pan syndrome may develop an aversion to social interaction and suffer from poor concentration. For these reasons, kidults have long been seen as permalescents who are forever trapped in childhood.
▲ Professor Sung Young Shin. PHOTOGRAPHED BY KIM SEUNG HYE
Thus, kidults were framed as social misfits. The fact that Peter Pan syndrome sufferers prefer childhood led others to regard kidults in the same light. However, the two groups are significantly different, especially in terms of how much they are bound to the culture. “For instance, Peter Pan syndrome patients would cover all of their house with a particular character: even their bedrooms and toilet. In contrast, to kidults, the character is just one way to spend their leisure time,” said Professor Sung.
In other words, the two groups differ in their activeness. Those with Peter Pan syndrome are passive; they are necessarily caught up in their childhood memories, obsessed with them, and cannot get rid of the syndrome themselves. Kidults, on the other hand, are active; they know what they want to buy and are able to make decisions. They are not vested in the culture but simply consider it as a way of venting against a restrictive society. In order to understand kidults properly, it is important to first understand that Peter Pan syndrome and being a kidult are different.
Why Not Toys?
The reason behind the rising popularity of the kidult culture can be found in people’s tendency to look for a release from the reality of their life. “The older generation is serious, competitive, and authoritative. At least while they are enjoying their leisure time, people tend to look for what is carefree, harmonious and in a horizontal relationship,” said Professor Kim. “Kidult toys allow consumers to think of their good old days when they did not have to compete with others nor receive unilateral orders from their boss.”
It is also difficult to consider the rise of the kidult culture as peculiar because it simply reflects the tendency of humans to look for what they like. “Kidults are not a wholly different species from us. We all loved chocolate in our childhood as we do now; why should they be criticized for liking robots now instead of chocolate?” explained Professor Sung. It is natural for them to find a place to catch their breath with what they like—and for some, the things that give them comfort are kidult products. They feel satisfaction in purchasing and owning their favorite toys and find a way to escape a suffocating society.
In analyzing the general reason why kidults spend their money on products aimed at children, some who are pessimistic about kidult culture state that obsession with childhood objects comes from a lack of love and affection; these objects replace this large hole in their lives. They believe that kidults unconsciously deny the fact that they want love from someone like their mother and use toys as a part of a defense mechanism. Or, as mentioned above, kidults are often criticized as people who cannot free themselves from the memories of their childhood.
However, it is unfair to dismiss kidults as simple fugitives who regard the culture as their only escape hatch. Kidults proactively decide what they purchase and are not immature adults who are heavily relying on the products in their lives. They are not socially unwelcomed adults who play with children’s toys but are true adults who are participating in a hobby and playing with adult’s toys. It is the adult consumers that contribute most to the kidult industry’s success; thus, respect rather than criticism is needed for both kidults and their culture.
▲ Toys are no longer the exclusive property of kids. PROVIDED BY BEST LIVING JAPAN
Unique or Weird?
Kidults are interested in a wide range of products, such as nano blocks, Lego blocks, Gundam models, drones, and many more. Specifically, nano blocks and Lego blocks are the most well-known products for imaginative adults looking to buy products made for kids. Consumers have the chance to choose which characters to buy, and they can reflect their own preferences in certain model figures. Gundam models are also unique in the sense that they are collected on a relatively large scale compared to other hobbies, and they require extreme care and diligence.
An office worker in the thirties said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency, “I enjoy thinking of purchasing the Gundam model series, bringing them home, assembling them and paying attention to every detail during the painting process.” For model fans, completing their collection means more than just the purchase itself. After buying a model, they experience true happiness in the process of constructing it. Purchasing a Gundam model is not only to gain satisfaction; the psychological effects of toys in terms of providing mental stability and a sense of accomplishment are also important.
Another extensive form of kidult product is the drone. Compared to the other items above, drones are a notable item in that they not only satisfy consumers in terms of the sense of possession, but they also act as a connection between the younger and older generations. Both children and parents show an interest in drones, thus drones increase the common ground between different age groups. As a result, kidult culture can be a positive element within society, functioning as something that brings joy and connection between diverse groups of people, more specifically family members.
A Brand-New Industry – Art Toys
The growth of kidult culture has led to an innovative combination of toys and art called ‘art toys’. Kidult culture has been expanding into a diverse range of areas, capturing the public’s attention. For over four years, the art toy company Art Ventures has been hosting an exhibition for kidults titled “Art Toy Culture.” It is the biggest art toy fair domestically, with artwork by designers and artists from various regions. The number of visitors to this exhibition has increased consistently, reaching 250,000 this year, with cumulative sales exceeding 4.5 billion won.
▲ An image of Art Toys that captivate Kidults. PROVIDED BY GANA ART CENTER
Moon Hyoeun, a representative of Art Ventures, which has taken the lead in creating art toys, suggests that art toys are not simply a toy but also function as a coordinator for modern arts and the technological industry. Moon commented, “Kidults enjoy collecting art toys and also communicate through social network services by sharing their collections. It is a trendy industry which is anticipated to develop further, particularly due to the purchasing power of customers.” The growth of kidult culture is expected to continually expand in the future, along with mutual cooperation in other industries.
Numerous companies have made steady progress in the partnership, especially in the game industry and the food and beverage (F&B) industry. NC Soft and Clash of Clans create art toys with their own distinctive characters and have expanded their business offline. In addition, in the food industry, brands collaborate with art toy artists and promote goods to a broader range of customers. The fact that art toys are not simply just a toy but actual art that artists have reinterpreted in their own way appeals to customers from different age groups.
Embracing an Unfamiliar Culture
Due to the increasing demand of kidults, the consumer market has noticeably expanded. Starting in 2015, Lotte Mart opened Kidult Mania, a professional toy shop targeting kidults. Most recently, it opened an “I Love Lego” world tour exhibition for the first time. Han Sung Chae, a buyer working in content development for Lotte Department Store, commented, “The market for kidults in Korea has been expanding for three years, and it is an emerging field that is expected to grow constantly. This culture is expected to become a respectively common aspect in society that people consider as a hobby.”
Taking into consideration the potential benefits and profit that can be earned from items for kidults, kidult culture has infiltrated a diverse range of industries including beauty, fashion, and daily necessities. Specifically, character brands such as Disney Korea and Kakao Friends have been collaborating with the cosmetics industry to target young women, particularly those in their twenties. Also, Disney has made progress in cooperating with home furnishing companies to release various products that include images of their famous copyright characters. Mickey Mouse can be seen on pillows, blankets, and props that decorate many households.
Kidult culture has also helped to diversify businesses and influence other industries. Convenience stores for example have released popular product s related to food and necessities, such as umbrellas. Umbrellas were not a big seller in convenience stores because the item strongly depends on the weather. However, after GS25 released umbrellas with pictures of Kakao Friend characters, overall sales increased by 34 percent compared to the same period the previous year. As can be seen from this instance, people exhibit a strong tendency to buy items if characters they like are included in any form.
Unlike the past criticism of kidult culture, modern society is more than tolerant in embracing adults consuming products originally targeted towards kids. The boundary between this culture and commercial interests has gradually shrunk to a point where it has entered the daily lives of many people. Many examples from everyday life illustrate how this sub-culture has become a significant and influential driver of commercial growth.
▲ ‘Kidult Mania’ in Lotte Mart. PROVIDED BY LOTTE MART
A notifiable example of kidult culture permeating society is the entry of fictional characters into the field of electronics. Dongbu Daewoo Electronics has released refrigerators with characters such as Spiderman and Iron Man on the door. The company’s spokesman Gwon Dae-hoon explained “Products featuring popular characters not only meet kidults’ demand, but also allow us to introduce fresh designs, which helps us to enhance our brand image.” The partnership between Companies and kidult culture has resulted in optimistic outcomes that enable progress of enterprises.
On the other hand, there are a few side effects to this consumer trend. Unlike children, kidults have full control over what they can purchase. They have the right to spend their money in any way that they think is meaningful, but due to the constant purchasing of desired items, overspending has become a major problem within kidult culture. In particular, the marketing strategy of issuing limited edition items and selling items on a first come, first served basis strongly promotes excessive consumption.
In addition, the fixed number of certain items available on the market can lead to prices for individual items soaring to the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Targeting relatively older age groups, marketers attempt to increase demand by restricting the number of products available for the public to buy. Furthermore, many companies like to offer presales, which informs them of the demand for a certain product and further pushes consumers to buy goods. This is now common in society, and consumers are competitive in finding the items they want.
▲ Kidult culture in mutual cooperation with other industries. PROVIDED BY ART TOY CULTURE
The Endless Prospects for Kidult Culture
Modern society has shown an openminded attitude towards toy culture. In contrast to previous beliefs that kidult culture is a minor aspect in society, the large volume of kidult-targeted products available indicates that this culture has slowly become part of a mass culture that is accepted by the general public.
The influence of kidult culture extends to the profits of companies and the expansion of markets open to those members of the public who embrace the kidult label. Due to the use of diverse marketing strategies for a wide variety of items, synergistic effects between companies and special areas of interest have appeared. This also demolishes the barriers between various fields of business, which is expected to further bring about reciprocal advantages.
Kidult culture is also influential in the way that it connects different age groups and promotes harmony. This leads to unexpected yet optimistic results such as a harmonious relationship between the younger and older generations. By pursuing common interests and sharing kidult culture, interaction between family members and people in different age groups increases. This also functions as an opportunity to reduce the gap between the conservative and modern view towards an unaccustomed culture.
All of a sudden, kidult culture has become a part of society that is accepted by the majority of people. It has entered our daily lives in various ways such as art toys and items related to beauty, fashion, and daily supplies. Due to the extreme interest and demand for these products, the market targeting kidults has been constantly growing and is expected to advance further. The expansion of kidult culture has helped other markets and their individual businesses to generate productive outcomes. The affection kidults show for their hobby is now accepted in society as an act of love and the search for happiness.
▲ Art Toys are not just a toy – it means much more. PROVIDED BY GANA ART CENTER