After first being introduced in the 1980s, kidults, a word used to describe adults who engage in recreational activities usually enjoyed by children, have grown influential in terms of cultural and economic activity every year. While the US and Japan dominates the kidult industry, South Korea has risen as a powerful influence that is worth noting of. The following paper offers an outlook of Korea’s growing influence and its potential.
Kidult is a combination of the word “Kid” and “Adult” and refers to adults normally in their late 20s to early 30s who have interests that are conventionally associated with children such as playing with toys, watching cartoons, and collecting dolls. The concept was first introduced in 1985 August 11th in the New York Times to describe the unprecedented popularity of the Barbie doll among adults.
For a while, kidults were considered as a social anomaly of adults that failed to outgrow their childish side. Then, what was nothing more than an underground phenomenon suddenly ballooned into a huge mainstream culture and began to grow rapidly. These adults began to expand their territory to existing brands and products targeted for children such as the Disney and Pixar animations, Legos, and even yoyos and skateboards. As the volume of the kidult culture began to grow, the social and economic influence the culture had begun to grow as well. Slowly but surely, many brands began to set kidults as a specific target group for their products and actually yield profits from that choice. Also, kidults were no longer criticized as before and began to grow as a concrete form of mainstream culture.
South Korea also has quite a large kidult population within the nation. The kidult market of Korea has nearly a 4.5 million dollar value. Considering that the US and Japan, which are the heart of Kidult culture each have a 10 trillion and 5.4 billion market value, this is far from modest. Despite its small nation, kidult culture has grown fast and strong and is now growing every year. It can be estimated that kidults will evolve into an influential social class in Korean within a few decades. We will now proceed to elucidate the history and growth of the kidult culture, its social and economic influence within the Korean nation, and present an analysis of the future of the kidult culture in Korea.
This literature review reassesses the existing research done on the subject of kidult and kidult culture. In Bernardini (2014) the author discusses the history of how kidult culture developed and defines kidult culture as a lifestyle choice rather than a transitional phase. This is useful for this research as it provides a in-depth understanding of the overall concept of kidult culture. However, this paper fails to differentiate kidults from people with “Peter Pan syndrome”, a psychological disorder that is often wrongly associated with kidult culture. In Bernadini (2014),the author analyses the effect of kidult culture on the media and how the viewing choices of people have been infantilized. This research shows the growing influence of kidult culture especially on the field of media. Unfortunately, this research only covers kidult culture within the United States and does not provide any information within South Korea. Hayward (2014) reviews the psychology of kidults in specific detail. This provides a better understanding of the mind set of kidults. However, the research is not culture specific and does not provide any explanation regarding the culture of kidults.
This literature review presents existing research on kidults and kidult culture mostly focused on its history and how it was first introduced. It also points out how specific research regarding kidult culture within South Korea is lacking which this paper is attempting to present.
For this research, the author conducted desk research to first gain better understanding of the history of kidult culture and details of what it entails. Then, the author made further research to determine if the economic and social influence of kidults engrossed in kidult culture within the South Korea is at a level worth having interest about. The author consulted a range of research including books, academic articles, and online information to determine whether kidults can be classified as a cultural class. The author analyzed the data to determine how it answered the research questions. What follows it the results of that methodology.
Before focusing on kidult culture and kidults within Korean society, an understanding of the overall development of kidult culture is necessary. As mentioned briefly in the introduction, the term kidult was first introduced in the 1980s to describe the unusual fad of Barbie dolls among full grown adults. Before the 1990s, in the US, the kidult fad was mainly focused on collecting dolls that resembled teenage girls or women such as Barbie dolls and Bratz dolls .In the East Asian region, robot making kits inspired from the popular Japanese animation series “Gundam” were widely popular. In Korea, some young adults who managed to watch Gundam films on burnt video disks and became fans, collected these Gundam kits despite high tax prices from importing in from Japan. The sight of grown adults fanatically engaging “childish” robots and dolls were viewed in a negative light and openly criticized in both the Korean and Japanese society. These kidults and their culture had a very small and underground scale but were fiercely attacked by mainstream society.
However, starting from the late 1990s, this negative perspective towards kidult culture changed quite suddenly and began to be received in a positive light. This was due to the sudden worldwide popularity of the Harry Potter series. 7 books were published over the span of 10 years along with the sprouting of multiple franchises in movies, games, amusement parks, and many more. Readers and fans that were children at the start of the series kept loyal to the series and by the time the series wrapped up, they were full grown adults that were still attached to their childhood heroes and the magical world they came from. Due to the Harry Potter series, worldwide clans of kidults were cultivated. People could engage with kidult culture changing the way kidults and kidult culture were viewed as into a positive light. Also, considering that the profit the Harry Potter franchise had reaped over 10 years accounts to nearly 308 trillion dollars, this also motivated businessmen and entrepreneurs to pursue investing in the kidult industry. Unlike previous target customers which were children that had to depend on their parents for a trip to the amusement park or a fancy toy, kidults had the similar needs and desires as a kid might have but had the financial independence to buy merchandise and consume goods at a bigger and free scale.
At first, kidult culture mainly was consisted of grown adults consuming products targeted for children such as children toys, video games, dolls, and many more. However, as business men started to grasp the profitable potential kidults have, more and more products and cultural content specifically targeted at kidults have been released. Aside from just toys, there are two forms of cultural content targeted at kidults; the first kind of content is children’s recreation gentrified to the level of adults. This refers to products such as adult coloring books, miniature models making kits, or adult LEGO sets. While originated from the pastime of children, the sophistication of the quality of the contents and the dedication required makes them suitable for adults and adults only.
The second type of kidult cultural content is adult cultural content presented in a format that appeals to children. This ranges widely from clothing with action heroes printed on the front, cosmetic brands collaborating with animation productions to make lipstick with cartoon characters slapped on the lid, to simply media content such as movies and television comics. Cartoons such as ‘South Park’ or ‘Happy Tree Friends’ hardly seem different from any other cartoon that a child might watch, but the content of such cartoons are extremely X-rated.
Keeping all this in mind, we will now proceed to focus on the kidult culture of South Korea. As said before, merely a few decades ago, Korean kidult culture was mainly consisted of imported Japanese culture, particularly regarding the hit robot animation ‘Gundam’. The sight of grown people paying seemingly extravagant money to import robots from another country was not received very well. However, during the 1990s, development of the Internet allowed people to import the same model kits at a lower price with the advent of sites that made purchase without going through a middle agent possible. That combined with the world renowned success of the Harry Potter series successfully turned the nationwide disapproval toward kidult culture.
Overtime, the Korean kidult industry has gone through quite an astonishing growth and now has a network worth 500 billion dollars. Considering that the US and Japan (which are the leading kidult industry countries in the Western and Eastern hemisphere) respectively have a 12 trillion and 6 trillion dollar industry, this is quite large as well. Now, kidult conventions are held every quarter, and several kidult museums sit in the hearth of the Seoul capital.
While the majority of the kidult industry in Korea is supported by those who openly identify themselves as kidults, the non-kidult population also actively engages in kidult culture as well. Every year, so-called “collaborations” between miscellaneous products and character brands are increasing every year creating a synergy effect in terms of profit. The hit Disney animation “Frozen” alone collaborated with two different companies in 2014; a frozen desert manufacturing company called “Binggrae” which had a wholesome family friendly image and a cosmetics brand named “Peri-Pera” which main customers were women in their early to mid-20s. “Binggrae” launched a new marketing plan where they affectionately nicknamed an ice cream product that formally existed before as “Elsa-Cones” after the main protagonist and changed the packaging to feature characters from the “Frozen” movie. In the case of “Peri-Pera”, the brand launched a new makeup line called the “Frozen line” inspired by the female characters of the movie. Both companies experienced tripled rates of sales after their collaboration with “Frozen”. Even if the general public might not identify themselves as kidults, their behavioral patterns do resemble that of kidults to a certain extent which affects their lifestyle.
Now, it has only been a short period of time, barely a few decades since kidult culture has become prevalent in Korean society. Currently, the age group of kidults is concentrated on adults in their late 20s to their early 30s. Soon, the majority of them will get married and have kids. Already, many kidult parents are sharing their kidultian life style with their children, and many toy industries have started to embrace kidult parents as their target group as well. When these young kids grow and obtain financial independence, there is a high chance they will adapt a similar lifestyle as their parents did at a younger age and a bigger scale. Thus, it could be said that the future looks optimistic.
In summation, the social and economic influence of kidults within South Korea is certainly noteworthy. Despite this fact, there is shockingly little research done on this field. This could be attributed to the sudden and rapid growth of kidult culture in Korea. The purpose of the research was to point out the remarkable growing influence of Korean kidults and reveal its future potential. Analysis clearly suggests that Korean kidults have massive influence that affects both the culture and economy of the Korean nation and they will continue to do so with a degree that will intensify year after year. However, further research on the matter should be conducted on various levels before making a concrete claim on the subject.
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 Bernardini, J. (2014). The Postmodern Infantilization of the Media