Get In Gear Avatars

Parents often rue the day when their child came home with a metal stud protruding from an eyebrow or a Maori tattoo scrolled across the breadth of a lower back. Self-expression might continue to be the hallmark of youth but with the growing popularity of Internet avatars, kids can enjoy all the piercing and tats without the guff from the parental units.

Avatars are images used online to identify a person or express his or herself. Some avatars come in the form of pictures while others are animated. Avatars can be viewed across the Net on message boards and personal Web pages. Nonprofits are beginning to recognize the avatar boom and are poised to become a benefactor of its expressive nature.

By creating a virtual personality kids can avoid the popularity contest of what you look like, explained Ginger Thomson, chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Youth Noise. That personality can now be associated with a particular cause or with a social sensibility that they might want to reflect instead of the more personal, physical photograph.

By logging on to www.meez.com, users can create their own avatar and choose from various wardrobes, hairstyles, body art, accessories and yes, social causes. The CAUZ-branded line of virtual clothing contains the names of a number of participating youth-oriented nonprofits including Youth Noise, 826 Valencia, Do Something, Just Think, Music for America, Outward Bound and Summer Search.

“In the Youth Noise environment, because young people are connecting around their ideologies and political perspectives, a personal photograph is not something they always want to have available to the community,” Thomson said. “But they still want to identify or brand themselves by the things that they care about in their community. We thought it would be a great way to allow people to do that.”

Youth Noise recently partnered with the MEEZ avatars but had to first integrate an API (application programming interface) that wasn’t originally consistent with its own technology. The proper protocol was established and the nonprofit’s CAUZ-branded avatar gear was launched mid-September. The service is free for the nonprofits involved.

When someone takes their Youth Noise avatar to another site, it’s brand building but it’s not technically marketing, since, at this juncture, the avatar does not connect back to the nonprofit’s Web site, Thomson said. Youth Noise is hoping to integrate a Web link into the avatar in the future but for now it’s really a “low-risk, high-reward type of branding initiative,” Thomson added.

Avatars have been extremely popular in Korea for years and the idea was to come up with a model that would work in the U.S., said Michael Lehman, marketing director at MEEZ.

“We create these digital assets – T-shirts, logos,” Lehman explained. “When we talk about how young people are using these avatars, it’s really about expressing what they’re passionate about. My wife works for a nonprofit, so I’m somewhat tuned into that world. She’s talked to me about youth often having a hard time getting involved with nonprofits or social causes. With avatars, they can show some of the nonprofits they care about by dressing it in a T-shirt or hoodie.”

After creating an avatar, the user is provided with an HTML link. The avatar can be downloaded and posted wherever a person pleases — on a MySpace page, blog, as an Instant Messenger icon or any place that would accept a digital photo.

The potential for widespread Web attention was one of the reasons that Just Think, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, agreed to add its name to the CAUZ-branded inventory. The mission of the organization is to teach young people to think critically, particularly about media issues, and to produce creative works. During the last 12 years it has been working predominantly in under-served communities giving kids the tools to interpret and create media messages, whether it is film, the Web, art, music or electronic media. The avatar was viewed as a new way for Just Think to go about cause marketing.

“From my perspective, a lot of young people in everyday life tend to sport a variety of logos and messages where they’re not being particularly conscious — they’re not being that analytical — about the multitude of identities that they’re promoting whether it be their clothes, binders or bumper stickers,” said Elana Yonah Rosen, co-founder and executive director at Just Think.“In this avatar environment, you’re conscious of what logo you’re sporting and you’re able to express yourself in a more heightened way in a critical thinking and conscious effort than the everyday person, average person walking down the street. They’re becoming active participants in their choices rather than being sold to in a way that capitalist society depends upon in the advertising industry. It’s a fun and creative way to allow kids to be spokespeople for things they believe in.”

Although the endeavor is too new to have produced statistical data, Rosen hopes that an interest in the CAUZ-branded avatars will lead to the integration of a more solid link between avatar and the organization.  But for now, the avatar serves simply as a promotional piece. It’s not going to instill the mission of the organization into a young person just because their avatar may be wearing a T-shirt with the Just Think logo, Rosen said.

“Hopefully young people will be curious enough about what it does symbolize to seek us out,” Rosen added. “It’s in its infancy and we’re in the experiment together so I think it’s worthy of trial. It’s a great way to get our identity into the mainstream without costing the nonprofit the kind of budget that we normally put toward programming instead of marketing and expenses. It allows us to help tread water in a highly competitive advertising world.”  NPT