Starcom's Steve Bonner on the Serious Fun of "Play"

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Cover image for  article: Starcom's Steve Bonner on the Serious Fun of "Play"

The concept of "play" in this digitized world can take on many meanings. To Steve Bonner, Starcom's Executive Vice President, Head of Cultural Intelligence, play simply refers to activities that bring pleasure. The agency's recently released study Live2Play examines, according to Bonner, "How people choose to spend their time and attention in ways that are fulfilling, enriching, sometimes educational, but often just really for pleasure."

Live2Play deconstructs play -- a seemingly simple concept -- in a highly nuanced way, leading us to compelling and evocative insights into not only consumer behavior but society itself.

Starcom's study used a hybrid methodology with a self-service platform to conduct quantitative surveys and two focus groups -- one consisting of families with children, the other of Gen X men only.

For families, the goal was to see how their children's play evolved over time compared to their own play. "We asked what play meant to them," Bonner said. "How do you define play for yourself and for your children? Do you think your children play enough or too much compared to when you were a child? How has play changed? What do you think the implications of the way play has changed for your children will be as they get older?"

The Gen X men group "uncovered an interesting dynamic in their need for play and the way they play," he explained. "With men, we asked, How do guys think about playing? How do they play in the context of friendships? That was, probably for me, the most interesting thing that we learned in this."

Overall, what Bonner and his team realized was the essential benefits of play for a happier life. Using an 85-year-old longitudinal study about human happiness as a lodestar, Bonner saw that, "one of the strongest, most highly correlated things to happiness is long-term, deep friendships. Men tend to have a hard time fostering and maintaining long-term, deep friendships with other men."

This is underscored through their play, which for men means competition and bragging rights. These attributes add an adversarial component to the way they play. "That diminishes the value of play because you're making it a competition as opposed to exploring the world around you," Bonner noted. "Einstein said that play is research. Kids play to learn about the world around them. Men want to have a winner and a loser most of the time when they play with each other and that can fray the friendships between them, perpetuating this problem."

For men, this rocky dynamic involving play and happiness led to an insight explaining the rise in suicide rates among Gen X males and, possibly, lone wolf attacks. "That was a surprise," Bonner admitted. "But we thought it was interesting because as a media agency, as a marketing company, we help inspire our clients to think about new brand behaviors for themselves. We think there's an enormous hero role for marketers to play in helping men play more helpfully and champion active play and curiosity-driven play."

Another insight included how the definition of play for adults has changed over time. "We had people saying that as an adult, playing is like watching a show on Netflix or browsing the Internet or scrolling TikTok," Bonner said. "What that does is stretch the definition of play to include the passive consumption of content. There are a lot of organizations that are happy about that because they say, yes, play is important. Human beings need to play, and if we can say that play equals consuming content passively, then we all sleep better at night because we fundamentally sell the passive consumption of content.

"[But] our position was that we want to resist that creeping definition of play because it's becoming something passive," he continued. "Play has to have an active element of decision-making or of exploring different scenarios. If you remove curiosity and self-determination from play, you lose a bit of the benefit of play."

The study also found that people define themselves by how they play. "They will say, 'I'm a gamer' or 'I like to dance' or 'I'm a singer. I like to make music with my friends, collect things, build with Legos'," Bonner revealed, indicating a changing definition of play as one ages and a different concept of play for their children. "When you talk to people in their late 20s to 40s, they will say, 'When I was a kid, playing was going outside. We'd run around, play with the neighbors and have fun.' Now it has become a digital thing which creates dissonance in parents who say that their kids spend most of their play time on screens. 'It makes life easier for me, but I don't know if it's good,' they say.

"I think brands can take action against this," he added. "How do you make screen time feel healthier when parents feel they're outsourcing babysitting to a screen?"

Understanding the role of play in individuals and in society through this type of quantitative ethnography is a much more expansive way to better define the true essence of brands. Bonner's role in this effort is clear. "I am fundamentally concerned with looking at the world through people's eyes as opposed to looking at the world through a brand," he said. "It's very easy in our business to look at things through the lens of a category. But what we really care about is what people really care about. We are incessantly curious about what it is that drives people and makes them unique and special. That fundamentally takes you to a place of play."

This approach is also vital for brands seeking cultural relevancy. "You have to understand what people care about outside of your brand," Bonner said in closing. "That's at the root of everything we do. Job No. 1 should always be to make the experience something a consumer is going to care about and then figure out how to make sure that it provides the biggest or best return."

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