A common aspect of childhood is that children want to be seen as older than they really are. Be it a toddler hating being called a baby, a child wishing they were old enough to drive or a teenager craving the independence of college life, kids aren't fond of being reminded of their age.
Many kids gravitate towards material made for older audiences as a result. This is most pronounced in pre-adolesence, between 9 and 12. Kids will begin to throw away their toys and get into things that are aimed at their elders. A budding interest in violence and sexuality often starts to occur in this age group.
Companies have taken note of this. In advertisements, it's thought that, in an attempt to seem mature and grown up, young kids will gravitate towards a product if they see adults or teenagers enjoying it. Many works are aimed at one demographic but feature characters slightly older than the demographic. For example, TV shows aimed at 11-year-olds feature 15-year-old protagonists. This is especially noticeable in Kid Coms. Very few feature protagonists under 12 despite the target demographics generally being between 8 and 13 years old.
Works that use this trope feature sanitized versions of being a teenager compared to works aimed at actual teenagers. The cool (and clean) parts are left in — the cars, the fashion, the romance, the parties, etc. — but they leave out the racy aspects of adolescence. Likewise, this occurs with teen-aimed works featuring adults: all the fun of being independent and having a job but without the bills and complications of being an adult. This, however, leads to the side effect of teenagers acting like overgrown 10-year-olds and adults acting as mature as 16-year-olds.
The use of this in anime and manga ends up creating a lot of Values Dissonance. Non-Japanese audiences begin to associate the series with older audiences than intended, and often the work will be aimed at an older audience in certain countries due to different criteria on what children should view. Many supposedly "adult-aimed" anime are actually aimed at preteen boys or preteen girls but contain a lot of Family-Unfriendly Violence and other material uncommon in children's works in other countries.
This trope is in large part why Kid Appeal Characters often end up being The Scrappy instead. Adults think that appealing to kids by having a kiddie character works, but many children would rather focus on a cool and mature Escapist Character instead. Kids tend to prefer characters they can admire and aspire to be when they're older rather than an Audience Surrogate their age. All they do is distract from the character they liked, and at worst it reminds them of how immature they still are.
Compare to College Is "High School, Part 2". This trope can result in Avoid the Dreaded G Rating, as "G" and other equivalent ratings are seen as too kiddie compared to the slightly more mature rating.
- Many toys run with this. For example, Nerf Brand water gun toys usually feature twelve-to-sixteen year olds playing with the guns. The actual demographic is more of the six-to-ten year old range. Preteens and teenagers are more likely to consider water guns "too childish" for them.
- This is one of the reasons many Nintendo fans cite Wii U advertisements failed. Most were aimed specifically at kids and featured kids alongside their families. This not only turned off teenagers and adults, but many kids thought the Wii U wasn't "cool" either. In contrast, the extremely successful Wii had ads that showed families and children but also showed young adults on their own. Nintendo learned from this by the end of the Wii U's lifespan and tried to fix the ads. It helped but not enough. The Nintendo Switch ads are back to featuring minimal children, instead focusing on either families or young adults.
- Sega and later Nintendo had Totally Radical ads in The '90s featuring teenagers, despite the fact many of their games were actually aimed at preteens. Later the Playstation usurped the Sega Saturn in part because Sega reverted to "kiddier" advertisements while Playstation geared itself as a more mature-oriented console.
- Sailor Moon is often mistaken (especially internationally) as being aimed at teens due to its sexuality and violence. However, like almost all Magical Girl works, it is aimed mainly at primary school girls despite the initially 14-year-old heroines being slightly older than the traditional age for a Magical Girl.
- All Digimon anime series with the exception of the adult-targeted Digimon Adventure tri. and Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna, are aimed at elementary school aged kids, and most avert this by starring elementary school-aged characters, but there are two series that play this straight. Digimon Savers focuses on characters ranging from 14 to adults and Digimon Universe Appli Monsters focuses on middle school aged characters, although both series do feature a younger token Kid-Appeal Character as part of the team.
- Most incarnations of Dragon Ball focus on teenage and adult characters but the main demographic is the 12 and under crowd, especially in Japan. This changed internationally due to an Audience Shift in the dubs. In Japan, Dragon Ball is a clearly a children's franchise. In America and most other international countries, the series was originally aimed at young boys but later began targeting the now-adult Periphery Demographic of older teen and adult fans who watched Z when they were younger.
- The protagonist of the Pokémon anime, Ash Ketchum, is and always will be 10 years old. The anime is targeted mostly at 3 - 10 year olds, meaning only the very oldest members of the target audience overlap with Ash's age.
- Pokémon Adventures is aimed at children aged 8 - 12, though the majority of cast members starting with Black and White are at least 14, and the protagonists of the earlier arcs have aged. Red, in particular, started his arc as an 11-year-old, and is is 20 as of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.
- Yo-kai Watch: Shadowside is aimed at the 10-and-under crowd but features a 13 year old protagonist. She's three years older than the previous protagonist.
- Rurouni Kenshin is a Shonen Jump series aimed at teenage boys, yet its seasoned protagonist is 28. The mangaka had wanted him to be 30 but was forced to lower his age after being told a Shonen Jump manga couldn't feature a 30-year old.
- Pretty Cure, a magical girl anime aimed at preschool note and elementary school-aged girls, generally features heroines ranging anywhere from from age 13 to 17. However, on one occasion, one of the heroines was under 10 like the demographic of the show.
- Ashita no Nadja, which was made for a preschool and elementary-school audience, tells the story of a teenager who goes on a search for her mother.
- Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch was aimed at elementary school girls, but the protagonists are teens.
- Ojamajo Doremi was aimed at preschoolers in Japan, but the main protagonists, with the exception of Hana ( who becomes older in the final season) and Pop (who begins elementary school in the third season), are in elementary school.
- Most of the Disney Animated Canon films star either adults or teenagers. Disney films are aimed at general audiences; however, merchandise is almost always aimed at children. This is especially noticeable with Disney Princess line. The youngest character is 14, which is still a good sum older than the target, and it is meant to appeal to girls going through their Princess Phase. In The New '10s, Disney started making their princess characters even older, as Frozen (2013)'s Queen Elsa is the ripe old age of twenty-one (and twenty-four by the time of the sequel).
- Holly Hobbie and Friends stars and was marketed to preteen girls, yet Nickelodeon aired the movies on their preschool block, Nick Jr..
- Up is the rare children's movie with a senior citizen as the protagonist (albeit with a child Deuteragonist). Peter Docter says that he wasn't too worried about this, arguing that kids could relate to Carl the same way that they relate to their own grandparents.
- Disney Channel Original Movies are aimed at preteen girls, but most feature teenage protagonists. The most obvious examples are High School Musical and Descendants, both of whom managed to attract teen fans. The films are more G-rated than most films aimed at actual teens as well.
- This was the marketing strategy of American International Pictures, makers of countless teen comedies and horror B-movies in The '50s and The '60s. They codified it into a formula that they called "Peter Pan Syndrome": they figured that young children will watch anything that older kids will but that older kids won't watch "kiddie" movies, and that girls will watch anything that boys will but that boys won't watch "girly" movies, so therefore, to reach the widest possible audience, they should zero in on the 19-year-old male moviegoer as their ostensible target demographic. That way, in practice their real target demographic will also include his younger siblings and his girlfriend.
- The Hobbit is a children's story with Bilbo Baggins as an older protagonist. He's short (child-height), has no facial hair, and goes barefoot, but he also smokes a pipe, lives by himself as an adult bachelor, and is 50 years old.
- The Babysitters Club featured 12- and 13-year-old protagonists however it was actually aimed at an elementary audience. This means that the actual target audience was the same age as the kids the girls babysit. The low age of the target demographic is likely why, unlike much Middle Grade Literature aimed at tween girls, it lacked any reference to menstruation (though bras were mentioned a lot).
- Back in the day, there were The Hardy Boys novels—the eponymous characters were high-schoolers, but boys read these books as pre-teens mainly. The Nancy Drew novels, aimed at girls, had a similar age disparity.
- Erin Hunter:
- Warrior Cats is aimed at preteens and most of its characters start at the equivalent of 10-13. But they quickly age into adults and as a result the series has a lot of mature themes.
- The main characters in Survivor Dogs all start as adults. This gives them a more mature outlook on life than pups and allows for plots such as Lucky becoming an older brother figure to Storm.
- The titular character in Madeline is around 8, though the books and DiC animated series are aimed at 4 - 7 year old girls. The live-action film ages her to around 11, and the target audience to around 8 - 12 year olds.
- Disney Channel sitcoms, in general, have been aimed at females (particularly Girly Girls) aged about 8 - 16 since the debut of Hannah Montana (who's protagonist is 13 at the start, 17 at the end). Amusingly, in universe for the mentioned show, the titular character, an intended parody of Teen Idols like Britney Spears who was Defictionized because of a Misaimed Fandom, tried to target a mostly 8 - 14 female audience, but ended up with a 99% Adoration Rating.
- That's So Raven was aimed at the elementary school market but featured teenage leads in wacky situations. Subverted in the Sequel Series Raven's Home, where Raven's preteen children are the main protagonists. Raven's Home also has a Multiple Demographic Appeal and is aimed at adult fans who grew up with the original and new, younger fans as well.
- iCarly was aimed at a younger audience than its high school-aged protagonists were. It was noticeably more chaste than teen-aimed shows but still had a lot of innuendo.
- Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: The heroes attended high school and were infamously described in an early episode as "teenagers with attitude", but elementary school-aged kids were the main audience.
- Barney & Friends stars elementary school kids alongside Barney. However, the series is aimed at toddlers.
- Play With Me Sesame stars four Muppets who are either adults (Bert and Ernie, Grover) or are older than the standard Sesame Street cast (Prairie Dawn). The spin-off is aimed at infants, which contrasts with fellow spin-off Elmo's World, whose main character is 3, and is aimed at 3-year-olds.
- The Noddy Shop, a show aimed at preschoolers and early elementary schoolers, mainly features characters who are older than the target demographic, with at least three main characters (Noah, Aunt Agatha and Granny Duck) being in their 60's. Only three characters (the puppets Whiny and Whimper, who are babies and the human character Truman, who is in early elementary school) are in the age range of the 2-7 demographic the show is aimed for. However, in one episode, an adult character mentions she has a five-year-old grandson.
- This also happened with its' predecessor Shining Time Station, which mainly starred elementary school-aged kids, as well as several adults and a teenager, but was meant for preschoolers.
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch was mostly aimed at the 10-12 market, but Sabrina Spellman turned sixteen in the first episode and was in her early twenties when it finished. The show's main star Melissa Joan Hart has talked up the Multiple Demographic Appeal - teenagers who fancied Sabrina and her friends (or else Harvey), adults nostalgic for I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched and older geeks attracted by the fantasy elements.
- S Club 7's music was marketed to children aged 8-10 and their tie-in TV series was too. The groups had a Vague Age, but the format was seven twentysomethings trying to make it in America. The oldest member was Paul Cattermole - who was twenty-seven when Miami 7 started airing.
- Inai Inai Baa! is aimed at babies and toddlers, yet Wan-Wan is 6 years old and the show's female co-host is a preteen. However, it's downplayed in the fact that U-tan is a toddler and that babies will often appear Once per Episode.
- This is very common in kid-aimed music, especially with Nickelodeon and Disney's teen idols. Aly & A.J., Hilary Duff, The Jonas Brothers, Jesse McCartney, and several other singers all started out in their mid-to-late teens (or older) but were mainly aimed at seven to twelve year olds until they started branching off. The singers are either aspirational or are fawned over (especially common when it comes to Boy Bands).
- Traditionally, dolls are meant to look young and similar to the child. However, most modern doll lines (especially fashion ones) feature teenagers and occasionally young adults. The thought is that little girls prefer roleplaying with teenage fashion and teenage things. This has met with some criticism that it makes girls age too precociously. Barbie is the Trope Codifier for fashion dolls, to the point where she counts as an Escapist Character. She's an attractive 20-something year old with numerous Cool Cars, a Big Fancy House, tons of friends, and an Unlimited Wardrobe who has also done anything from becoming a model to being president.
- Monster High and Ever After High both star high school students but are aimed at the ten and under crowd. They have led to a lot of copycat franchise such as DC Super Hero Girls, Descendants, and My Little Pony: Equestria Girls.
- G.I. Joe: The characters are all adults, with soldiers in the U.S. Army fighting against terrorists. The toys and the animated series were aimed at children.
- This trope doesn't always work out. While Barbie is huge in North America, she doesn't sell in Japan and traditionally sold poorly in Britain. The reasons? They have their own fashion dolls: Licca-chan and Sindy, respectively. Both are preteens or early teenagers (Licca being explicitly eleven while Sindy is ambiguously 11 to 14). Little girls prefer them over the more mature American Barbie dolls. When Sindy was revamped as a teenager in the 1970s, her sales tanked and this gave wiggle room for Barbie to surpass her in British sales.
- Bratz received a lot of criticism and controversy due to the use of this trope. The series is all about a group of fashionable teens hanging out, dating boys, and having fun together. The dolls are clearly marketed at 10- to 12-year-olds yet the characters' designs are very risqué looking. The series later attempted to tone the sexiness down and focus on the "Be Yourself" message, but the damage was done (plus most longtime fans disliked the retool).
- Super Mario Bros.: Mario and Luigi are 26, but the series was almost exclusively marketed to kids in its early years. While the franchise evolved to develop the targeted all-ages appeal it's known for and a good chunk of Mario fans are the same age as the Bros. (making them something of an Audience Surrogate), it continues to be inoffensively family-friendly and heavily marketed to kids.
- Sonic the Hedgehog and its many Mascot with Attitude clones were based on this. The original three Sonic games were aimed at the 12-and-under crowd but marketed at teenagers. This helped make Sonic the Hedgehog look "cool" and mature. Sonic's badbutt teenager attitude in comparison to his competition's more friendly one also helped. By Sonic Adventure, however, the series dropped this angle and markets mainly at kids, though still most of the cast are teenagers.
- Avatar High:
- Avatar High is aimed at preteens despite being a high school sim on the Teen Nick website.
- Avatar U, is themed around university but isn't aimed at that demographic.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: It's right there in the title that the heroes are teenagers, but many series in the franchise were aimed squarely at elementary school-aged boys. The original comic was a Daredevil parody aimed at adults, but the 1980s Lighter and Softer cartoon cemented the series as being for little boys.
- My Little Pony:
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is primarily written for young girls. Vague Age is in effect, but the show mostly portrays the main characters as adults who live independently and work full-time jobs. The secondary protagonists, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, are only slightly older than the target audience — since they're young ponies on the verge of their universe's puberty metaphor.
- The My Little Pony: Equestria Girls series is the official High School A.U. spinoff of the above, aimed at a roughly middle school audience. Ironically, the main cast are younger than the original series, to appeal to older children. Oddly, the original series is very low on romance, but Equestria Girls flirts with it slightly, despite featuring a younger cast.
- Jem is a cartoon based on a doll line. Like most fashion doll lines, the protagonists are adults (with the youngest being a teenager that's already finished high school, making her either 18 or 19). The target audience was 6- to 11-year-old girls. Jem is often called "like a soap opera" because it featured a lot of romance, drama, etc. Part of the reason why the In Name Only Live-Action Adaptation Jem and the Holograms failed is that they aged down the characters to high schoolers. This, combined with everything being heavily toned down into a cookie-cutter Coming-of-Age Story, meant that the characters couldn't do half as much as they did in the original cartoon or comic reboot.
- SpongeBob SquarePants: On one hand, SpongeBob is an adult with a house and his own job. But on the other hand, he usually acts like an overgrown child to the point where many fans think he's actually a teenager when he's at least 25.
- Captain Planet and the Planeteers is an Edutainment Show about the environment aimed mostly at elementary schoolers. Almost all of the main characters are in their late teens.
- Elena of Avalor stars teenage protagonists who are at least 15-16 years old, and tells a serialized story about its title character one day being queen, among other things. The show airs on Disney Junior, which is aimed at preschoolers.
- The preschool show PAW Patrol features a 10-year-old boy who runs an emergency service team of dogs.
- Postman Pat: Pat Clifton himself is a 35 year old in a show aimed at preschoolers.
- The protagonists in Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go! are teenagers and the shows are aimed at preteens. A huge chunk of the audience for Go! are toddlers.