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Sophisticated Corporate Marketers Manipulating Children's Appetites

November 28, 2004
New York Times Magazine

Hey, Mom, Is It O.K. If These Guys Market Stuff to Us?
By JON GERTNER

In a way, the coming marketing campaign for Ozon, a family restaurant, began
more than a year and a half ago, in the spring of 2003, when Patrick
Benasillo met Chris McKee at a marketing conference called Kid Power, held
in Orlando, Fla. Benasillo, the president of Studio D, a company in New York
that designs and manufactures logos and signs for retail stores, had just
attended a talk by McKee, a partner at the Geppetto Group, a New York
marketing firm. McKee had discussed the appeal of fictional characters like
Harry Potter and, more broadly, how kid culture had saturated consumer
society to the extent that it was becoming the central creative marketing
force of our era. This is indeed what McKee usually talks about. He says
things like ''The lifestyle of kids for the first time in history is
something we study.'' Or ''Kid culture has become the most intriguing kind
of culture around.'' In conversation, he tends to pile up the ideas before
you, drawing on children's music or comics or (most often) the films of
Pixar -- ''Toy Story,'' ''Finding Nemo,'' ''The Incredibles'' -- as examples
of the intermingling of kid and adult cultures, a phenomenon that to him
suggests children are becoming far more sophisticated about products and
entertainment at the same time as adults (he calls them kidults) are
increasingly reveling in youth-based content. ''Is it just that the kids
want to be older,'' McKee asks, ''or is it that adults want to stay younger
longer?'' When Benasillo heard McKee talk like this, he sought him out in
Orlando and introduced himself. Then he told him what he had been working
on.

Benasillo had an idea he was trying out at a shopping mall on Staten
Island. It began as a sudden inspiration -- KidKafe, a restaurant that he
imagined would give families a dinner option that was a step above
McDonald's in terms of price and quality, but slightly below, say,
Applebee's in price and formality. ''I was trying to create this
Starbucks-for-kids type atmosphere,'' says Benasillo, who began the initial
design work early in 2002. ''I wanted bright colors and curves; I wanted it
to appear pretty futuristic, but not to the point that I wanted it to be a
theme restaurant.'' Benasillo, with help from some of his colleagues at his
design firm, dreamed up drinks, desserts and decor for his restaurant; he
settled on the name Ozon (pronounced oh-zone) after it outscored KidKafe in
focus groups. But his greatest eureka moment came at a restaurant trade
show, when he found something that pulled everything together: a sandwich
press with which Ozon could (1) start with a layer of parbaked bread; (2)
add a sandwich filling of any type; (3) put down another layer of parbaked
bread; (4) smash the whole thing together until it was hot and toasty and
end up with a perfectly sealed warm discus with no visible trace of the
filling inside. Here was precisely the kind of hip, futuristic branding that
Benasillo was sure kids and parents would love.

Benasillo hired a chef, and the two of them designed an entire menu around
the press. They soon hit on a number of kid-friendly concoctions -- the
Wafflo, for instance, which was made up of scoops of ice cream hermetically
trapped inside hot, round waffles (but, thanks to the ''flash'' toasting,
not so hot that the ice cream melts). And they created a carb-loaded
sandwich that Chris McKee at Geppetto says excited him to the point of
near-delirium when he first heard of it: macaroni and cheese inside a
steaming ball of toasted french bread.

By November 2002, Benasillo had opened a store at the Staten Island Mall;
in the fall of 2003, another Ozon opened in a New Jersey mall. But then
business hit a rough patch. The overhead, Benasillo says, was too high for
the number of customers he was getting. Also, he realized that there was no
chance his small, unknown Ozon could compete with the Applebee's and
McDonald's right next door.

So last summer, Benasillo closed up the mall restaurants and decided to
reopen Ozon as a local family destination, not a mall eatery. The first
stand-alone Ozon opened this July near his home in Staten Island. To make
sure the reopening would go well, he asked Geppetto to design a marketing
campaign that would attract local customers; if things worked out, he would
use these ideas for a regional expansion into franchises when the time came.
Geppetto, in turn, took Ozon on as a client. McKee thought the concept was
brilliant from the moment he heard about it.


Unlike most marketing agencies, Geppetto limits itself exclusively to ''kid
products'' and ''kid campaigns'' for the likes of Lego, Little Tykes, Kids
Foot Locker and Coca-Cola. The firm was formed when McKee (now chief
creative officer), Julie Halpin (C.E.O.) and Rachel Geller (chief strategic
officer) broke off from Saatchi & Saatchi in 1997, where they were in charge
of youth marketing. These days, Geppetto occupies a big, airy loft space on
Morton Street in Greenwich Village. It's a grown-up environment -- white
walls, exposed brick, Danish modern furniture, Aeron chairs -- that
testifies to McKee's disdain for the assumption that people who work in
youth marketing must be a bunch of kids. McKee, who once shut down Geppetto
for the afternoon to bring the entire staff to the premiere of ''Spider-Man
2,'' said: ''I really love comic books and kid shows. I get it.'' But if
doing his work entails being childlike, that's not the same as being
childish. There's a difference, he says.

Geppetto's approach to designing a campaign relies on Rachel Geller's
psychological and anthropological field research on children and teenagers.
For instance, Geller has helped Geppetto discern the ''eight kinds of fun''
and ''six species of kids'' and ''nine principles of family branding.''
McKee and Halpin apply these categories systematically to the firm's
accounts. This reduces the challenge of selling variable products and
services to the same questions: What kind of fun will product X create? What
species of kid will respond to product Y?

Every campaign begins with an ''immersion day.'' McKee, Halpin and Geller
take seats around the firm's conference table and brainstorm over a new
client's needs. This can be a crowded and loud affair; a company like
Campbell's, for instance, might send 10 in-house managers to an immersion
day. But on a Thursday in the middle of September, Benasillo came alone.
While he has other investors in Ozon (family members and friends, for the
most part), he was overseeing the marketing decisions himself.

At Halpin's prompting, Benasillo explained why he started his business:
''better food and a cooler place.'' Apart from Starbucks, his closest model
was Cosi, the sandwich-bar and coffee chain. Then McKee and Halpin grilled
him for the next half-hour. McKee: ''When you say 'better' food, what do you
mean?'' Halpin: ''And what are your goals here?''

To McKee, Benasillo responded: ''It's not health food, but nothing is
fried, and we don't do supersize. That's why I landed on 'better.' It tastes
better. Is it good for you? It's better than a double cheeseburger.''
Answering Halpin, Benasillo said: ''I want to prove my business model works.
I want to provide an environment where families can talk to each other.'' He
had specific goals: In the short term, he wanted to take in $1,000 per day,
rather than the actual $600. Long term, he wanted to franchise Ozon around
the area and, ultimately, across the country. In addition to the new
flagship restaurant, he said, he had just started an Ozon food concession at
the Staten Island Children's Museum and had taken over the cafeteria at a
private school in the borough.

An hour passed. McKee and Halpin prodded Benasillo and debated the idea of
stressing the ''better'' food at Ozon. Or should ''fun'' be emphasized
instead? Should Ozon seek to steal customers from a place like Burger King,
or should it focus on those who patronized casual family restaurants? They
batted around more practical questions too. Could they raise Ozon's weekly
revenue by increasing dinner traffic? Would they also want to brand Ozon
''the hot spot'' for children's birthday celebrations?

s the morning wore on and the line of questioning became more focused,
McKee and Halpin leaned increasingly toward a mom-focused campaign for Ozon
and away from a kid-focused campaign. This is a crucial distinction. In
youth marketing, the mom campaign is often referred to as ''the gatekeeper
model'' -- an appeal to the person who is making the purchasing decisions,
whether they involve buying a toy or fried chicken or movie tickets. In this
case, Geppetto would apply one of its models, specifically, ''The Seven
Faces of Mom.''

Halpin explained things to Benasillo. There is New Mom on the Block, Great
Expectations Mom, Vicarious Mom, All-Perfect Mom, Connected Mom and so on.
With the help of a PowerPoint presentation, she projected caricatures of
each type onto a screen nearby. These are not discrete kinds of people, but
rather ''faces'' that the same mom might wear at different times and under
different circumstances. ''Which one of the moms is present when you are
deciding where to eat?'' Halpin asked the group. ''All of these moms live in
me. But which are we going to address here?'' By way of further explanation
to Benasillo, she resorted to PBS shows: ''Sesame Street'' is all about
Connected Mom, she said. ''Dragon Tales'' is Millennium Mom.

Benasillo seemed confused: ''Who is Connected Mom again?''

''She likes nostalgia,'' Halpin replied. ''She says, 'I ate Campbell's soup
when I was a kid, and I want to serve it to my kids.' '' Connected Mom is
not for Ozon, Halpin said -- the novelty of the restaurant wouldn't appeal
to her. On the other hand, Millennium Mom is probably someone to keep in
mind for this campaign. ''Millennium Mom is very hip,'' Halpin said. ''And
it's not just Millennium Mom,'' she added a moment later. ''We should also
consider All-Perfect Mom here. All-Perfect Mom is a little bit of a
policeman, but she wants to give her kids pleasure.''

McKee liked this idea. To him, All-Perfect Mom represents responsible
indulgence. All-Perfect Mom lets her kids have Oreos -- but not too many.
All-Perfect Mom is always thinking about fun for the kid, but fun that's
within reasonable limits.

''Let's pretend we're in Mom's head,'' Halpin said. ''Finish the sentence:
I wish there were a place to eat that. . . . ''

''A place to eat that . . . I knew the kids were going to eat the food,''
McKee called out. ''A place to eat that . . . feels kid-friendly.'' Halpin
countered: ''What about: I wish there were a place where . . . there was
food for me too?'' Heads nodded all around. Everyone agreed: this focused
the brand. It communicated the notion that Ozon wouldn't be a compromise --
or a disappointment -- for Mom.

Halpin proposed a quick exercise before adjourning. ''Let's do the kids'
perspective,'' she said. ''Because regardless of what we say to Mom, that's
important.'' McKee turned to Benasillo: ''After they try your food, what do
they say?''

''I've always got the Wafflo,'' Benasillo said proudly. ''No kid has ever
not liked the Wafflo.'' Ozon can pretty much seal anything between two
pieces of bread. ''We've done bacon, eggs, apples, peanut butter, Fluff --
you name it,'' Benasillo said. ''It's nuts.''

Halpin suggested approaching from another point of view. ''How about this
from the kid?'' Halpin asked. '' 'I wish there were a place . . . that had
good, interesting food . . . had no such thing as a kid meal . . . where
they don't talk down to you.' ''

McKee added: ''That also appeals to the whole kidult thing. This isn't
kids' food exactly, but it's fun and has a kid quality.''

McKee then turned to Halpin: ''Can we put a star next to that?''

he last several years haven't been kind to the reputations of people who
make their living selling products or fun to kids. This year, the industry
has been vilified by two new books -- ''Born to Buy,'' by Juliet Schor, and
''Consuming Kids,'' by Susan Linn -- that put youth marketers on a moral
plane not far above tobacco executives. Theirs is not a new criticism,
exactly, but Schor and Linn maintain that marketing efforts directed at
children have grown increasingly manipulative and pervasive in recent years
-- to the point that the industry has even taken aim at children far too
young to understand the ads' persuasive intent. ''Somebody needs to connect
the dots between marketing and the things that people are concerned about --
precocious sexuality, childhood obesity, eating disorders, youth violence,
family stress, excessive materialism, the diminished creativity in
children's play,'' Linn told me. Meanwhile, Schor argues that what marketers
say they're doing (like selling to kids who are older than 10) often
conflicts with their actual practices. ''We have more than a third of our
kids who are going to end up with weight-related diabetes -- that's a killer
disease,'' Schor said. ''And they're marketing Happy Meals to 2- or
3-year-olds. They have licensed Pepsi logos on formula bottles.''

The initial campaign for Ozon, addressing mothers more than kids, would
seem to sidestep some of these criticisms. But Geppetto does plenty of other
work that appeals directly to children. Like many in their industry, Halpin,
McKee and Geller (all of whom are parents) maintain that we live in a
consumer society and that marketing to children has been part of our culture
for at least the last 50 years. ''Given that it exists,'' Halpin says, ''how
can we, who create this stuff, do it in a way that's responsible and fair to
kids? That's the real question.'' McKee argues that much of this debate
seems to hinge on whether kids can decide on their own if a product suits
their needs. ''Nine out of 10 new products for kids fail,'' he says. ''The
critics' argument against our industry is that kids are so easily
manipulated. But kids will say, 'Nope, don't want it.' We do hundreds of
new-product tests, and the kid has to really, really want it for it to work.
Despite our best or worst intentions, we cannot get kids to buy things they
don't want.''

This may be true. On the other hand, it can be disarming to hear McKee note
in passing how a sneaker he is marketing to preteen girls (the so-called
tweens) will give them ''confidence.'' So while Linn and Schor talk about
protecting children, McKee and Halpin talk about empowering them; while Linn
and Schor invoke youthful innocence, McKee and Halpin talk about youthful
sophistication. The rifts show not only how differently the sides regard the
role of marketing but also how differently they perceive the lives of
children.

One thing that particularly distresses Schor and Linn is how
youth-marketing firms use psychological research and scientific testing.
Rachel Geller, the partner in charge of this at Geppetto, disputes the
perception that her research is somehow exploitative. ''Basically, the
people who write those books have a social agenda,'' Geller says. ''But if
they were to go around America and talk to moms and kids, they would feel
much more confident that families are not falling apart, that moms use good
judgment and that kids can make sensible decisions. Why shouldn't kids get
to choose how their shampoo smells? Or what color they want to paint their
room?'' To answer these sorts of questions, Geller says she tends to avoid
large focus groups in favor of, for instance, a pair of friends in a private
room. ''We have a technique called 'sleepover,' '' Geller says. ''We ask
kids if they like sleepovers, and they say, 'Yeah, that's great.' We say,
'Imagine you go to your mailbox and get two invites, and they're the same
day and the same time. Now, for an example, one of the invites includes a
party with, say, Ozon, and the other is from Wendy's or McDonald's. Which
one would you go to?' Then we might ask: 'Which would your parents go to?
Which would have cooler kids at it? Which would more of your friends go to?'
''

It's a means of getting kids to talk about feelings and imagery in ways
they ordinarily wouldn't, Geller claims.

Ozon won't require this kind of field research yet. For one thing, the
campaign is more about driving traffic to a few stores than introducing a
big brand over the airwaves. For another, McKee and Halpin already seem
confident about which approach to take. Still, before McKee chose the
direction for the creative campaign, he consulted with Geller to find out
what her recent research tells her about kids' attitudes toward food and
restaurants. McKee then wrote a one-page creative brief for the ensuing
marketing campaign that hewed closely to what came up during immersion day.
The target was a Millennium Mom and All-Perfect Mom hybrid. But she had now
been fleshed out: ''I am a mom with kids under 14. I am always trying to
balance doing what's best for my kid with my desire for them to have fun and
enjoy life. . . . I'm always looking for new ideas, experiences, things that
will enhance my children's lives.'' The thing is, Millennium/All-Perfect Mom
has a problem: ''I like taking my kids and family out to a restaurant once
in a while but am frustrated by the fact that there really isn't any place
to go that's good for all of us. The fast-food places have lousy food and
the sit-down restaurants aren't really all that kid-friendly.''

McKee wanted to present Ozon as the solution to Millennium/All-Perfect Mom.
And before he and his creative team actually start writing copy and
designing advertisements -- probably for a billboard, radio and Internet
campaign -- he said he wanted to get the Ozon experience. So he scheduled a
lunch trip to Ozon for a day in late September when he could bring key
members of his creative team: Pete Bregman, Geppetto's creative director,
and two copywriters, Darren Farrell and David Brenner. Benasillo would meet
them at the restaurant.

ne of McKee's great heroes in life is Jack Kirby, the comic-book artist and
co-creator of Captain America and the Fantastic Four. In listening to McKee
talk about Geppetto, you get the feeling he believes each of his firm's
employees harbors a hidden Kirby-esque talent that helps Geppetto function
like a team of superheroes. On the ride to Staten Island, McKee happily
admitted that he thinks everyone has superpowers, or at the very least,
moments of superlative insight. Bregman, his creative partner, knows
everything there is to know about action figures; large plexiglass cases
around his desk house a collection of nearly a thousand plastic figurines.
Farrell knows everything that's going on with new music. Others at Geppetto
follow movies, or skateboarding, or cars. ''Every month we have a meeting to
talk about what's going on in our culture -- what it means, where it's going
globally,'' McKee said. ''We recently had a long discussion of Italian
spaghetti westerns.''

At times, McKee's passion for his clients' products seems to include an
element of hype, but there's no question that his frothy enthusiasm infects
his colleagues. In taking a cue from McKee, the Geppetto creative team
arrived at Ozon unnaturally excited by the prospect of trying the Wafflo and
the Macocheese sandwich. Or was it just a reflection of the kinds of people
McKee would hire in the first place? Bregman and Farrell were having an
intense conversation about different flavors of Cap'n Crunch as they sat
down. And it is probably fair to say that everyone from Geppetto was
positively, almost insanely giddy about trying the Splix.

The Splix, invented by a member of Benasillo's design team and named by his
wife, is two different and unmixed drinks served in a glass split vertically
in half. ''When I first heard about the Splix,'' McKee said, ''I grew
misty.'' Bregman admitted he felt the same way. What really makes the Splix
is the patent-pending dual-tube straw, built for Ozon by the Krazy Straw
company, that allows you to consume both drinks simultaneously. Bregman,
impressed, vowed to drink at least two, perhaps three. There was no reason
to doubt him; apparently he once took his colleagues to an all-you-can-eat
crab-legs special at the Red Lobster in Times Square, where he sat at a
table for three hours until his friends begged him to go home. ''I think he
had 30 king crab legs that day,'' said Brenner, the copywriter. (Bregman
claims it was more like 60.)

Benasillo started bringing out the food: baked sweet-potato fries with
marshmallow dipping sauce; baked tater tots; then the round, sealed
sandwiches that Ozon calls Tostis, which usually sell for $2.99 or $3.99.
There was a chicken-Caesar Tosti, a honey-Dijon-chicken Tosti and a
buffalo-chicken Tosti. (The salads and vegetarian fare on the menu were
passed over.) Amid cheers and great acclaim, the Macocheese sandwich
arrived. ''I think the proprietary stuff we have here -- the Splix, the
Wafflo, the Tosti -- is incredible,'' McKee said between bites. ''These
could become the new standard. A new category. The chicken nugget was the
last new thing. But this -- this is new. If we can come up with a name for
what this is, it'll be huge.''

When the Splixes appeared, the group grew silent. It was a special moment.
Benasillo brought a cream soda/chocolate milkshake Splix; a Pepsi/vanilla
milkshake Splix; an orange soda/vanilla milkshake Splix. (Like many of the
sandwiches, Splixes cost $2.99.) ''I think I may faint,'' McKee said as he
unwrapped his Splix straw from the cellophane. ''This is just not right.''

''It's dessert in a cup,'' Brenner said.

''I feel like Bo Derek in 'Tarzan,' where she says: 'I don't know whether
to laugh or cry,' '' McKee said.

''You know, I bet I could drink one of each kind of Splix,'' Bregman said
after a few sips. ''All six of them.''

''I'll bet you could,'' McKee said.

The Geppetto creative team presented its work to Benasillo in the Geppetto
conference room one morning in October. McKee's group arrived with four
different campaigns, all printed in full color and bound in a spiral book.
McKee opened the discussion. ''What we're trying to do is generate traffic
and build awareness for the Ozon brand,'' he said. ''Ozon is so
multidimensional; it's so interesting; it's like a Disney movie. Everyone
here gets it. So what we're going to show you is that we wanted to take
several stabs at codifying your brand message. This is our attempt to get on
our knees and talk to the moms of America and tell them why they should
enter into a marriage with this brand.'' A lot of notions that he and
Bregman tossed around didn't make it this far, he said. But he expressed
confidence that Benasillo would like at least some of what was inside.

Everyone was asked to open the notebooks to Campaign 1 -- an attempt to
make Ozon seem like an amusement park for kids. The artwork depicted the
tables at Ozon as seats on a roller coaster. ''Laugh, scream and cheer --
but keep your arms inside the booth at all times,'' Farrell read from his
copy that accompanied the illustration. ''Introducing Ozon, where a party of
four is just that . . . a party.'' Campaign 2, which appealed directly to
Mom, came next; the main idea was to let her see how much fun she would have
at Ozon. ''It's perfect for the kid in you,'' the ad promised. Mom was
pictured playing cards and video games.

At Campaign 3, Benasillo perked up. It also spoke directly to Mom. ''You,
ma'am, are a hero. Or at least your kids will think so -- when you take them
to Ozon,'' the ad declared. Would Millennium/All-Perfect Mom like this?
McKee seemed to think so. To him, that struck the perfect note -- the kids
would have fun and the moms would feel good. ''You see, when Mom comes home
from the grocery and puts the packages down, the kids don't care about
apples and cheese, but she pulls out the Cheetos, and she's a hero,'' McKee
said. ''But she doesn't always feel so good about that. That's something
marketers haven't figured out yet. The win-win problem. It's very rare to
feel that for Mom.'' This is an attempt to solve that problem, he said.

Finally, the group took a quick look at Campaign 4, where the Ozon food is
the hero, rather than Mom. A picture of a Splix included the lines: ''The
Drink is Divided. Your Family Won't Be.'' The suggestion was that it had
something for everyone, McKee explained.

Benasillo seemed most impressed with Campaigns 3 and 4; in fact, he was
about 90 percent sold on the hero idea, although he liked some aspects of
the food campaign. He would think about it for a few days. ''You're like a
manic genius,'' he said to McKee by way of thanks. ''Good thing you're on
the side of good and not evil.''

''Only 60 percent of the time,'' Bregman said.

McKee conceded to the group that he has a twin brother. Cartoonishly, he
raised his eyebrows. ''It may be that I'm the evil twin,'' he said.


In late October, Benasillo called McKee to tell him that he wanted to go
with Mom as hero. ''Now that we got that call, we're going to start
implementing the tactical stuff,'' McKee told me one day over lunch in the
West Village. Benasillo would spend no more than $50,000 to start. And
Geppetto would focus on pushing parties and dinner. Part of the beauty of
the Mom-as-hero idea, McKee said, is that it allows the firm a great deal of
flexibility in different mediums. They were in the process of designing
posters for phone kiosks and bus stops; Bregman was creating mom-superhero
boots and ''Adventures of Mom'' comic books for photo shoots in early
November. They were likewise considering some guerrilla marketing techniques
to gain press and public attention; mannequins, posing as moms, could change
into a hero costume at a phone booth that Geppetto would set up at several
busy intersections. Real-life moms would drive minivans souped-up to look
something like the Batmobile to locations in New York City and hand out
samples. In addition, they would target kids two other ways: by developing
collectibles (a member of Benasillo's design team had created several
cartoon characters to complement the Ozon brand), and by running a write-in
contest, for which kids would write stories nominating their ''hero'' moms.

''I also want to look at this thing, if it functions locally, as something
that can expand nationally,'' McKee said. ''I want to provide Patrick with
that, so that when he franchises out, he has all these ideas in play.''

To generate repeat business, McKee said he was thinking about having
stickers that could be placed in a comic book to create a story and be
redeemed for prizes and food. The print ads would work for posters,
billboards, newspapers, direct-mail fliers, handbills or anything else. They
could be used anywhere in the region or the country. The same would go for
the Web. It's hard to separate McKee from his own enthusiasm, but he
genuinely seemed to believe that Ozon would succeed. ''It's going to be
huge, I'm sure of it,'' he said.

Benasillo was both tremendously ambitious and cautious in the same breath.
His ultimate goal, he said, was to somehow surpass Chuck E. Cheese's -- a
large franchise that he says is more of an arcade than a restaurant, with
little regard for family eating or a family experience. And as for the
future of the marketing campaign, which will start early next year, he
figures cable television is the next step. Geppetto will handle that too, he
said, ''since I don't want it to look like the guy in an ad who's standing
on the used-car lot.''

Benasillo also said he sees Ozon as the next big thing. Or maybe the next
medium thing. ''Maybe it's not the next McDonald's,'' he admitted. ''But it
could be big within that category. You know, you could have 500 or 1,000
stores and be a big success without having more than 20,000 stores like
Subway or McDonald's.'' In any case, he said, it has been humbling to have
already failed at the shopping malls. ''Coming out of the chute, we thought
it was going to be an instant hit. But it's going to take work and
refinement.'' His challenge, and of course Geppetto's, is convincing moms
and kids that something novel can be right for them too. ''They all say they
want something new,'' Benasillo said. ''And the first thing they do is hang
a left and go to Wendy's.''

Jon Gertner is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article was
about DVD's.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company