IT’S the holiday phrase that children learned to dread growing up — “Open this present. It’s from your aunt” — as dreams of tube socks and itchy sweaters danced wearily in their heads.
Dr. Joyce Lee, 34, is having none of that. Considering what to get her 4-year-old niece this Christmas, Dr. Lee is deciding between a few designs in the LEGO Architecture series (including a 561-piece replica of the White House), and she may add some books to the pile. But there won’t be a corduroy jumper in sight.
“That’s the luxury of being an aunt,” said Dr. Lee, a pulmonologist who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t have to buy things she needs. I can buy the things that I want.”
Dr. Lee, who is single, is part of a demographic that advertisers are increasingly trying to reach, especially during the holiday shopping frenzy: the PANK, or Professional Aunt, No Kids.
Melanie Notkin of Manhattan, who coined the acronym in 2008, is a former marketing executive and the founder of the Web site SavvyAuntie, a resource for women who do not have their own children but, like Ms. Notkin, have nieces, nephews, godchildren or friends’ children to spend time and money on.
“People imagine us eating corn out a can and watching television,” she said. Like many PANKs in their 30s and 40s, despite having a desire to have children of their own, Ms. Notkin, 43, just hasn’t met the right guy.
“Some of the most amazing women don’t have children by choice, or like me, by circumstance,” she said.
When Ms. Notkin first became an aunt in 2001, she struggled to find the right gifts for her nieces and nephews.
“There were no resources for the modern cosmopolitan aunt,” she said. “Because I’m not at the park with them, I’m not picking them up at school, I’m not necessarily sure what kids are into these days.”
Nicole Weymouth, 37, a single environmental consultant in Manhattan,
faced the same problem a few years ago when she gave a copy of the 1986
movie “SpaceCamp” to her nephew, thinking he would find it funny.
Instead he scrunched his nose.
Now she has six nieces and nephews, ranging from 1 to 11 years old, and she often asks her sisters for advice on what to get the children. She said she typically spends about $300 a year on each child, which includes birthdays, Christmas and the occasional outing.
This year’s list includes a mix of toys and clothing, including Nintendo DS games, LEGOs, Barbies, toy trains, books and a “Star Wars” origami book that will serve as a group activity during the holiday visit.
“We’re a bit of a list family,” Ms. Weymouth said. “I don’t want to repeat things, I don’t want to get them something they don’t need. I want to get them something useful, something they will enjoy.”
Whether they are literally aunts, godparents or friends of the family, PANKs argue that they serve a vital role in the family, and holiday gifts are just one part of the equation. These women often provide help with educational expenses, baby-sitting and household chores, Ms. Notkin said. But they can also be that “cool aunt” who exposes a child to cultural experiences for which the parents may not have the time or money. Often they are the trusted adult whom children can talk to about sensitive topics they wouldn’t dare discuss with their parents.
(So far, marketers seem less interested in Professional Uncle, No Kids, or, um, PUNKs — or, as one marketing executive called them, “punkles.”)
Linda Mora, 36, is a single child psychologist in San Mateo County,
Calif., who has a niece, five godchildren, friends’ children and “a lot
of little cousins.” She said that women like her can have a positive
impact on children, “giving them exposure to certain things, going to
museums, helping with education.”
She spends $200 to $300 each on her niece and godchildren every year.
“I get a sense of what they like, but I also kind of go with what I would like for them,” she said.
This year, Ms. Notkin worked with Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm, and KRC Research on a report called “The Power of the PANK: Engaging New Digital Influencers.” It found that there are about 23 million women in the United States who are potentially in that category and who are, on average, 36 years old. More than half of them have never been married and 34 percent have an annual household income of $50,000 or more. According to the study, they spend an average of $387 a year on each child in their lives. But the vast majority, 76 percent, spend more than $500 a year.
“PANKs have discretionary income that the average woman doesn’t,” said
Stephanie Agresta, the executive vice president and managing director
for social media at Weber Shandwick in New York. “They are more likely
to be employed full time but yet single.”
Brenda Andolina, the director of public relations and brand marketing at Fisher-Price, the toy company in East Aurora, N.Y., said: “For every child, there are like 10 women who are loving that child: an aunt, a friend, a co-worker. That network of women is something we definitely want to tap.”
Lisa Bauer, the executive vice president for global sales and marketing at the Royal Caribbean International cruise line in Miami, said that her company also is aware that single professional women often have more discretionary income than other women. Ms. Bauer, a self-described “major PANK” to her eight nephews, said her company “very much targets professional women, but it’s not just about targeting moms,” describing women between 25 and 54 as the “sweet spot.” But even as marketers are discovering these favorite aunts, some of the women are eager to enforce limits on just how much of their time and money they can afford to give. None of the women interviewed said they felt taken advantage of, but Ms. Weymouth said that even cool aunts have limits.
“I just had a flood of friends that had kids,” she said, “and I really had to cut it off.”