A recent Best Buy ad opens with a cozy holiday tableau: Maya Rudolph sits next to a Christmas tree, in front of a fire, reading a Christmas story called “Aunt Judy.” Judy, a young, remarkably unfrazzled, professional-looking woman, flits around Best Buy, Christmas list in hand, grabbing all the hottest tablets and smartphones. “Her nieces and nephews have holiday treasures,” concludes the 31-second spot. “They’ll be like, ‘Yo, Aunt Juds, you’re like the best auntie ever!’”
Aunts are not new. But aunthood as a marketing opportunity is a fairly recent development — and a shrewd one, I realized when I found myself considering buying a Gaultier onesie for my soon-to-be-born niece. She does not yet even crawl among us, and here I am spending a weekend’s worth of bar tabs on ridiculous designer clothing for an infant. Of the many reasons I am excited to greet the arrival of my niece (teaching her about Star Wars, teaching her how to swear effectively), the opportunity to buy lots of adorable, frivolous baby-size things is high on the list. The public relations firm Weber and Shandwick would call me a PANK: a Professional Aunt, No Kids. The firm finds that the average PANK is 36 years old, has never been married, enjoys domestic activities, and has an income of $50,000 or more. And 76 percent of PANKS spend $500 a year on the children in their lives — not their own, keep in mind — which adds up to about $9 billion in annually in PANK purchases. Given that level of discretionary income and discretionary emotional attachment, companies like Toys “R” Us, Fisher-Price, and Mattel have been tweaking their marketing schemes to include the demographic. In fact, the International Business Times calls “PANK travel” — aunts vacationing with nieces and nephews — one of its top travel trends for 2014, and reports that it is poised to become a billion-dollar industry.
As I enter my first holiday spending spree that includes a little life-form to adorn with miniature things, I’m not quite sure how to feel about being stamped with the cutesy acronym. When I spoke to Melanie Notkin, a PANK herself and author of The Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, she gave me an even more specific (and more twee) label: I am a “Debutaunt,” because this is my brother’s first child. Other aunt varieties, according to Notkin, include the “Aunt by Choice” (a very close family friend) or the “Lesbiaunt” (self-explanatory). Notkin has built a business on advice for “the modern cosmopolitan aunt,” and at the SavvyAuntie.com, she recommends toys to buy, trips to take, and also offers parenting-adjacent tips (like why your niece or nephew needs a flu shot). My niece is a future “Fashionieceta,” Notkin reveals, and reiterates that I can fill in as her key style role model during our “Qualauntie” time together.
Apparently this is a typical PANK duty. According to the Weber Shandwick study, 36 percent of PANKS act as style advisers to their nieces or nephews. And what’s a style-advising aunt with disposable income to buy? Maybe something like Yen Chan’s line of baby clothes, I Haven’t the Foggiest: Vogue-approved, priced around $100, hand-painted, and embellished with Swarovski crystals — they’re practically the definition of PANK-bait. (If you aren’t the one doing the laundry, who cares if it’s dry-clean only?) Chan’s also a PANK herself, and she understands the mentality.
“More and more people are delaying getting pregnant, so there are a lot more women out there that are quite happy, but don’t have children, but like to nurture,” Chan said. “Both my brothers had children right away. I figured, Well, I don’t have children, I have a disposable income, I love those kids. So why not?”
To Notkin, the PANKs are a revolution against the stereotypical spinster auntie. “There’s just always this default to assume that they are all single,” Notkin says. “It’s also important to know to that they are not all childless by choice.” She adds PANK dollars aren’t just going to high-tech toys and fancy clothes — 32 percent of the demographic also contributes to a child’s education. To her, PANK marketing means more attention and more power for childless women.
Speaking as an eager aunt — and a semi-skeptical “PANK” — it’s nice to see the world at large recognize the importance of relatives outside the standard-issue nuclear family. But there’s more to those relationships than Sex and the City–style terminology and big-ticket spending — even if I couldn’t resist buying that Junior Gaultier onesie. I’ve been ruminating over what being an aunt will actually mean, besides serving as the bearer of presents and, later, illicit life advice. I suppose I won’t really know until I’m actually experiencing my vicarious parenthood. As one of the many women delaying motherhood (maybe indefinitely, who knows! What’s for lunch?), I’m excited to find out. And only slightly jealous that my other brothers could now be called PUNKs.