start-up is banking on the notion that teenagers who download a pretend version of a branded item will want to buy the real thing. Hangout.net is sort of a cross between MySpace and The Sims
Users design their own online avatars and three-dimensional bedrooms, which they decorate with virtual, branded merchandise - 3-D cartoon renditions of Vans shoes, cans of Red Bull, posters from
art.com and so on.
Members acquire items for their rooms with virtual currency called "coin." Friends can "hang out" in each others' rooms, chat via cartoon bubbles, and admire or make fun
of their friends' fake stuff. In the next few months, Hangout plans to blur the lines between fantasy and reality: Users who click on a pair of cartoon sneakers will be taken to a site that lets them
buy the kicks online and have them shipped to their real - not virtual - domicile.
"If you virtually acquire a good, we think there's a good chance that you'll physically acquire it," says
David Galper, vice president of marketing at Hangout, although financially stressed parents might beg to differ.
"It may be more economically practical to only 'buy' high-end virtual
branded goods if the real goods are cost-prohibitive," says Anastasia Goodstein, founder of the youth marketing organization YPulse. "It's the closest they may get to buying those brands for a while."