Kids represent an important demographic to marketers because they have their own purchasing power, they influence their parents’ buying decisions and they’re the adult consumers of the future.
Industry spending on advertising to children has exploded in the past decade, increasing from a mere $100 million in 1990 to more than $2 billion in 2000.
Parents today are willing to buy more for their kids because trends such as smaller family size, dual incomes and postponing children until later in life mean that families have more disposable income. As well, guilt can play a role in spending decisions as time-stressed parents substitute material goods for time spent with their kids.
Here are some of the strategies marketers employ to target children and teens:
“We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product, rather than going straight to the mom.”Barbara A. Martino, Advertising Executive
Today’s kids have more autonomy and decision-making power within the family than in previous generations, so it follows that kids are vocal about what they want their parents to buy. “Pester power” refers to children’s ability to nag their parents into purchasing items they may not otherwise buy. Marketing to children is all about creating pester power, because advertisers know what a powerful force it can be.
According to the 2001 marketing industry book Kidfluence, pestering or nagging can be divided into two categories—”persistence” and “importance.” Persistence nagging (a plea, that is repeated over and over again) is not as effective as the more sophisticated “importance nagging.” This latter method appeals to parents’ desire to provide the best for their children, and plays on any guilt they may have about not having enough time for their kids.
The marriage of psychology and marketing
To effectively market to children, advertisers need to know what makes kids tick. With the help of well-paid researchers and psychologists, advertisers now have access to in-depth knowledge about children’s developmental, emotional and social needs at different ages. Using research that analyzes children’s behaviour, fantasy lives, art work, even their dreams, companies are able to craft sophisticated marketing strategies to reach young people.
The issue of using child psychologists to help marketers target kids gained widespread public attention in 1999, when a group of U.S. mental health professionals issued a public letter to the American Psychological Association (APA) urging them to declare the practice unethical. The APA is currently studying the issue.
Building brand name loyalty
Canadian author Naomi Klein tracks the birth of “brand” marketing in her 2000 book No Logo. According to Klein, the mid-1980s saw the birth of a new kind of corporation—Nike, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, to name a few—which changed their primary corporate focus from producing products to creating an image for their brand name. By moving their manufacturing operations to countries with cheap labour, they freed up money to create their powerful marketing messages. It has been a tremendously profitable formula, and has led to the creation of some of the most wealthy and powerful multi-national corporations the world has seen.
Marketers plant the seeds of brand recognition in very young children, in the hopes that the seeds will grow into lifetime relationships. According to the Center for a New American Dream, babies as young as six months of age can form mental images of corporate logos and mascots. Brand loyalties can be established as early as age two, and by the time children head off to school most can recognize hundreds of brand logos.
“Brand marketing must begin with children. Even if a child does not buy the product and will not for many years… the marketing must begin in childhood.”James McNeal, The Kids Market, 1999
While fast food, toy and clothing companies have been cultivating brand recognition in children for years, adult-oriented businesses such as banks and automakers are now getting in on the act.
Magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated and People have all launched kid and teen editions—which boast ads for adult related products such as minivans, hotels and airlines.
Buzz or street marketing
The challenge for marketers is to cut through the intense advertising clutter in young people’s lives. Many companies are using “buzz marketing”—a new twist on the tried-and-true “word of mouth” method. The idea is to find the coolest kids in a community and have them use or wear your product in order to create a buzz around it. Buzz, or “street marketing,” as it’s also called, can help a company to successfully connect with the savvy and elusive teen market by using trendsetters to give their products “cool” status.
Buzz marketing is particularly well-suited to the Internet, where young “Net promoters” use newsgroups, chat rooms and blogs to spread the word about music, clothes and other products among unsuspecting users.
Commercialization in education
School used to be a place where children were protected from the advertising and consumer messages that permeated their world—but not any more. Budget shortfalls are forcing school boards to allow corporations access to students in exchange for badly needed cash, computers and educational materials.
Corporations realize the power of the school environment for promoting their name and products. A school setting delivers a captive youth audience and implies the endorsement of teachers and the educational system. Marketers are eagerly exploiting this medium in a number of ways, including:
Sponsored educational materials: for example, a Kraft “healthy eating” kit to teach about Canada’s Food Guide (using Kraft products); or forestry company Canfor’s primary lesson plans that make its business focus seem like environmental management rather than logging.
Supplying schools with technology in exchange for high company visibility.
Exclusive deals with fast food or soft drink companies to offer their products in a school or district.
Advertising posted in classrooms, school buses, on computers, etc. in exchange for funds.
Contests and incentive programs: for example, the Pizza Hut reading incentives program in which children receive certificates for free pizza if they achieve a monthly reading goal; or Campbell’s Labels for Education project, in which Campbell provides educational resources for schools in exchange for soup labels collected by students.
Sponsoring school events: The Canadian company ShowBiz brings moveable video dance parties into schools to showcase various sponsors’ products.
The Internet is an extremely desirable medium for marketers wanting to target children:
It’s part of youth culture. This generation of young people is growing up with the Internet as a daily and routine part of their lives.
Parents generally do not understand the extent to which kids are being marketed to online.
Kids are often online alone, without parental supervision.
Unlike broadcasting media, which have codes regarding advertising to kids, the Internet is unregulated.
Sophisticated technologies make it easy to collect information from young people for marketing research, and to target individual children with personalized advertising.
By creating engaging, interactive environments based on products and brand names, companies can build brand loyalties from an early age.
Marketing adult entertainment to kids
Children are often aware of and want to see entertainment meant for older audiences because it is actively marketed to them. In a report released in 2000, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed how the movie, music and video games industries routinely market violent entertainment to young children.
The FTC studied 44 films rated “Restricted,” and discovered that 80 per cent were targeted to children under 17. Marketing plans included TV commercials run during hours when young viewers were most likely to be watching. One studio’s plan for a violent R-rated film stated, “Our goal was to find the elusive teen target audience, and make sure that everyone between the ages of 12 and 18 was exposed to the film.”
Music containing “explicit-content” labels were targeted at young people through extensive advertising in the most popular teen venues on television, and radio, in print, and online.
Of the video game companies investigated for the report, 70 per cent regularly marketed Mature rated games (for 17 years and older) to children. Marketing plans included placing advertising in media that would reach a substantial percentage of children under 17.
The FTC report also highlighted the fact that toys based on characters from mature entertainment are often marketed to young children. Mature and Teen rated video games are advertised in youth magazines; and toys based on Restricted movies and M-rated video games are marketed to children as young as four.