Increasingly sophisticated kids are the target of many marketing campaigns.
The marketing of products to children is big business - and getting bigger. Kids under 12 are being inundated with messages aimed at selling them everything from breakfast cereal and fast food, to toys, movies, clothing, and vacations.
Marketing strategies - which frequently include the use of television, radio, and print advertising; event sponsorships; product placements; in-school promotions; and sampling - are increasingly being revised to also feature websites, cell phones, and other vehicles.
And despite growing complaints from public interest groups, parents, and media analysts, who label as unethical many of the myriad marketing tactics used to influence what they say is an extremely impressionable and vulnerable audience, there is little evidence of corporate restraint.
Many companies are hiring promotions firms and consultants who specialize in creating campaigns aimed at tweens (children ages 8 to 12) and other youngsters. The organizations are attracted to a consumer segment whose annual spending exceeds $260 billion, according to WonderGroup, a Cincinnati-based youth-marketing firm.
"Marketing to youth is a huge enterprise," says Dr. Marvin Goldberg, chairman of the department of marketing at Penn State University. "There are even conferences where agencies and consultants who advise companies on selling to kids get together and look at best practices."
Devising new methods
And tactics are becoming more disparate. While Saturday morning TV is perhaps the most prominent and powerful medium, products also are increasingly being promoted, either subtly or blatantly, through video games and films, and at concerts, sporting events, shopping malls, and schools.
To raise student awareness of its bananas, for instance, Chiquita Brands provided thousands of teachers with learning guides and maps for the study of Central America. All materials, including banana stickers that were distributed to students as rewards, displayed the Chiquita name, says Gregory Livingston, principal at WonderGroup, which worked with Chiquita on the initiative.
In its "Labels for Education" program, Campbell Soup Co. gives free equipment to schools in exchange for labels that students collect from Campbell products. "The awareness of tweens as a market has spread dramatically, and now there is more emphasis to target kids of all ages," says Stephanie Azzarone, president of New York-based Child's Play Communications. "Marketers realize that kids also influence their parents' buying decisions."
Indeed, while children might have baby-sitting money or an allowance to spend for themselves, it is the parents who do most of the purchasing. And marketers targeting youngsters are incorporating strategies to leverage this "pester power" in which children lobby their parents to buy specific items for themselves and the household. Such youngsters can sway the purchase of cell phones, computers, furniture, and even automobiles and houses.
"Companies are subliminally trying to reach kids because of youngsters' 'veto power,'" says Marian Salzman, EVP and chief strategy officer for Euro RSCG. "A lot of products have to get through the kids' scrutiny because there is nothing worse to them than for the family to have a product that is considered uncool. Parents often won't buy a item because they don't want to listen to their kids complain about it."
Marketers, however, must tread the fine line of trying to influence youngsters without using tactics that parents deem misleading or offensive, which could sour them on the brand. Indeed, Tara May, principal with Divining Rod Group, an Asheville, NC-based communications consulting firm, notes that while kids do control the "whine level," which often influences family buying decisions, adults still are the ultimate decision makers.
The call for self-regulation
Industry watchdogs often stress a need for self-regulation because unlike some countries that ban ads aimed at young children - such as Sweden and Norway, as well as the Canadian province of Quebec - the US does not have such a mandate. But as marketers target children with increasing frequency, public pressure on companies to temper their actions is likely to increase.
"Children under 12 are at a disadvantage because they often don't have the capability to properly discern clever marketing language," May says. "Marketers must ask themselves if their message is part of an exchange between equal parties, and if not, what sort of concessions are they willing to make to ensure they're safeguarding the disadvantaged party."
"You're dealing with young, naive, very delicate and sensitive people who are easily persuaded, and they are like putty in advertisers' hands," adds Goldberg. "Some companies with their promotions appear as a friendly uncle saying, 'Here is what you should do.' It's a huge responsibility that is borne by advertisers, but even more by PR people because they appear to be outside of the sales and profit motive."
And PR is a major component of youth marketing strategies. Newspaper and magazine articles that mention basketball star Shaquille O'Neal wearing a specific sports shoe raise brand awareness among kids, Salzman says.
"Kids spend a lot of time multitasking and are not just sitting in front of the TV, and marketers are understanding this," says Derek White, EVP of Alloy, a New York-based media and direct marketing company specializing in the youth sector. "There is a growing shift to target younger and younger children, and marketers are leveraging newer vehicles to speak to this group."
While the prevalence of even more promotional tools is likely to trigger a louder outcry from youth-marketing foes, some marketing professionals stress that children are wiser to, and less influenced by, their techniques than previous generations.
Today's kids - and particularly those from single-parent households, who take on greater responsibilities at a younger age - begin shopping earlier and often understand the intent of marketing, White says. "People don't realize how savvy tweens really are," adds Tina Wells, managing partner of Blue Fusion, a New York-based youth consultancy.
"They are smart and not as susceptible to advertising as many people think." That is one of the reasons why some critics of youth marketing still are hesitant to endorse an outright ban on the practice and agree with marketers who suggest that many parents should play a more active role in their kids' buying.
Richard Coughlan, associate dean at the University of Richmond's Robins School of Business, says an effective approach would be to limit the frequency that commercials can be broadcast during children's programming and to inject the ads "with some dose of reality."
Many television commercials, he says, mislead youngsters into thinking that fast food is healthy or toy sets come with a multitude of pieces when each item actually is sold separately. Children rarely pay attention to disclaimers in such ads, he notes.
"It is important to monitor closely the forms that ads take," Coughlan adds, "and for companies to take a hard look at where ads are being placed and what the likely impact will be, especially when the audience is almost exclusively children."
As marketers targeting the 12-and-under set expand their repertoire of tactics, the firms also are igniting a greater firestorm of criticism. Public interest groups are roundly criticizing companies for implementing measures that they say show a disregard for the well being of youngsters.
The most repugnant techniques include strategies that use schools and literacy programs to influence kids, says Dr. Susan Linn, a psychologist with Judge Baker Children's Center, a mental health center in Boston affiliated with Harvard University and Children's Hospital.
Many fast-food and soft-drink companies, she notes, have contracts to exclusively sell products in school cafeterias and hallway vending machines. And restaurants run promotions with the stated intention of getting kids to read, but entice kids to visit their locations by offering coupons for pizza and other fast foods as rewards.
"Schools are in a bind for money, so corporations are happy to step in for a price - which is the children's health," Linn says. "Children shouldn't be exploited for profit."
Other abhorrent marketing measures, she says, include commercials that portray parents as foolish and ineffectual in an attempt to get kids to make their own buying decisions. "Companies put out the message that adults are stupid and kids should not pay attention to them," Linn notes. "The most competent adult in TV land often is Ronald McDonald."
The placement of product names and logos in video games and movies, and licensing arrangements that put pictures of characters like the Cat in the Hat on dozens of products to coincide with the release of new films also are distasteful, she notes.
"Young children often do not understand the concept of advertising," adds Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, DC-based health advocacy organization. "They have the impression that the adult world is out to serve them and do well by them.
But media advertising aimed at the group is heavy, and there also are all kinds of PR campaigns tied to fast food, movies, and internet sites. Companies try to weave this corporate web around kids and encourage them to buy something wherever they go. It's scandalous."