Kids' marketing offers a moving target

Marketing to kids is risky territory these days. Not only is Ofcom still debating whether to ban junk food advertising to kids, but Jamie Oliver's success in the school dinners arena seems likely to push the emphasis of the Children's Food Bill more towards greater regulation of marketing.

The Government may favour a voluntary approach, but this week's Which? report into the alternative marketing methods being adopted, such as websites and SMS, suggests manufacturers believe the writing is on the wall for traditional ads.

In fact this isn't the first report into the increasing use of new media to target kids. Last year Sustain, the organiser of the Children's Food Bill campaign, looked at how companies were creating state-of-the-art sites with multi-layered navigation, audible plugs for products and product-oriented games, some requiring passwords from product packaging.

Many of them also offer 'tell a friend' e-cards and text messaging from the site to encourage viral marketing. And some collect data via registration mechanisms whereby children provide their e-mail addresses to personalise the site, access exclusive areas or earn extra points in online games.

It all sounds pretty dodgy given that the Direct Marketing Association code insists that no child under 16 may be marketed to online without a guardian's permission. But the appeal of the internet and SMS is that they are - for now - unregulated. Even the Data Protection Act only says that children must be deemed responsible.

And most savvy seven-year-olds can work out how to tick a parental permission box.

So what do parents make of the way in which their offspring are being targeted? A Business in the Community survey at the end of last year found that ironically, parents are more in favour of traditional advertising methods and much more hostile to new-media methods that go directly to children. Most felt increasingly out of control over how their children are exposed to marketing, and are prepared to 'punish' companies they feel to have crossed the line. In fact, 84 per cent of respondents said they would feel less favourable towards a brand whose marketing was targeted at children ; 80 per cent said they would be less likely to continue using its products.

It's something manufacturers should perhaps bear in mind. Because even if a kid succumbs to the allure of another new product - the Splash pre-payment card launched last week by Mastercard for example - it is still mum or dad who wields the final veto in terms of cold, hard cash.

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