Few issues get people more riled than the welfare and well-being of kids.
Regardless of whether we're parents, most of us are willing to jump on the bandwagon when we can be convinced that something poses a credible threat to children. And according to a survey of US parents conducted by Widmeyer Research and Polling, the issue of youth marketing appears to be emerging as a new "third rail" of American communications - an idea reinforced recently with the news that The Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus will conduct a complete review of its rules in response to concerns.
How businesses respond to this trend will have a profound and lasting impact on their bottom lines, as well as on entire industries.
The poll data paint a picture of a marketplace at a crossroads: Although most parents are still willing to give companies that market to kids the benefit of the doubt, they have become more attentive.
The good news for youth marketers: Most parents (85%) do not think companies that market directly to kids are necessarily "bad."
But there's a catch. Almost all parents (90%) say the way a company markets to kids is important in determining its reputation. And 68% say reputation matters when they're considering making or allowing a purchase for their kids.
And concern appears to be spreading. In fact, 66% of parents say they are more concerned about the issue now than five years ago; 92% say there is too much advertising and marketing to kids; and 74% believe it contributes to problems among children like hyper-materialism, condoning violence, and poor personal values.
Put simply, parents factor corporate reputation into their purchasing decisions, and a company's youth marketing practices are a major variable in the equation.
So what, in our analysis, are the takeaways for anyone wanting to communicate directly with kids?
First, recognize the environment is changing. Concern about youth marketing is not just product-based. Communicators must use caution even in sharing messages parents want their kids to hear.
Second, stay ahead of the trend. Just as there are endless legitimate products and ideas to share with kids, there are endless responsible ways to share them.
And finally, remember numerous resources are available for building a campaign that responsibly communicates with youth. Groups like the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Advertising Federation have guidelines to ensure that information young people get is truthful and doesn't take advantage of their age.
As the youth marketing issue gathers steam, the organizations that will emerge the strongest are those that take the time to learn, understand, apply - and develop - the best practices required to steady their brands.
Marty McGough is head of research and polling at Widmeyer Communications. Jason Smith is an SVP and leads Widmeyer's youth marketing efforts.