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Understanding children requires testing and research

The children of the '90s have achieved status as consumers, deciders, influencers, buyers and users in consumer society. They make a significant contribution to our economic system, and have entered the marketplace for their entire lifetime. However, children continue to be...
May 1, 1997

The children of the ’90s have achieved status as consumers, deciders, influencers, buyers and users in consumer society. They make a significant contribution to our economic system, and have entered the marketplace for their entire lifetime. However, children continue to be an enigmatic market to understand and a difficult one for marketers to tap effectively, profitably and ethically.

Kids are not the mini-adults so many marketers believe them to be. Their ideas and understanding of advertising are very different from those of adults, but nevertheless sophisticated.

In the early 1970s, in an attempt to woo children to eat their vegetables, American Kitchen developed I Hate Peas and I Hate Beets. These were among a group of vegetables that were mashed and disguised as french fries. Despite the fact that mothers did buy the product (at least once), the veggie fries didn’t fool the kids. I guess a pea in any other shape is still a pea! If American Kitchen had communicated with children while the product line was being developed, perhaps failure could have been prevented. My hunch is that the child experts would have suggested not bringing the product to market.

‘I now intend to give the reader a short Description of this Country as far as I have traveled in it,’ said Gulliver. The experiences from our own childhood beginnings are all but lost to most of us. According to theorists, when memories have no word labels attached to them, they are stored away in consciousness. When we target kids, we enter into their childhood domain as travelers to a foreign land; we are not returning to our childhood marketing past.

It happens all too often that marketers develop their marketing strategies based on their own childhood experiences, understanding and behaviors. In some cases, this is based on their views of consumer behavior as remembered from 30 or 40 years ago. When targeting the children’s market, the strategies and tactics should be developed, studied and tested on the intended target group. After all, children think differently from adults, and the ’90s kid consumer is a unique one.

Because we don’t fully understand the way that kids process, store and convey information, we often misunderstand their language and how they think. How can we target kids effectively and profitably when we don’t even communicate in their language?

It is a puzzling question that is based on childhood’s earliest beginnings.

Having primitive faculties, a small child entering our world is both disoriented and disorganized. The child explains the world from the eyes of a magician, a scientist of sorts, using his or her very own thoughts to explain, make sense of and understand the universe. It is only once a child has obtained a proficiency of language that we can even glimpse this world as children see it.

Children are literal thinkers. They cannot separate fantasy from reality, especially at young ages, and are trusting of both the adults and lead characters that act as spokespeople in commercials. Small children are very likely to misunderstand an advertiser’s messages, or to inaccurately analyze and judge an advertiser’s claims.

With their eyes glued to the television sets, preschoolers are wide open to advertising’s many messages. Many companies have sought out this group as a viable market to target. However, at this early stage of child development, when kids understand so very little about the world, they do not have an understanding of television, or a comprehension of commercials.

Older children, who have gained more advanced critical thinking skills, can better understand an advertiser’s intent. This older age group is better able to comprehend an advertiser’s messages, and to judge and make choices based on their increased understanding.

Advertising aimed at children is getting fiercely competitive, as consumer-goods companies vie for their share of the kids market. What children understand or fail to comprehend in mass communications is a direct result of the marketer’s attempt to understand and communicate to children. Since every child interprets information according to his or her own worldly experiences and perceptions, it is indeed a difficult task to tap this market. Experiences are not age-based; instead, they vary from child to child. To effectively, profitably and ethically target children, marketers need to gain a thorough understanding of both child development and consumer behavior. This intrinsic knowledge of both disciplines helps fill the communication and language gap that exists between adults and children, thereby eliminating costly marketing errors.

Debbie Weber, president of Multi-Media Promotions, Inc. and a professor of marketing and advertising, is an authority in the children’s and young adult marketplace. Her company specializes in developing targeted marketing campaigns and creative programs that tap into entertainment licensing.

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