Rules for kick-ass kid creative (and when to break them)

Advertising to kids has come a long way in the last 15 years. Once the domain of low-budget ads showing kids' phony reactions to Wet-n-Whiny Winnie or a bowl of Krispy Crunchies, it is now a major industry that produces some...
February 1, 2000

Advertising to kids has come a long way in the last 15 years. Once the domain of low-budget ads showing kids’ phony reactions to Wet-n-Whiny Winnie or a bowl of Krispy Crunchies, it is now a major industry that produces some of the most memorable ads on TV. As creative directors have come to better understand their demographic, they have discovered what works and what doesn’t when it comes to creative. It’s difficult to come up with a list of guidelines for developing effective creative (given that one such guideline would be to avoid formula advertising at any cost), but creatives do allow that there exist some basic principles that are ignored at your peril.

Not surprisingly, developing creative with high entertainment value tops the list. It’s an obvious rule, but the trick is putting it into practice. Apart from making use of humor, catchy music and flashy graphics, Jeff York, senior partner and group creative director at J. Walter Thompson, Chicago, says you can’t beat a good story. ‘Kids love stories, they’ve grown up on them since they were two,’ he says. ‘Stories engage the kids and get them to watch for the full 30 seconds, because something is going to happen.’

But not just any story will do: The story has to spring straight from the heart of the product in question. ‘If you can explain the idea for a spot to me in a sentence, and that sentence doesn’t include the product in it, then the spot probably fails,’ says York. Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal, New York, agrees: ‘Whatever drama there is in the spot, it always has to revolve around the product, and it always needs to showcase the product at the most important rallying point in the commercial.’

Both York and Kurnit point to the Trix rabbit as a classic example. Because the character’s sole function in life is to get his hands on the product, the Trix rabbit prompts a story line that not only centers on the product, but helps make the product desirable: The rabbit will do anything for it. The story line also helps empower kids (the kids always get the cereal in the end) and adds humor without making the product the butt of the joke (the rabbit is the joke, and he doesn’t get the cereal).

Kurnit adds that making the product central to the stories is part of a larger guideline that he sees ignored again and again. ‘The product must be hero,’ he emphasizes, and that means more than just having a strong presence in the spot. You can’t mock the product, he says, and the spot has to relate to the product in a unique way. This helps creatives avoid ‘your product goes here’ advertising, which may involve fantastic stories, wild music and great visuals, but fails in the end because it doesn’t build brand relationships and kids can easily forget what was being advertised. To illustrate, Kurnit points to Griffin Bacal’s ads for Hasbro’s Operation game. The key to these spots was making the kids into ‘real’ doctors and bringing the patient to life in a humorous way. ‘There’s a fantasy,’ Kurnit says, ‘but it’s a fantasy that’s inexorably tied to the game.’

Deyna Vesey, creative director at Kidvertisers, New York, agrees that making sure the ad springs from the product is an obvious rule, but one that is violated all the time. ‘I’ve seen commercials that I’ve thought were great commercials, and then I couldn’t remember what it was a commercial for. Sometimes I can’t even remember the category-and then you’re really in trouble.’

Vesey says she learned early in her career how to keep that from happening. ‘My ex-partner at J. Walter Thompson, Linda Kaplan, came up with this idea of advertising being a velvet glove with a steel fist underneath. The idea is that you feel so good during the whole thing, but you never lose sight of the message.’ Like York, she uses the ‘one sentence’ technique to ensure she hasn’t taken a wrong turn. She says when she first meets with a client, she asks the client to sum up the message the spot should impart to viewers in one sentence, and then ‘I just go after that like a dog after a bone.’

Vesey says that while no creative should ever consider breaking such basic guidelines as making a spot entertaining, respecting kids, being honest, demonstrating ideas rather than describing them, and presenting the ‘wow’ of the product in a clear and direct way, that doesn’t mean she advocates formula advertising. ‘A lot of people-advertising agencies and clients-go for formulas,’ she says. ‘That stuff scares me because you become part of a blur and then you become invisible.’ She says that two categories renowned for such advertising are toys and cereals. While admitting that certain formulas do work, such as the standard reaction shot showing a kid’s joy when he or she sinks a battleship, tastes a cereal or hugs a doll, such commercials generally tend to be formulaic, while ignoring the basic rules, and are thus doomed to fail. ‘It’s the caliber of the people working on them,’ she explains, ‘it’s the budgets, which are limited, and the spots are often produced for Toy Fair, to get retailers.’

York agrees: ‘Those commercials are being done for the buyers instead of for the kids. All they’re saying is: Look, I’ve got all these product points here.’ He adds that he sees the standard ‘shoot-em-up’ ads for boys and gooey ads for girls as further evidence that toy advertising is behind the curve. ‘I’m shocked that Barbie commercials are still so pretty and pink,’ he says. ‘Christ, you know, couldn’t they do something a little more kick-ass for Barbie?’

Kurnit says that advertisers can do better than merely listing features. ‘The archetypal toy commercial that calls out lots of features and shows a kid playing with a toy will lose more often than it will win. Because it’s not a confident commercial. By that, I mean that kids are very savvy about what a product will do, unless it’s a totally innovative kind of product that they’ve never seen before.’

Sticking to kid-winning basics while avoiding formulas is a difficult balance to pull off, but all creatives say that they’ve had the most success when they took risks and ignored conventions. Campbell Mithun Esty chief creative officer John Hurst says his biggest risk was also his biggest success: The ‘Where’s the cream filling?’ Hostess campaign. ‘It would have been very easy to do fairly traditional advertising for that,’ he says. ‘The way we served it up, without talking about the features was fairly risky. Not showing the product until the last few seconds of the spot was risky. We broke a lot of rules governing what packaged goods companies normally do.’

Vesey says her greatest risk was shooting a spot completely in red for a line of Playskool Electronics branded merchandise produced by KIDdesigns a few years ago. She isn’t sure whether it paid off or not, as she says the client didn’t come through with funding for a proper media buy, but says the white product stood out nicely and the spot was the highlight of her agency’s reel for years. ‘A certain amount of risk is, I believe, responsible,’ she says. ‘You are giving a party with somebody else’s dough, but if you don’t try to be great, you will never be great.’

Innovation and risk-taking mark the new kids advertising, say the creatives, as well as showing how the genre has progressed over the years. Hurst says that other advances include the possibility of presenting more fantastic images (thanks to advances in computer animation and editing techniques), more sophisticated humor for more sophisticated kids, and new media outlets, such as the Web, for new types of creative. York adds that he has seen production budgets increase from less than US$100,000 per 30-second spot to top out at over US$250,000 for CGI-heavy ads. Kurnit disagrees, saying he hasn’t seen an increase in production budgets, but shares optimism that kids advertising is getting more sophisticated and has higher production values because marketers are taking the kids demo more seriously than they used to.

‘I think that will be a continued renaissance in kids advertising,’ concludes Hurst. ‘And I think that as some of the more traditional marketers see the possibilities of what they can do, some of the old walls will continue to be torn down.’

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