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Marketers, police thyselves

So now that election campaigning is over, U.S. marketers can take a deep breath and wait for the kid marketing furor to blow over-maybe. While studios suffered the brunt of the attack from the FTC report and subsequent Senate hearings, advocacy...
November 1, 2000

So now that election campaigning is over, U.S. marketers can take a deep breath and wait for the kid marketing furor to blow over-maybe. While studios suffered the brunt of the attack from the FTC report and subsequent Senate hearings, advocacy groups across the U.S. took advantage of the wave of public interest to further more general concerns they’ve had for some time. In the end, they failed to make marketing to kids a real election issue, but it did open up discussion within the industry, which is probably a good thing.

The fact that marketing aimed at kids has increased so much in both sheer amount and sophistication over the last 10 years seems to have some parents feeling vaguely uneasy, but then the advertising community as a whole is used to being regarded suspiciously. Paul Kurnit, president of kid advertising authority Griffin Bacal, says he’s very familiar with the paranoia that can surround advertising, but finds it ‘bizarre.’ As he says, ad agencies don’t have some top-secret mind-control device, they’re just trying to convince consumers to buy stuff.

Kurnit says the rise in kid advertising over the last 10 years, while dramatic, has only just kept pace with the rise of advertising as a whole. While the US$2 billion spent on marketing to kids each year in the U.S. is a lot of cash, it’s still only about 2% of the adult marketing spend, a percentage that’s remained fairly constant.

But kid marketers can still polish up their image a bit, and the best way to do that is by focusing on the few practices getting the negative attention. After all, it only takes one wrong move by one member of the industry, and suddenly parents and advocacy groups have legit examples of exploitative marketing campaigns to bash everyone else with.

Preschool marketing, in particular, has come under attack, making it an area where marketers need to tread with caution. As with other demos, advertising to preschoolers pays for quality tot programming, and soft-sell ads with vetted creative for educational toys and programming are pretty much beyond reproach. However, if you are perceived to be directly skewing too young, you risk tarnishing your brand with negative press, and the jury is still out on the effects of marketing to a demo that, when you go young enough, can’t tell the ads from the shows.

It’s interesting to note that while both Nickelodeon and itsy bitsy brokered QSR deals for preschool properties this year (Nick ran a Subway/Blue’s Clues meal program last April, and itsy bitsy ran a McDonald’s/Teletubbies program the same month), protest groups attacked the Teletubbies program and ignored the Blue’s Clues deal altogether. It might have been because Subway is seen as selling more nutritious food, or because Blue’s Clues is viewed by some as a more educational show, but it was probably because the target demo for Teletubbies is just that little bit younger.

In-school marketing is another area one should enter with open eyes. Some regulations have already been established in 19 states, and more are probably on the way unless the industry decides to get more serious about regulating itself. Things like QSR concessions in cafeterias are just asking for negative attention.

Fall-out from bad choices can be mitigated by a system of checks and balances within kid entertainment companies. A corporate culture that allows executives to say ‘We shouldn’t do that because it’s not good for kids’ without fearing for their jobs would go a long way too.

After all, the kid biz is constantly beating itself up for pursuing short-term gains over long-term payoffs in licensing, why should marketing be any different? Just think of it as an integral part of your long-term strategy for nurturing a positive brand identity.

Duncan Hood

Special Reports Editor

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