Kids marketers in the hot seat again

Already taking a lot of heat for its role in marketing the fast-food products perceived by some to be at the heart of the child obesity issue, the last thing the youth marketing business needs right now is to appear to be out of step with parental concerns about kids advertising.
June 1, 2004

Already taking a lot of heat for its role in marketing the fast-food products perceived by some to be at the heart of the child obesity issue, the last thing the youth marketing business needs right now is to appear to be out of step with parental concerns about kids advertising.

Unfortunately, new survey results released by Rochester, New York’s Harris Interactive in late April suggest that parents and kid marketers may be even farther apart on the issue than we first thought. More than five years separates their respective definitions of what age kids should be before marketers start targeting them, and that divide is kicking up a lot of new debate.

The majority of the 878 marketing industry professionals sampled by Harris and Kid Power Xchange earlier this year feel that seven-year-olds are fair game for marketing (this despite the fact that the same group doesn’t think kids can view advertising critically or separate reality from fiction in media until age nine). Furthermore, the industry collectively pegged 11.7 as the average age at which kids start to make intelligent choices as consumers.

But another Harris poll asked the same questions of 2,415 non-industry adults in the U.S. over the age of 18 and received very different answers. This group settled on 12.7 as the age when marketers could start targeting kids, and 16.1 is when they figured kids were capable of joining the world of responsible consumption.

Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children’s Television, is the self-named grandmother of regulating TV ads geared to kids. She has been credited with changing FCC rules regarding kid-targeted advertising, including reducing the number of kid-targeted commercial minutes allowed in a broadcast half hour from 16 to 12 in 1974, and she’s also widely respected for her stance on disallowing censorship. Charren thinks advertising to kids under eight should be limited, but not banned outright. She believes kids marketers could continue to do business by selling products the public wants kids to consume, such as healthy snacks and mind-expanding books.

For his part, Ken Strottman, founder of L.A.-based youth and family marketing firm Strottman Inc., says rather than quibbling about the magic age, the industry needs to focus its energy on continually raising the bar as far as respecting and understanding its youth market. Strottman urges marketers to get its target involved in the marketing process at the front end because it will help keep the messaging appropriate and can pay dividends.

For example, Strottman has a team of Kid Engineers on call to contribute concept advice, product reviews and promotional ideas for products in development. Last year, this group chose the name – Shasta Shortz – for a new portion-controlled soda from National Beverage Corp and helped leverage it as a ‘not for adults’ product. The stubby cans of soda delivered their projected nine-month volume to Wal-Mart in just eight weeks.

Despite this tanglible evidence that listening to kids pays off, Strottman says too many kids marketers are operating without kid/parent input and thus risking the possibility that their ads may be totally out of touch with the current societal ethos. He warns that if the industry doesn’t start involving kids and self-legislating to keep on the right side of parental concerns, policymakers may step in to do the job for them.

In fact, a February 2004 study from the American Psychological Association recommends that the U.S. government restrict marketing aimed at kids under eight. A member of the APA’s task force on advertising and children, Dr. Dale Kunkel says the goal should be to increase the amount of family-oriented advertising on-air because kids watching on their own tend to accept ad messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased. The governments of Norway, Sweden, some parts of Canada and Greece have already stepped in to ban kid-targeted TV ads during certain hours of the day to combat this problem.

For their part, many marketers are worried that the U.S. government will follow the lead of these countries and attempt an outright ban on kid-directed advertising. But both CARU (the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, an industry regulatory body that works in cooperation with children’s advertisers to uphold a code of ethics) and youth marketers feel this would be impossible to enforce given that kids would still see commercial messages outside of the home. Strottman argues that given the nature of the modern information age, the elimination of advertising or marketing to children will not deter a child’s desire for info, but may direct them to less regulated media like the Internet.

Paul Kurnit, president of New York-based youth marketing hub KidShop, says advertisers are already being very candid and sensitive in their commercials directed at children. He argues that most food marketers have stepped up and responded to the obesity issue by promoting fitness activities or revising food formulations in line with healthier standards, citing Frito-Lay’s removal of all trans-fats from its product line and Kellogg’s advertising messages in support of physical activity as recent examples.

Kurnit also praises the dental hygiene business for combatting kid apathy about oral care, another longstanding youth-related health concern, by creating fun products like spinner brushes and glittery toothpaste that have made kids want to brush their teeth more regularly and for longer stretches at a time.

Alison Pohn, VP of Supergroup Ideation in Chicago, says it’s important to remember that kids enjoy commercials as a form of entertainment. But she says the industry could be using its role as entertainer to teach young kids about the function of ads in society with simple language changes that strengthen the divide between advertising and programming. One method for separating the two more distinctly is the decades-old cartoon jingle, ‘After these messages, we’ll be right back,’ which was created to fulfill an old FCC mandate. APA’s Kunkel argues that some of the bumpers used today don’t define advertising and programming clearly enough.

Pohn also suggests that incorporating clear messages like ‘needs batteries’ and ‘your parents have to put it together’ can help drive home to kids that they’re watching an ad rather than a show. This recommendation is supported by the APA, which suggests the commonly used term ‘some assembly required’ does not speak in a language the intended child audience would understand.

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