Opinion: The Way Kids Are: A new breed of kids

Who are these kids of the '90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? The following is the first in a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand 'The Way Kids Are.' Each...
April 1, 1997

Who are these kids of the ’90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? The following is the first in a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand ‘The Way Kids Are.’ Each column will begin by describing a recent experience with a child, followed by an analysis that will examine what this teaches us about children today. Submissions can be made by contacting editor Mark Smyka by phone: 416-408-2300, fax: 416-408-0870 or e-mail:

* * *

I gotta have it. I gotta have it.’ From toy cars and cereal, to computer games and candy, these are the favorite words of my five-year-old son Jason. From supermarket aisles to convenience-store counters to gas-station mini-marts, the gotta have it’s are ech’ed by kids of all ages. Sound familiar?

Even though I have been trained in child development and consumer behavior, it’s a whole different challenge when I’m dealing with Jason. Our latest match of minds was over Jason’s desperate need for Gak.

The gotta have it’s were ringing through the supermarket aisles. ‘But Josh has it . . . everyone has it . . . I gotta have it.’ Being an expert in the field of artful rationalization, I listened to Jason expound on the joys of Gak for an entire day. In fact, his desire for Gak was never totally forgotten.

No, I didn’t cave in and buy Gak for Jason then and there, while he was pestering me. But, I did end up gift wrapping it and giving him a surprise a week or so later. Jason has learned that the continuous nagging and repetitive rationalizations that drive every parent crazy do not work, at least with his mom.

The childhood years are some of the most important marketing years for developing brand recognition, brand loyalty and purchasing behaviors that often continue into adult life. Kids are no doubt the hot target of the ’90s, and studios, manufacturers and marketers have set forth to grab their market share. The way kids are in the ’90s hasn’t changed much since we were kids . . . or has it?

The ’90s children’s market is very savvy. After all, this market has carved its own niche as an independent consumer group. Kids today begin socialization and stimulation at a much earlier age. With most of us relying on some form of day care, kid gyms, in-home computer games and in-home video games, and with the whole scope of merchandising-driven television programs and films, children of the ’90s truly are a new and unique breed.

Because of the greater media diversity today, children have different needs and are exposed to more than children of the past. The increases in new mothers working and in women postponing having children until mid-life have also added dramatically to the types of products and services marketed to both parents and children.

Today, children are receiving more money at a younger age than in the past, and marketers have been attracted by the billions of hard-earned piggy-bank dollars kids are spending on candy, snack foods, toys and dolls.

The gotta-have-it or gimme attitude begins early, maybe earlier than most of us would like to admit. From approximately 18 months old to six years of age, children are in the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, and are already regular viewers of television.

Exposed to hours of commercials, every child perceives advertisers’ messages differently, just as every viewer brings his or her own life experiences, attitudes, motivation and cognition to television viewing. Children begin to develop skills and attitudes relevant to their perceived consumer roles. By age two, the gotta have it’s are already dawning, with children uttering Elmo, cookie and Gak.

Television programs connect with children depending on their age, stage of development and the child’s knowledge of the real world. What children bring with them when viewing television differs immensely from child to child, as their experiences widely differ.

But, the days of Howdy Doody and Romper Room are over. Producers of programs like Sesame Street, which create media literacy, have found that the more children watched, the more they learned. We certainly can’t compare that to our past.

Kids are curious, imaginative, smarter than most adults believe and extremely resourceful. Some recent television characters, including the feisty pint-sized mad scientist Dexter, from Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory, and Nickelodeon’s team of feisty kids, from both Rugrats and Doug, mirror kids of the ’90s at their best and their worst. These programs attempt to highlight how children really perceive the world, and I believe they have truly made a connection with their intended target market.

There is no doubt that a thorough understanding of ‘the way kids are’ drives marketing efforts. Once a marketer has the opportunity of working with this generation of children who gotta have it, and understands the dynamics and intricacies of this unique marketplace, they will never compare the wondrous ’90s children’s market to the past.

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.

About The Author


Brand Menu