MARKETING FOCUS: Just who are you kidding? Children are often more marketing literate and sophisticated as consumers than they are given credit for by legislators or brand owners. Andy Fry reports

Marketing to children is being talked about as if it is a social menace. Recent stories about sponsored exercise books and ad agencies wanting to improve advertising to children have provoked a media backlash.

Marketing to children is being talked about as if it is a social

menace. Recent stories about sponsored exercise books and ad agencies

wanting to improve advertising to children have provoked a media


But brand owners say they are just trying to get their marketing to

children right. They are not planning to blitz them with a host of new

messages and are eager to understand what kids want.

’If there were a magic formula, we’d all be rich,’ says Handel

Communications’ chairman Kleshna Handel. ’Marketers have to balance

factors such as age, the presence of siblings, socioeconomic group, sex,

geography and family structure. The system breaks down when you try to

target too broad a group.’

The first step in tackling the kids’ sector is to recognise the

significance of age in shaping a child’s preferences. At Marketing’s

’Small But Perfectly Informed’ conference next week, discussion is

broken down into three age categories: five to six, seven to nine, and

ten to 12. Logistix Kids director Liz Taylor says: ’People in kids’

marketing are aware of the need to segment on age basis. That doesn’t

mean you will only ever market to five- to six-year-olds or a seven- to

nine-year olds. But you have to focus on the core of your audience.’

As a rule, marketers aim at older children, says Research International

associate director Jane Hobson. ’The trick is to aim a product just high

enough so that older kids pick it up and then it can filter down through

the ages. When the youngest children become interested, the oldest will

usually be ready for something new.’

According to Hobson: ’Children develop at a different pace. Research

suggests they don’t understand they are being sold to until they are

seven or eight. By then, they realise that the advertising message is

favourable to the manufacturer.’

Heinz director, canned goods, Robin Walker says: ’In the five to six age

group, decisions are heavily parentally influenced. Children are

starting to become fashion conscious but only just beginning to

understand the concept of brands.’

The trick is to appeal to both parties: ’We want to get a sensible

message to parents and an exciting one to kids,’ says Walker. ’In the

case of a product like Barbie pasta shapes, the child will see Barbie,

but the parent will see Heinz.’

The heritage of Heinz means it operates from a position of relative

strength: ’Products like beans and pasta are everyday food which make us

well-placed to say whether something is nutritionally sound. A lot of

parents trust us because they grew up with our products. The Heinz name

has an emotional value for them,’ says Walker.

Hobson reiterates the importance of communicating on a dual level. Like

Walker, she also stresses the value to clients of parental familiarity

with their products and the media they use. While parents are quick to

endorse traditional television characters such as Scooby Doo and The

Flintstones as appropriate for their children, they are often resistant

to novelty - as demonstrated by the controversy surrounding the BBC’s


Once a child reaches the age of seven, the role of the parent


Kids enter what Logistix’s Taylor describes as ’a very fertile time from

a promotional point of view’. Children between seven and nine

demonstrate a complex approach to consumption. ’They are staggeringly au

fait with ad strategies. Their views on quality and value for money mean

you can’t label-slap.’

By this age, most children ’will have a repertoire of acceptable

brands’, says Taylor. ’But there is a lot of impulse decision-making,

which is where promotional activity comes into play. They are definitely

attracted to the concept of newness, whether it is flavour, variety or


The relationship between child and parent continues to play an important

role in purchases until well into their teens. However, it is an

’unpredictable form of interaction’, says Taylor. ’One day mum can give

the child a free choice and next day she’s the unrelenting


Toy stories

Handel observes: ’Parents ideally look for four things in a toy: safety,

durability and its ability to occupy and develop a child. But, at the

same time, they are also prepared to respond to a child’s request if

they think a product is going to make them more popular at school.’

By the time a child is into primary education, school becomes the key

influence in a their desires. Poise Marketing’s business director

William Anderson says: ’The gatekeeper has changed. It is now the

schoolmate not the parent. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing


For Anderson, the significance of marketing to schools is not simply

about how children spend their pocket money. ’Research in the US has

demonstrated that kids have success in influencing their parents’ choice

of anything from snack foods to the family car. Looking at the UK, Going

Places is absolutely right to consider marketing holidays through


Poise recognised the potential power of the school seven years ago when

it set up The Schools Consortium as a business/education go-between. The

Consortium represents 85 education establishments.

Anderson, however, is critical of how business has tackled the


’There are 7.33 million children between five and 15 years old in

England and Wales. But there is a huge gap in understanding because

business is not taking the time to look at education properly. They are

guilty of the sort of false economy that usually lands them on


Failure to exploit relationships with schools effectively is due to a

lack of homework, argues Anderson.’Most people think they understand

education because they went to school. But businesses have to consult

educationalists in the strategic development process to get it right. We

had success with a Johnson & Johnson sponsorship because the idea came

from a school itself.’

This is a point which is shared by commentators on all age bands. The

strength of Teletubbies, says Hobson, is that the creator, Anne Wood,

takes an observational approach to her subjects by filming children at

play. Handel agrees: ’Anyone who is serious about the kids’ market

should spend time with children, watching kids’ television and reading


Whatever the failings of the marketing community, the past year has seen

a growth in efforts to target children. This has caused alarm among


High profile developments such as the issue of exercise books sponsored

by clients like Procter & Gamble and Pepsi, poster sites in schools and

the use of playgrounds as car parks have all come under fire.

The Consumers’ Association’s consumer affairs officer Juliet Wells has

been monitoring how companies have responded to National Consumer

Council guidelines on sponsorship in schools released last year.

She stresses that: ’The CA is not against advertising but we feel there

should be further research. Some companies aren’t operating in the

spirit of the NCC guidelines, which state that the educational message

should outweigh the marketing message. We are worried because young

people are vulnerable consumers.’

Broader perspectives

Although there is a tendency to let schools police the appropriateness

of a particular sponsorship themselves, Wells is concerned that:

’Headteachers, when confronted with deficits, might take poster sites in

order to fund a teacher. In their desire to balance the budget, they can

lose sight of the wider debate.’ She picks out soft drinks and snack

foods as a potential area of concern.

Marketing practitioners feel, however, that the industry has approached

the problem responsibly. Heinz’s Walker says: ’It is the manufacturer’s

responsibility not to exploit. We certainly aren’t in the business of

forcing mum to buy something. I think most big names take a sensible


Logistix’s Taylor accepts there is an industry responsibility but takes

a strong line: ’Parents can’t pass the buck wholly to the manufacturer

or marketer. There is a broad social issue about whether we want

children to understand how society works or whether we want to

spoon-feed them fairy tales.’

Poise’s Anderson, however, is in favour of tighter regulations which

would encourage clients to work with educationalists when approaching


Despite such suggestions there are few signs that the Labour government

is likely to impose onerous restrictions on the current market - other

than in specific cases like alcopops. Labour appears to believe that the

NCC guidelines are enough.

This assessment is backed by Ogilvy & Mather’s Simeon Duckworth who,

along with David Muir, investigated Labour’s plans for ad restrictions

prior to the election. ’You might expect Labour to be more prone to

regulation than the previous government,’ he says, ’but there is no sign

of a huge march toward tighter rules.’

However, the political landscape is complex, says Duckworth. ’There has

been pressure within the party to tighten regulations but it hasn’t

necessarily been supported on the front bench. Labour is alive to the

potential knock-on effects of tighter rules,’ says Duckworth.

’The big danger is on-the-hoof policies in response to public opinion.’

Small But Perfectly Informed will take place at London’s Cumberland

Hotel on October 14.

The regulations - key points

The Direct Marketing Association adopted tighter guidelines this summer

which clamp down on ads that ’promote unhealthy or unwise behaviour,

exploit a minor’s inexperience, make a direct appeal to purchase unless

the product is affordable and of interest to minors’.

In addition, ’Lists containing children under the age of 14 cannot be

rented without written permission from parents.’

The Advertising Standards Authority’s position is similar, seeking to

blocks ads that ’result in physical, mental or moral harm to

children ... or exploit their credulity, lack of experience or sense of


In a background note, the ASA singles out concerns such as pester power,

direct appeals and ads that are difficult to understand. ’Advertisers

should not actively encourage children to make a nuisance of

themselves ... should not exaggerate (a product’s) appeal or

performance ... and should not make a child feel inferior or unpopular

for not buying the advertised product.’

To date, however, the ASA has found little to concern itself with. Last

year, only six ads were ruled to have breached its guidelines. One of

these concerned McDonald’s, which mailed product information to a child



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