Children are much in the news at present. If you believe everything you read, you would think paedophiles lurk on every street corner and in every Internet chat room, that fast-food companies conspire to make our young obese; while television and computer games producers work together to make them violent.
Marketers are aware of these allegations, of course, and many tend to dismiss them as extreme and unworthy of attention. But to ignore the growing support for increased controls over how and why we communicate with children would be a catastrophic decision. If marketers are to be allowed to continue marketing to children, they must fully understand what critics are saying and why, and address both unjustified fears and genuine concerns.
Edwin Mutton, Institute of Sales Promotion secretary-general, says: “Marketers must be responsible. It’s one thing to exploit an adult; it’s another thing entirely to exploit a child. People get upset about it – and there’s already a lot of ‘anti’ feeling, particularly in Europe.”
Tweenagers, a Datamonitor report on tento 13-year-olds, reinforced this point. Datamonitor consumer markets analyst Pierre Berezai warns that parents are looking at cutting back children’s spending during the current economic downturn, and are concerned about “the amount of advertising and marketing to children and the effects of over-indulging youths”.
In 2000, when Sweden took over the rotating presidency of the European Union, the spectre of an EU-wide ban on all advertising to children was very real. While the likelihood of such a measure successfully passing through the complex EU law-making procedure is remote, it is certainly not a dead issue.
It is also possible that restrictions on advertising and marketing to children might be introduced as part of legislation governing particular sectors. The food industry is concerned over calls by medical experts to restrict or ban altogether ads for fast-food retailers and highly processed foods for home consumption, many of which clearly target children.
Criticism comes not just from the EU, however: last July, Rowan Williams, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, launched a swingeing attack on marketing. Although he admitted that it was “still mercifully rare to murder for a pair of trainers, or to commit suicide because of an inability to keep up with peer group fashion” he went on to ask: “What can we say about a marketing culture that so openly feeds and colludes with obsession?”
There is, without a doubt, money to be made from targeting children. The latest estimates suggest that the pre-school market alone is worth around &£4.3bn a year, while if you add those areas where children influence their parents’ purchases (clothes, food, leisure activities, holidays), then the total amount of spending power wielded by children could be as much as &£30bn a year.
Sticking to the rules
The usual line from the marketing industry is that communications targeting children are always within the rules, and that people worried about children being too easily influenced by marketing should understand that children are far more sophisticated media consumers than most adults realise.
There is certainly some truth in that – and it is easy for marketing’s critics to ignore the fact that many marketers are themselves parents, and so can have real experience on both sides of the divide.
Philip Slade, creative partner of marketing agency Hicklin Slade & Partners, believes “as the father of two young children, there are too many and too frequent promotions”, adding that “a lot of stuff is cheaply and badly done”. But he adds: “Even the youngest of children can spot if you’re not giving something back.”
Stephen Callender, managing director of marketing agency Black Cat and a former chairman of the Marketing Society, says wryly: “Children are often more street-savvy than their parents and more aware of how promotions work. I was in WH Smith with my nine-year-old the other day, and she was looking through the girls’ magazine section, which is full of cover mounts, competitions and offers. The magazine she bought, she chose because she wanted to read the articles, not because of any promotion.”
Dan Salem, commercial director for media sales house Viacom Brand Solutions, argues that many adults are out of touch with the lives their children lead. VBS sells space for the Viacom-owned cable TV channels MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and The Paramount Comedy Channel, and works with clients to set up major promotions, whether on-screen, on-pack, in magazines or online. “Children’s media consumption is huge,” says Salem, “but children are fickle – that’s the one constant thing. If you want to market to them, then you have to add value and you have to empower them. It’s getting much harder to please them, and you have to be able to react quickly to cash in on what’s cool.”
Pester power certainly exists, but research conducted at the end of last year for the Chartered Institute of Marketing by Salford University shows that parents regard it as an inevitable part of family life. The study found that parents of children aged between five and 11 believed it was their responsibility to ensure their children understood that ads provided information, but that they couldn’t have everything they saw advertised.
Other research for the CIM, this time by Mintel, suggests that children aged between 11 and 14 have outgrown early childhood and are young adults who feel the need to make their own independent buying decisions. Elvira Doghem Rashid, market analyst at Mintel, adds: “Children are becoming increasingly sophisticated in terms of marketing messages.”
Chris Edginton has just joined marketing agency Interfocus as a board director, after three years at McDonald’s in charge of the Happy Meals programme, a stint at Disney working on film and video marketing and then a switch to the agency side at Mosaic, working on Coca-Cola. “The term we used at Disney was KGOY – kids growing older younger. You can’t talk down to them anymore. In fact, you can’t even call them kids – I prefer ‘younger people’.”
Edginton argues that marketers must listen to children and “think like a young person”. Added value is the mantra for many marketers, but with children it has to be very real: “You can’t kid a kid – they know if something’s added-value or not.”
Marketers may be right to argue that parents, teachers and politicians are perhaps not as in touch with children as they think they are, and that youngsters do not need as much protection as their elders believe. But just saying critics are wrong and marketers are right is not enough to defuse the situation – indeed, it might have the opposite effect.
Furthermore, the industry has to accept that there are rogue elements within it, and that the actions of a small minority can contribute to the widespread public suspicion of marketers and their intentions – when it comes to children at least.
Marketing industry bodies have recognised that, if such suspicions are to be allayed, marketers must be aware of public concerns, incorporate those concerns into the codes of conduct governing advertising, sales promotion, direct marketing, mobile marketing and the internet, and must come down hard on companies that flout those rules.
Sales promotions targeting children already have to conform to the British Code of Advertising and Sales Promotion Practice, while the Direct Marketing Association (UK) has, in addition to its main code covering DM, a separate code specifically covering electronic communications to children. Marketing within schools – an area of growing importance to marketers, and one which has begun to attract considerable public interest – is now covered by a code drawn up by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. SMS and other mobile phone marketing should be governed by a code created by the Mobile Marketing Association.
But such codes are only effective if there is a will to enforce them. Marketers themselves admit, if they are not seen to be enforced, there is the real danger that the self-regulatory system which governs most forms of advertising, sales promotion and DM could be replaced with statutory control, as is the case with broadcast advertising on either TV or radio.
That means marketers must take great care when setting up a promotion aimed at children that everything is above board. Such care cannot stop when the promotion is launched – it must be monitored at all times, even after the campaign is officially over.
The problem is that too many marketers still see promotions as purely tactical, while advertising is somehow long-term and brand-building. Yet, as Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, so famously said nearly 500 years ago: “Give me a child before he is seven, and I will give you the man for life.” Great brand relationships are often started in childhood.
Marketing in schools
Marketing in schools has become a hot topic in the past decade, with an increasing number of high-profile brand promotions attempting to cash in on the captive audience that schools supposedly represent.
The risks are great. If done badly, then in-school marketing has the potential to inflame public opinion against the involvement of private companies in education at all levels. On the other hand, if done well, companies and brands can earn gold stars from teachers, parents and children alike.
Tim Cornell, a director with marketing consultancy The Yellow Submarine and head of its child marketing unit, Lickle Yellow Submarine, says: “Marketers have to be extremely sensitive to the environment they are working in and their audience. Any successful campaign must genuinely contribute something to the children and their school.”
Lickle Yellow Submarine has created a number of in-school promotions. One of the most successful was for Tetley Tea, to capitalise on the brand’s official sponsorship of Team GB at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The promotion, Free Sports Stuff for Schools, was designed so that children got involved in the campaign, but were not exploited in any way as it was promoted through major grocers and on a product of which mums were the chief buyer.
It was the largest promotion ever of its kind, and contributed &£18m worth of much-needed sports equipment to schools around the UK. The promotion revolved around a community-building idea that pupils, teachers, parents and families could all embrace.
Consumers were encouraged to collect tokens from Tetley Tea and The Express, which schools could redeem against a catalogue of 2,000 items of equipment. The strategic media alliance with Express Newspapers came at no cost to Tetley, but contributed over &£2.9m in additional campaign support. The promotion included TV advertising, online and in-store activity and the UK’s biggest network radio promotion, broadcast through 70 local stations.
The result was that 85 per cent of UK schools signed up to the campaign. For the only time in history, The Express devoted its entire front page to a promotion and the campaign was endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sports Minister Kate Hoey, Education Secretary David Blunkett and Cabinet Officer Mo Mowlam.