Out of the mouths of babes

Market researchers are expert at teasing out the desires of children and their parents on behalf of clients – but shouldn’t they be asking themselves about the ethics involved? asks Alicia Clegg

Not so long ago, brands talked openly about “catching consumers young” and the value of “pester power”. Not any more. Mindful of the need to clean up their acts or risk curbs on advertising to children, the talk at industry conferences is now all about “marketing responsibly”.

So, Coca-Cola has pledged not to target children under 12, while McDonald’s is promoting active lifestyles and carrot sticks. Whatever their motives, there is no doubt that brands have become more sensitive about marketing to children. But amid all the talk of responsibility, one voice has rarely been heard – that of the market research industry.

Researchers are not keen to talk about the ethics of marketing to young people. One agency agreed to speak on condition that the interview covered only the methods for researching children, “not the ethics”. Others talked about the Market Research Society’s guidelines, which cover matters such as legal compliance, ensuring the safety of under-age respondents and parental consent, but steer clear of the uses to which research is put by brands. Martyn Richards, director of Opera Research and an MRS spokesman, says: “The advertising industry has guidelines on marketing to children, which we reflect. It’s not up to market research to lead on this.”

Some difficult questions

But, says Charlotte Buckley, research consultant at RSM Robson Rhodes Business Consulting, as the research industry earns money helping to design communication strategies, it “should face up to its share of the social responsibility”.

At the heart of the matter is the difference between how children and adults absorb information. Adults filter marketing messages; children respond emotionally to what they see and hear.

Nancy MacDonald, director of 2cv:research, argues that to resolve the tension between catering to the ambitions of young people and cashing in on their immaturity, agencies need to talk to parents as well as children. “The challenge is to give brands a sense of the gap, and suggest ways of giving children something that gratifies them and which their mothers feel comfortable with,” she says.

Below the age of six or seven, most researchers prefer talking to mothers and children together.

By about seven years old, however, children are developing interests outside their family and starting to bond with their peer group. From this point on, researchers generally like to interview children and their parents separately.

Often, the simplest approaches reveal the richest insights into an older child’s inner world. “The best way to get to know a group of young people is just to spend time with them,” says Chris Bates, head of Synovate’s youth specialist division, Vegas. For this reason, agencies are using ethnographic techniques that mix talk with observing what children and teenagers get up to on their own.

Getting down with the kids

A popular ethnographic approach, immersion, involves researchers “immersing” themselves in a child’s world for a period, perhaps by accompanying the child to school or spending Saturday with them. Another technique is to ask young people to keep an audio or video diary. The benefit of this approach, says RDSi director of children’s research Jacqui Adams, is that it turns the spotlight onto the things that matter to children, rather than the things an adult researcher assumes are important.

Fly-on-the-wall tactics can also bring to light contradictions between the face children show to their friends and the inner world they inhabit at home. Teenagers, in particular, flip between adult and child-like personas, depending on whom they are with. “If you talk to a teenage girl in a group, you might think her life revolves around texting and mobiles. Then you see inside her room and it’s wall-to-wall soft toys,” says Bond.

But to what use is all this insight being put? Research agencies say their investigations help brands to develop products children want and which their parents are happy for them to have. The reality, however, is that companies want to sell more of what they produce. And it is not just children whose vulnerabilities marketers exploit: as Simon Roberts, founder of consultancy Ideas Bazaar, says: “With so many couples working long hours, parents are led to feel that they need to treat their children.”

But with public opinion sensitised to this issue by factors such as rising levels of childhood obesity, brands are starting to look beyond the short-term attractions of targeting children, to the repercussions for their reputations should they be seen to overstep the mark. This is where market research can help.

At the very least, researchers have a duty to warn their clients of the PR risks of employing tactics that appear to exploit the concerns of parents or the susceptibilities of children. More ambitiously, agencies could undertake self-funded studies to confront marketers with a genuinely independent view of what ordinary parents make of the tactics employed by high-profile brands that advertise on daytime and early-evening television.

Following client industries’ guidelines may have been adequate when researchers were content merely to measure and track marketing effectiveness. However, as agencies take on consultancy roles and aspire to offer “thought leadership”, researchers need to develop an independent view of the ethics – as well as the opportunities – of marketing to young consumers. As Buckley puts it, “it is not enough to rely solely on clients to define the

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