Here are some words you won’t often hear from the children of Britain: “Mum, instead of watching telly and eating sweets, can I go to the bookshop, buy some mind-enhancing reading material, do an intensive physical work-out then have curly green vegetables and other healthy fare for supper. Please?”
But if marketers get their way, UK kids could soon be making such demands of their parents.
From the people who invented the much-derided technique called pester power, here is kiddie marketers’ latest twist on that old and discredited practice: Positive pester power.
The idea is that brands have developed clever persuasive tools to influence consumer behaviour. What if those tools could be harnessed to promote positive behaviour among children?
Advertising and marketing techniques could encourage children to eat healthily, participate in sport and read books. They could give children the ammunition to encourage their parents to be more environmentally and socially aware and to change their lifestyles in positive ways.
There are already examples of positive marketing to children – Sainsbury’s has created the Blue Parrot range of healthy kids’ food, children’s TV channel Nickelodeon promotes fresh fruit and vegetables on its stations and the massive marketing budgets behind the Harry Potter books are credited with encouraging children to read.
In these days of corporate social responsibility, brands are keen to demonstrate their ethical credentials at every turn. And kids’ brands are no different.
The problem is that the words pester power have negative associations, usually referring to the way brands pressurise kids to harass their parents into buying them crisps, soft drinks, chocolates or the latest expensive toy. Some see all marketing to children as containing and element of pester power as it is parents who foot the bill. Simply putting the word “positive” in front of the term seems oxymoronic.
Pester power was widely used by ad agencies in the 1990s as the children’s market opened up like a new wild west.
An advertising brief for Wotsits snacks by Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO described how children should think after seeing ads for the brand: “Wotsits are for me. I am going to pester mum for them when she next goes shopping.”
However, when the brief was exposed and criticised by the House of Commons Health Select Committee in 2003, pester power became seen as a manipulative and underhand tactic. Kiddie marketers were viewed as praying on the innocence of infancy and being bloody irritating for parents.
The technique was dropped and replaced by other tactics such as “family marketing” which targets parents with kids’ products or “kidfluence” where children are targeted to influence family purchases such as choice of car (think infuriating brats on the Vauxhall Meriva and Zafira ads). It should be remembered that the use of pester power in advertising – positive or not – is banned by regulators.
So is it morally acceptable for brands to get children to persuade their parents to help them pursue positive behaviour? The idea, floated by schools marketing agency the National Schools Partnership, has attracted support from the most surprising quarters.
The Children’s Food Campaign, which has spearheaded the fight to ban junk food advertising, backs positive pester power as a force for good. Other child experts agree it is a good idea.
But some oppose all commercial marketing aimed at children. Pressure group Compass has called for an all-out ban on advertising to kids and no doubt our supreme spiritual leader the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – known for his anti-marketing views – would back that call.
The question is whether the Government can be persuaded to love pester power of the positive variety. Children’s minister Ed Balls has launched an investigation into the commercialisation of childhood, and is poised to appoint a children’s expert to lead the research. Brand owners are fearing the worst.
Brands need to sharpen their arguments and convince the Minister – and whichever half-baked TV personality he appoints to lead the review – that they can play a constructive role in advancing the interests of children.
Otherwise they could see the children’s market turning “dark” like tobacco where all promotional activity is banned. They have just a few months to save the sector from devastating restrictions. That will require some positive thinking.