Energy brand npower and car marque Renault are leading the way in re-inventing a once frowned upon marketing tactic.
The brands are targeting children with campaigns using cartoon characters, online games and discounts. The schemes are designed to get kids to change their behaviour and to persuade their parents to join in too. It sounds like a reprise of that reviled kiddie marketing technique of the 1980s and 1990s: pester power.
However, the brands are not persuading juveniles to harass mummy and daddy to buy unhealthy junk food or sugary soft drinks, nor to badger their parents for the latest expensive toy or a trip to a pricey theme park. On the contrary, these schemes encourage children to take part in positive behaviour such as saving energy and reading books. This latest marketing technique has been dubbed “positive pester power”.
On the face of it, the two schemes appear valuable and constructive. Npower’s Greener Schools Campaign encourages children to learn energy saving techniques such as switching off electrical items left on standby. The company admits that it would be good if they could influence their parents to turn down the heating at home and buy energy-efficient white goods. The campaign uses the old pester power tactics of cartoon characters and games through a child-friendly website called Climate Cops.
Renault’s Tales from the Glovebox offers discounted books from Waterstones to promote reading. Its website features a story written and read by “kidlit” superstar Michael Morpurgo. It is claimed that 75% of children targeted have started reading more as a result of the scheme.
As children’s minister Ed Balls launches an investigation into the commercialisation of childhood, brands are aware that they are in the dock, accused of corrupting the minds of the nation’s youth. Will they be forced to Socratically chew on the metaphorical hemlock and suicidally stop all marketing to children? Or can they persuade the Minister – and the public – that marketing to kids can be a force for good?
The idea that pester power should be used in a positive way seems paradoxical. It is usually associated with manipulative marketing tactics that influence children. Ad agencies used to boast about their prowess in encouraging pester power, though it became a dirty word at the end of the 1990s, replaced by strategies such as “family marketing” and “kidfluence”. Pester power – negative or positive – is banned in television and non-broadcast advertising codes. This, though, refers to overt attempts to encourage kids to nag their parents. Many observers see pester power in broader terms, viewing all marketing directly aimed at children as a form of the tactic.
A defender of positive pester power is the National Schools Partnership, an agency which promotes brands in schools. NSP chief executive Mark Fawcett says: “There are various initiatives where I would back positive pester power as good and necessary. There are some issues that are so important to children that it is arrogant to suggest that they shouldn’t be involved.”
Fawcett believes that brands should encourage positive activities, rather than directly promoting themselves. He backs the npower and Renault schemes as fine examples of positive marketing: “Brands need to make sure that where they are associating themselves with promoting something like a healthy activity, they are encouraging the children to pester for the activity, not the brand. That’s where you need to consider whether it is suitable to use children to promote things.”
So what do the brands get out of such schemes? Npower says the Greener Schools campaign and Climate Cops website – aimed at children aged seven to 11 – are intended to promote responsible energy use in schools and among children. The website has the npower logo and brand marketing messages emblazoned across it.
Head of the scheme Clare McDougall adds: “It is about promoting the good name of the company, although that is not the main aim of the initiative. But any positive impression created about npower is a good thing – it shows they are doing their best to be responsible.” She says that the main thrust of the programme is to help 2,500 schools become greener over five years. Targeting children is a minor element.
Renault’s Tales from the Glovebox reading initiative also has a heavily branded website. Children can “experience the magic” of stories and cartoons, while parents can book a test drive of the Renault Scenic. Some would argue that these are subtle ways of using children to promote brands to parents, using “kidfluence” – influencing children – to sway family decisions, as seen in the Vauxhall Meriva and Zafira ads.
There are those who oppose all such marketing to children. Pressure group Compass has launched a Charter for Childhood which calls for a ban on advertising to children under the age of seven. General secretary Gavin Hayes is unimpressed by the idea of positive marketing: “Children should be children before they are consumers. Whether the advertising is for good or bad reasons, it is still putting pressure on children. There are studies that have shown increasing rates of stress, depression and low self-esteem and this is down to increased marketing.”
But Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood – which has sold 30,000 copies – argues for a pragmatic approach. “One has got to live with the world as it is, one can’t change things at a stroke,” she says. “Since pester power exists, I’d rather see it working towards children’s best interests.” Palmer helped draft the Children’s Charter and is pressing for a ban on marketing to children under the age of 12. She says: “Most of the things children need you can’t pay for – love, play, song, care and time.”
Surprisingly, positive pester power gets the blessing of the Children’s Food Campaign, which has co-ordinated the battle against junk food advertising but is eager not to be seen as anti-advertising. Campaign director Richard Watts says: “The vast majority of food marketing has been for unhealthy food. If food companies are going to shift their marketing efforts to healthy food, we welcome that.”
Meanwhile, the British Heart Foundation has launched a campaign against the use of pester power by junk food companies. It claims two-thirds of parents are unaware that brands such as Skittles, McDonald’s and Irn Bru are targeting children with online games.
BHF Policy and communications director Betty McBride says the problem is that junk food brands’ budgets massively outstrip social marketing budgets promoting positive messages. “I do think if there was a level playing field, children would be asking their parents for healthy options,” she adds. “I’m in favour of positive marketing to children, [as long as it] is responsible. I am happy to have an environment where children are being brought up with healthy choices.”
Brands see their work with children as a key part of their corporate responsibility programmes, but they lay themselves open to accusations of preying on youthful innocence. Through positive pester power, they are trying to show that techniques of marketing, long derided as shallow and manipulative, can be put to good use and change children’s behaviour for the better.
Additional reporting by Caroline Parry