Marketing to kids

We’ve got guests coming in 15 minutes and we’re short of a stack of essential items including milk, bread, fruit and most importantly, booze. My mind panics at the mere thought of an afternoon where I’ve got to be half responsible for a teeming mass of screaming kids, setting fire to the garden, pulling each other’s clothes or arms off, demanding food, entertainment and attention.

My nine year old son is in the car with me. White knuckled as I swerve through the traffic, fighting for a car length, skidding around corners, desperate to get to the supermarket and back before they arrive at our place.

We park outside the newsagent, next to the supermarket. I jump from the car and start to run towards the sliding door. I get a trolley. I turn, about to enter Cole’s cave of time and cost. Where the hell is he?

I see him standing engrossed, oblivious, staring at the latest fortnightly version of Lord Of The Rings collection models. In the back of the damn news agency. I put the trolley back. I swallow, calm. I march up beside him and lean into his shell-like ear and whisper ‘come on, we’re in a real rush’. He doesn’t move. Mesmerized. I can’t leave him here, it’s virtually a public thorough-fare and I don’t like the look of the two old guys collecting for the Church fund raiser out the front. Never trust anyone who’s trying to look clean-cut and nice.

I grab his arm and say “I’ll get you something in the supermarket”. He turns “This is the Riders of Rohan. I need it for the battle with Mordor Orcs.” I look at the price. It’s $11.95. Because I’m in such a rush and I can’t afford the 2 minute argument that normally happens before I give in, I just give in and drag him to the counter and pay. We then enter the supermarket, which costs me a hell of a lot more.

Point? The most successful marketing operation of all movie-time has just ticked over another sales milestone. They have used TV, Web, Print, POS, Viral Marketing and some serious psychology to stretch out a $20.00 visit (mind you, three of them too) to the movies into literally hundreds of dollars of after-sales. My son has just added to his collection of tiny plastic models. Not because he wants to be manipulative and takes that precise second to black-mail me, but because he is simply brain-washed by the magic and detail and sheer creative excellence of the whole Lord Of The Rings thing.

It’s a slick, brilliant system. A good story itself does not justify that system, to a parent. A bit of moral education, today’s version of Sunday School where the kids get a story and a lesson on how to be a nice person, by Disney or Dream Works in the form of movies or TV shows, is just a way of hiding their real target – getting our kids to buy junk. Still, it’s better than the next option, that of the nasty organizations who are doing the same thing without even trying to give the kids any decent values along the way; openly infecting our kids with a creed of violence, servitude and greed.

I was actually remembering that supermarket trip of only a couple of weeks ago with fondness. My son is now into Yu-Gi-Oh!, which is a card collection series at $7.95 a set of nine playing cards (he has hundreds) supported by a TV show and website etc, which is really quite sick. I use the word sick for its true meaning. Ill. Diseased.  In Yu-Gi-Oh!, the poor brainless comic strip characters on the TV show battle each other for world domination using cards which have characters on them with fantastic powers …. It’s core values are fighting, death; worshiping acquisition and power.

I was a lot happier with Lord Of the Rings, violent and bloody as it is. At least it was good versus evil, Humans versus Orcs – we could all be on the good guy’s side.

What concerns me about our society is that it seems we are breeding a bunch of non-communicative wimps who can’t survive in any kind of jungle – how are they going to cope with real problems, real business? Or just plain life itself when the batteries run out? I think we need to help our kids know what it is to be Australian – not leave the building of our society to 20 year old Chinese comic-strip artists.

Sadly I have no control over what the kids in the school yard are playing unless I organize a pressure group and put the hard word on the Headmaster, like those parents who do that every time marbles as a game rears it’s beautiful but flawed head.

Why is marbles better than Yu-Gi-Oh! in my eyes? Because marbles teaches them hand eye co-ordination, it teaches them to measure things by color, size, design. It teaches them to negotiate according to perceived value. To count. To look after things. And girls are just as good as boys at it. It’s low cost –  accessible to any kid. And any kid can get his or her hands on good ones, by bartering or skill or luck.

I note with some satisfaction his school have also banned Game Boys – which is Coke a Cola for a young brain. A sugar-laced high that eats at your soul. You can’t ‘imagine’ when you are steering pins into slots. And it’s their imagination we need to foster, not their capacity to work in factories driving pins into slots to make phones or cameras.

Should you, or shouldn’t you?

In kids marketing, you have the ultimate marketing career dilemma. On the one hand, you are employed to maximize revenue/profit for a company. On the other, you must take responsibility for the development of human brains, by your influence. You can encourage them to expand, be creative and inclusive and to view life forever positively, creating relaxed optimists. On the other hand, you can bend to the cultures of other nastier countries or other lesser professions (accountants) who view things in a lowest common denominator sort of way and commit whomever you influence (to whatever extent you do influence) to a life of shit.

It’s what you choose to work on, and how you choose to promote it, that makes or breaks you as a marketer in kids marketing. Choose carefully. We parents are watching.

What is it about kids’ marketing that attracts us?

It’s a big market

How much do kids influence business? A staggering 43% of all sales are influenced by kids, according to one recent study in the USA.

Big Budgets

In the USA, companies spend $12 billion annually marketing to kids. I guess that means the ads pay – children are vulnerable to manipulation.

What about the market?

Key Influencers

Like with all markets, we are affected in kids marketing by the general trends throughout the western world. That of no time, parents separating (making kids more likely to view shows like the Simpsons as how a ‘real’ family lives…which is probably not far from the truth anyway) a sedentary, obese population, a noisy frantic minority (be they dumb religious nuts or bored over-anxious intellectuals, like the mums at my kid’s school) dominating political decisions etc. These influences force things to happen. Like the recent industry ‘ban’ on TV advertising of questionable food stuffs.

Less attention/less communication

Because we are time-strapped, parents spend less and less time with their kids. Kids need to be in our presence; passive observation. Not playing, or being ‘entertained’ just seeing how real adults behave. Or they grow up thinking TV characters are real life. A scary 26% of kids under 2 have a TV in their bedroom in the USA. Acting I guess, as an electronic baby sitter. Many kids today can’t have a conversation with their peers, let alone adults, because they have almost no social interactive skills. You can’t talk with a TV.

Less Play

The toys many kids are playing today, especially the computer games, limit creativity. 10 or more years ago kids might have, out of boredom, grabbed a card-board box and built a castle to defend against the Indians, or played doctor and nurse with the kid next door.

More ‘entertainment’

Today, 97% of our kids aged 5-14 years list watching TV or videos as their most common leisure activity. Playing electronic or computer games, 69%. (ABS Cat no 4901.0) According to our Bureau of Stats, of the 2.6 million kids who watched TV or videos, about half watched for 10 hours a week, one third for 5-10 hours. But don’t think the rest of the time was spent usefully. Those same kids spent another 10 hours a week on electronic or computer games. So in total they spend almost as much time rotting their brains as they do in school, hopefully building them. I reckon those numbers are grossly lower than the facts. My experience is that most of today’s kids live with the TV on constantly – mornings, afternoons, until they go to bed, most of the week-end. I’d be surprised if the real figure isn’t 80 hours a week.

Over-advertised to

On TV alone, a child will view 40,000 commercials a year (Dale Kunkel PHD, Professor of Communications at University of California.) They are not necessarily ‘sophisticated’ buyers of ad messages (ie. ‘it’s OK if we advertise to them in  a manipulative way – they can handle it’), more likely, they are simply confused and exhausted by so much information.

Sticking their hand out

Because parents feel guilty about working long hours, spending so little time with their kids, and making the kid watch TV all the time, they buy them presents. Meaning the kid thinks a normal adult is like a constant Santa, and anyone who doesn’t give them a present is just not nice.

Instant gratification

Kids are encouraged to go for instant gratification, in an attempt by mum/ teacher/ older kid to get a tiny morsel of peace. So cheap but attractive products are big sellers. Broken and discarded in minutes. The worst example is the now ten year alliance between Disney and McDonalds. McDonalds have been built inside Disney parks and in return, most Happy Meal toys are related to the current Disney movie at the time. And wasteful? Shocking. Filling our landfill sites with plastic.

Selling ice-cream on a hot day

Kids love the characters, making sales easy. They associate the characters with pleasure and are happy to support their ‘friend’. Product tie-ins, placed at a child’s eye level, exist on just about everything – vitamins, juice, biscuits etc. In the USA, 45% of fruit snacks have licensing agreements, compared to 10% in 1996.

How To do it even better

Reflect the gender gap

Little boys respond to very different images than little girls. Girls go for pastels, softer music, more happy promises. Boys like to kill things and love the color of blood. Which is one reason many men prefer red ties.

Use TV – but live

Build the castle in front of her eyes. Have the model soldier knock over the other toy.

Kids want to see and touch the items. They do not understand the subtle much at all.

You could try ads for parents, showing the educative value played say at 9 pm plus, and ads for kids, played at their time?

Show kids they can relate to, using it

Kids are very peer group dependant. Show happy kids who look cool. This is the reason American ads for little girls dolls etc., are so cheesy. They reflect American little girl values. But not Australian’s? Think how much more effective they’d be if they showed our girls. But could you get the budget for it?

Kids look up to older kids. If you show older kids doing it, they will think it’s cool. Which is why Lord Of The Rings shows late teenagers doing what must be a mainly young kid thing; painting the models etc.

Use the web

You can find out what they like and make changes easily. Web costs can be literally 10 times less than a TV ad, given that a typical nationwide TV commercial’s production and air time costs are often much more than $200,000 compared with a fairly funky website that might cost less than $20,000.

There’s thousands of marketers like Life Savers using games to lure kids to their ads. (see But how about on-line radio shows where they can talk-back to peers, or games where they play against each other, instead of against a machine?

Letter-box drops

The ABS can tell you where they live. The parents won’t think you’re invading privacy. You won’t spend anything like as much on mailing lists or postage, and how many others do it?

School newsletters

Always carried and almost always read by kids, but aimed at parents. High cost per thousand, but few charge realistic amounts for the influence they can carry.

Bit tricky sometimes to get past the mums who edit though.

Direct Mail almost unheard of?

My kids go nuts when they get a letter. Their friends send the occasional party invitation. That’s it. Why don’t kids marketers use direct? It would really pay, given the stand-out nature of the medium, the detail available etc. While I say this, it should be noted that direct to kids is very unpopular as a mechanism with many adults. There’s a US Senate Bill on the floor as I write, that seeks to ban the use of direct, the sale of names & details etc. for kids under 16.


So many kids have mobiles today and they haven’t banned ads on them yet.

Bus Shelters

Kids wait for ages, then catch buses.

Kids Clubs, competitions

Many great marketers like Tip Top have been involved with sponsorships of decent healthy things like Auskick. Support anything that gets them away from the TV and interacting with other humans, preferably at a running pace.

Product tie-ins

With decent products like fruit, whole grain cereals, water, frisbees, footy’s.

Point Of Sale critical

Retailers who do kid-height displays find sales rocket. Amazing.

Why not the outside of a trolley?

Sit down next to a trolley. That’s the way your kid sees it. What’s wrong? No signs. Nothing to say to the main influencer, the best nagger in the family, that they need cheese sticks. Put a sign on the outside base line of shopping trolleys and I’ll bet sales go through the roof.

Connect the media together

TV with cards, POS etc. Integrated is critical when you’re dealing with a person who’s memory and cognitive abilities are obviously less than fully developed.

Work the mums

Mums make almost all of the decisions that count. If your products have real educative or health benefits, get a mums party-plan or some other networking system going. If that sort of job means she can spend time with other women championing a cause and making money too, you’ll soon have an army.

Find the moral high ground

Almost anything has some justifiable reason to be besides being fun or tasting nice. If it really is junk, perhaps it’s a great way to keep the kids happy on a long drive? Or you could try sugar coating the pill, so to say. How about ‘Look we’ve added Thiamine’ like one unmentionable product has just done, in it’s ads aimed squarely at reducing parental angst. Ok, I’ll name them. Kellogg’s Coco Pops. Seen the ad? Cringed for the marketers? Imagine what their spouses have to say when they are at the kids school BBQ. “Yes, Jane’s in ‘consumer satisfaction’ there, I don’t exactly know what she does…”

Be responsible

Like your Mum would be proud of. Given that the Church is a distant memory for most of us and Grandparents are throwing their keys into the bowl at a Retirement Village, going home with whomever says bingo first…. they aren’t around to be an influence. And we parents are so tired from work we can’t be bothered stopping the kids from watching your ads on the box, (instead of making the kids do their home work) you advertisers are by default one of the main influencers in their lives.

Teach them values like fair play, looking after those who can’t defend themselves, turning the other cheek, the worth of a new idea, freedom of speech. Equality for all. Encourage them to eat decent food, pick up their toys, to save. I say this knowing full well that most kid marketers won’t understand those last few sentences. I’m just hoping someone who does, will someday take over the marketing role at a major kid’s product group and ask me to show their board how to really add values to our society, rather than slowly tearing it to bits.

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