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Challenges of Marketing to Children

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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018

Creating outstanding products and programs to win marketplace is not an easy job. Specialists in marketing have to develop comprehensive research plans, carry out market researches, analyze the data collected and finally come up with marketing plans that target specific consumer segments. Finding out about human psychology, their preferences, choices and appeals are not only difficult but at times disappointingly inaccurate. Yet marketers today consider themselves experts in such endeavours, and are capable of achieving the almost impossible marketing objectives. 

As if these aspects of marketing are not difficult enough, in modern-day marketing field there is a niche in which the marketers have to deal with children. The most difficult task is perhaps the determination of the choices and preferences of these fickle individuals who are still developing, absorbing the environment and learning to become like their adult counterparts. The task of marketing to children is not only daunting but also critical for many businesses such as Nike, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Disney, Pepsi, Sega, Kellogs and Mattel to name a few. These companies go through extensive research and consultancy to get to the untapped market of child consumers.

One such example is evident in Dan S. Acuff and Robert H. Reiher’s (1998) Youth Market Systems. According to the authors the development of outstanding products and programs to win children’s marketplace is entirely different from the rest of the market segments. For this purpose they invent a marketing process called Youth Market Systems. The System ensures marketers consider all aspects of marketing to children or teens for any category of goods or services that companies want to sell. There Isa great need for a system of analysis and interpretation as the authors feel that information pertaining to cognitive, emotional and social needs of age groups could transform the programs or product features that target them. Acuff and Reiher’s (1998) strategy merely opens a window to the world of advertising to children. As one investigates the categories of products and services that are available to young children, one also tend to develop the consistent belief that children are a separate kind of consumer group and must be treated differently, from advertising to the designing of products.

All these efforts no doubt are valid and justified in their own place and position, however a niggling thought crosses the mind when one observes the various approaches and efforts that marketers adopt to reach out to the vulnerable youth consumer segment. There are reasons for these tactics. Acuff and Reiher record approximately $1 billion annual gross revenue for Mattel Incorporated that sells Barbies. There are others such as Garfield, He-Man, Cabbage Patch Kids, Power Rangers, LEGO, GI Joes and a myriad of upcoming products invading the market with the sole purpose to tap on these young consumers who are bound by childish emotions and penchant for toys and games. Schemes and strategies are being devised to win over these young consumers for highs takes amounting to billions of pounds.

What is more, advertising and marketing to children does not only involve the youngsters but their parents also. For example the Youth Market System identifies parents, grand parents and other close family members as the most influential on children’s purchasing decision. Exploring this group is critical because they are the ones who have control over the wallet and it is on them that children are dependent. The complexity in children marketing therefore lies in attracting both the youngsters and appealing to the parents. A winning formula must be developed to attract both the parents and children. The complexity of this formula makes success rate low which induces marketers to resort to all kinds of schemes and strategies to achieve their desired target, including crossing the line of ethics especially in the field of advertising of children related products (Acuff and Reiher 1998).

Scholars and parents alike feel that there are no avenues that advertisers and businesses will not exploit to reach to the young consumers. Exploitations through mental, moral and physical developments of children are common. The strategies to target children involve creation of wants to satisfy the impulse rather than actual needs. For example consoles such as Mattel’s Hot Wheels, and Barbie’s fashion collections are not really required by children but wants created by advertisers and marketing campaigns. Long term needs satisfaction has been replaced by short term needs. They are not the only ones exploited. Their parents are also plagued with different kinds of created needs for their children such as the well being; status symbol; and their selfish need to have their child preoccupied with the multitude of products and free them from child responsibilities.

These aspects portray not only the ugly but also the unethicalsides of the world of advertising. How true are these aspects and towhat extent do advertisers reach to capture their target consumers? Dothey cross the borders of ethics or not to maximise gains from avulnerable consumer market? And what, if anything, should be done tocontrol and ultimately restrict the freedom of advertising aimed atchildren are some of the areas that the following research willendeavour to enumerate.

Children have become the key target for many advertisers. Childrenare vulnerable, easy to exploit consumers and they perceive things asadvertisers want them to perceive, or so many of us believe. Despitethe fact that children are nowadays smart and knowledgeable of themarketplace nevertheless for many marketers they are relatively easy totarget due to the sheer size of the children’s consumer market.Advertisers thrive by earning billions of pounds with the backing andfunding of the profit seeking organizations that hire them. Thesecompanies are not only producing goods that appeal to the children butthey are also exploiting their parents. The dual targeting approachmakes this market segment attractive as well as representative of highyield for investment. For example in many regions of the worldincluding the US, Europe and Japan, companies are investing billions sothat they can capture and tap the youth market segment but at the sametime they are also reaping billions in return. Advertisers andmarketers are entrusted with the task to achieve sales targets bygenerating desired actions from the segment. The wide appeal hasmotivated many professionals to enter and adopt whatever means andmeasures to achieve their targets. Ethical implications surpasses but afew in the field of advertising that target children. For these reasonsthe authority, lobbyists and parents are demonstrating their concernsregarding the impact of media and advertising on children. Thefollowing literature review will first outline why and how children aretargeted, followed by a review of the kind of ethical implicationsadvertising and the media has on children. This will be followed by anexploration of the measures that are being taken to counteract theproblem, if any.

Advertising to children has not been an issue until recently withthe boom of the media. More and more parents are concerned about thelegal controls that the authority levy on advertising criteria as mostare concerned about the kind of tactics advertisers are using toinfluence children for the sake of maximizing their profits. Forexample Bejot and Doittau (2004) note that pornography, cigarette andtobacco related, alcohol and other products prohibited for children arebeing promoted on television freely without restriction. Advertisementmessages for these adult related products are tailored for adultconsumption but due to the appeal of mass viewership and the higherprofits, the advertisements are aired during children televisionprimetime. As a result the advertisements expose children to contentsthat are not meant for them. Had that been the only case then the issueof advertisement would not have been so controversial.

Research suggest that children between the ages of 6 and 14 years oldwatch about 25 hours of television per week in the US and they areexposed to 20,000 commercials in a  year (Moore and Lutz 2000).Children at this age are vulnerable because they are developing a senseto comprehend and evaluate messages in the environment. Stimulatedmessages on television not only have a harmful impact but they are alsodetrimental in persuading children to develop wants for products thatare not meant for them. According to Moore and Lutz (2000) “Beyondadvertisements, children gain marketplace information from the productsthey encounter, advice from friends and relatives, and their ownconsumption experiences. Through consumption, children learn whatproducts are good and bad, whether advertising claims are truthful,what brands they prefer, and even products that convey social meaningsapart from their functional properties.” For children the experiencesthat heighten their importance in their social circle and the adultworld have the most meaning. They do not have the ability to counteractor check on the viability or the authenticity of the message initiallywhen they are young as they are dependent on adults for explanatoryinformation accessible only through print media. By the time childrengrow to the teenage level the functionality of literacy diminishes tobe replaced by their desire and need to fit in their social life.Without consideration for product usefulness or content, childrendevelop wants for products beyond their pockets and reach.

Similarly, children are also exposed to advertisements for fashionproducts that are actually designed for adult consumers but they areoften “condensed” to tailor to the younger audience with the purpose toinclude the young consumers in the marketing campaigns. For this reasonchildren develop receptivity for fashion products without the requiredinformation for decision making.  Moore and Lutz (2000) recognize theimportance of children’s advertising and its impact on young audienceby revealing that children are receptive to advertising demonstrated inexperiments of relation between ads and products. They write:
“Research investigating children’s receptivity to televisionadvertising has studied what children understand, under whatcircumstances they are persuaded, and how their responses evolve asthey mature (e.g. Macklin 1987; Roedder 1981). Drawing extensively oninformation processing and stage models, researchers have gainedsubstantial insight into the development of children’s cognitive skillsand their deployment during ad processing.” (Moore and Lutz 2000).

Their research indicates that children are at a stage where they aredeveloping cognitive abilities. Advertisers vie on this susceptibledevelopmental stage by targeting the “limited processors” of childrenthat have not yet acquired efficient information processing strategies,a fact that may be reflected in their inability to distinguish betweencentral and peripheral content in message learning.” (Moore and Lutz2000). They further this idea by writing that at the stage of ages 8and 12 children are susceptible to information that are stimulated andthat target the vulnerability of the strategic processors.  Because atthis age group children tend to spontaneously employ efficientinformation storage and retrieval strategies. They organize andretrieve information based on available information and stimulus.

“Unless their knowledge of advertising is expressly activated by such acue, these children tend not to think critically or generatecounterarguments spontaneously. They may also neglect to differentiatebetween central and peripheral content when learning new information.When there is an appropriate cue in their environment, however, theyare likely to retrieve and use relevant information.” (Moore and Lutz2000).
Therefore children may develop recognition mechanism on how advertisingshould be viewed but that is dependent on external factors likeparental guide, government policies or other mediating channels.Evidence suggests that there is substantial amount of influence on thisage group when they are not guided in the preliminary stages inunderstanding the intent of advertisements. Research reveals thatsignificant guidelines must be levied before children rationale anddeliberate on the content of advertisements shown on television.”Advertising is thus implicitly accorded substantial power to shapechildren’s thinking until they acquire sufficient cognitive andattitudinal defences. (Moore and Lutz 2000).

Other than the cognitive development impressions on children,advertising also influence them to take actions. In a study by Smithand Swinyard (1982) on consumer behaviour and response towards producttrials offer through advertisements suggests that “because consumersknow that advertisers wish to present their brands in a favourablelight, they react to ads by partially discounting claims and formingtentatively held brand beliefs and attitudes. In contrast whenconsumers have direct usage experience, they form stronger, moreconfidently held brand beliefs and attitudes. This phenomenon has beenobserved in a number of studies with adults” and may be consistent withthe case of children. The same expectations is held with regard tochildren advertising as researchers are of the opinion that with age,the capacity to form brand opinions tend to be more among olderchildren. For example children of age groups 10 and 12, and 12 and 14year olds tend to tell the truth and more likely to be scepticaltowards the institution of advertising rather than blindly acceptadvertisement claims.

According to Michel Bejot and Barbara Doittau (2004) childrenadvertising are dynamic and highly appealing. The authors are of theopinion that children are the key target for advertisers because brandpreferences in this age group remain unchanged for a long time.Children remain loyal to the brands they are used to yet at the sametime they have growing pockets to afford more expensive items as theygrow older.
The above aspects indicate that children though are smart andknowledgeable to sceptically evaluate and experiment with productsthrough advertisement claims they are also aware of the fact that theseadvertisers’ claim may not be true. At this point it is arguable tonote that some school of thoughts separate the vulnerable youngstersfrom the smart young consumers who have the cognitive ability tocritically examine the advertisement claims and disregard them if notproven true. According to Robertson and Rossiter (1974) “if ads presentinformation different from a child’s actual experience, confusion mayresult and trust in advertising may be determined. Conversely, otherssuggest that until children actually experience discrepancies betweenproducts as advertised and as consumed, they are unable to fullycomprehend advertising’s persuasive intent.” For this reason Moore andLutz (2000) claim that advertising use frames for product trials knownas transformational advertising in which adult consumers are drawntowards the products prior to advertising exposures by asking them toparticipate in the process of experimenting and interacting with theproduct with the view to interpret, evaluate and subsequently formtheir experience impressions. The expectancy or discrepancy frame setsare formed for comparison of later product trials which help indetermining discrepancies or consistencies of product qualities. Mooreand Lutz (2000) present the testing paradigm to show that rationalconsumers are clever in testing advertising claims of productperformances. Testing paradigm enable them the opportunity to evaluateand form opinions. Children, on the other hand do not have the samereaction or taste for distinguishing discrepancy in the same manner.

On the other hand Siegler (1996) believes that advertising and producttrials have different effects on children’s capacity to integratemultiple sources of information for consideration. Young children tendto engage in one-dimensional thinking pattern and rely on multipledimensions for a given task. Integration is imperative for childrenbecause they are dependent on this integration processing ofinformation for forming perceptual domains and consumer behaviour. Whenyounger children are presented with information it is encoded andstored in the recesses of the mind, and whenever needed retrieve it forevaluation. Information integration is basically combining newinformation presented in the media with the old information, andcomparing the two. Disparate media information result in discrepancy inexperience. This in turn results in loss of trust in advertisementmessages.

Not all children however are wise enough to discriminate information.Moore and Lutz (2000) believe that age differences differentiateexpectations and credibility of advertising. They write “Youngerchildren have been found to hold more positive attitudes aboutadvertising, to be more likely to believe its claims, and to be lesslikely to understand its essential purpose. Thus, among youngerchildren advertising’s credibility is not likely to arise as a concern,and they are likely to perceive both advertising and a product trialexperience as believable sources of information.” (Moore and Lutz2000). Clearly, this statement identifies with the fact that youngerchildren are more susceptible to advertising and they are prone to takeactions without critical evaluation. For older children advertisers maynot integrate strong expectations about a brand and instead focus onthe stronger results to generate confidence in product usage (Fazio1986).

Alternatively there are groups of advertisers who vie on the physicalhabits of children. For example one of the most invidious techniques isto use junk food in advertising for children. The use of celebrities toendorse these foods without any consideration for balanced diet orfitness is common in the industry. “In the UK the BBC which is fundedby licence and tax payers, received around 32 million pounds in 2001for franchising its Tweenies characters to McDonald’s – the FoodCommission found that the Tweenies products were high in junkelements.” Despite this fact the UK government continues to allowbrands such as Cadbury’s to market its products and launch campaignsthat have negative effects on the physical health of children. Theseefforts are designed to generate more profits and not the publicinterest. They are aware of the fact that the lack of exercise coupledwith high calorie food result in obesity and other related diseases inchildren. The rate of obesity has doubled in the past 10 years from 8.5percent to 15 percent among children under 16 years (The Lancet 2003).Yet advertisements continue to infiltrate the media and other channelswith the objective to vie on children.

Children have long been recognized as the target market for manycompanies due to its economic potential. Recent estimates by Moore(2004) indicate that children and associated markets account for 24billion dollars of direct spending and it has an additional 500 billiondollars influence over family purchases. Children are considered to bepotential gold mines for campaigners and advertisers alike. Televisionchannels and the print media as well as companies are constantlyengaged in complex “product placements, sales promotions, packagingdesign, public relations, and in-school marketing” activities with theview to reach out to children and their parents. Given the timechildren spend in front of the television, on the Internet and mediagadgets, marketers realize that children form a huge consumer base for”toys, breakfast cereals, candy and snacks” etc. For this purpose thereare more and more commercials on television to induce buying preferenceand action. TV commercials especially are being developed to inducechildren to purchase and participate in programs promoting cars,fashion, cell phones and other such adult related products. Accordingto Moore (2004) “At the root of the children’s advertising debate isthe question of children’s unique vulnerabilities. Concerns about youngchildren range from their inability to resist specific selling effortsto a fear that without benefit of well-developed critical thinkingskills they may learn undesirable social values such as materialism”(Macklin, 1986 qt. Moore 2004). Her view is also affirmed by Acuff andReiher (1998) who indicate through their study that children aresusceptible to advertisements because of the extensive measures andstrategies adopted by the advertisers. Their study reveals thatmarketers devise winning formulas to gain the confidence of children bysending out messages that winning children are those who are associatedwith certain brands. These may be Barbie, He-Man, Teletubbies orSpider-Man. Identification and association are the keys to the winningformula.

The success rate of the winning formula depends on how deep an impactthe product or brand has through the advertisements. These aredeveloped based on the knowledge of the development of the mind of thegrowing consumers. The product leverage mix is formed based onqualities that are demanded by children such as characteristics of ahero, power of a character and/or qualities of the product. The productleverage matrix is a comprehensive model formed for analyzing the needsand wants of the young consumers and a guide to allow marketers to havea look at the bigger picture.

Once the matrix is determined the medium, concept, content, context,process, characters or personality, and attitude or style areestablished. Elements to be noted include: What is the psychologicalpoint of view of the target audience? What are the visual and verbalcontents that will be used for the product? How marketers will form thecontext of the advertisements for the target audience and the kind ofprocesses that will be involved to create an interface for interactionwith the potential consumers? Character association or the use ofpersonality to denote product quality is also common in the designingof the matrix etc. (Acuff and Reiher 1998).

The marketers are also aware that young children are intelligentindividuals who exercise their developing cognitive abilities byassociating qualities with certain images. For example Bugs Bunny is aclever rabbit or Kellogg’s Pop Tarts are fruity flavoured etc. They areable to associate as well as distinguish between products andcharacteristics of the products. Identifying the points of differencefrom the children’s perspectives is critical but not impossible. Acuffand Reiher (1998) also note that these are assumptions that adults makeregarding the preferences of children such as teens wanting moreenergy; identifying with hero athletes; wanting great taste or newproduct names. Yet at the same time they also warn the marketers that:

“…more often than not these assumptions are left unexamined as toveracity and strength. It’s an important practice to check assumptions:check what the leverage actually is, and its relative power versus whathas been assumed. More often than not, adults make erroneousassumptions about what kids perceive to be important and powerfulbecause adults are looking at their product or program through adulteyes. It is critical to get at the actual leverage rather than theassumed leverage. With the above hypothetical Enerjuice example inmind, adults may be surprised when testing directly with kids’ focusgroups reveals that the new product’s blue colour is its most powerfulpoint of leverage and that the majority of kids tested dislike the newname.” (Acuff and Reiher 1998).

The basic premise in such a condition is that marketers need to ensurethey give promises and fulfil them too thereby gaining competitiveadvantage. This kind of positioning helps them to organize andcategorize products in the mind of the targeted consumers. In the endhowever, the marketers must realize that it is the bigger picture thatneeds to be satisfied – that is product leverage matrix. At the centreof the matrix are the crucial elements that should not be neglectedsuch as gender, stage, age, structure, dimension, style and pastexperience. The consumers are at the end of this list and are the mostpowerful deciding factor that can make or break their products. Theyconclude that “Successful products and programs are those that satisfytheir needs and wants in the short term (impulse) or in the long term.While a colourful and involving Trix cereal package with a maze on theback provides for short-term needs satisfaction, Mattel’s Hot Wheelscars year after year continue to provide young boys with something theyneed and want — small, easily manipulability, colourful minicars thatare fun and involving to play “cars” with (Vroom! Vroom!) And toaccumulate and collect.” (Acuff and Reiher 1998).

Children advertising have attracted legal, scholars and parentalattention. Proponents of the children targeted marketing andadvertising argue that the financial backing that children programs aregetting derive from sponsors who make programs on television possible.Advertising to children are therefore motivated by profitability.Furthermore they also argue that these sponsors target a separate nichemarket of children of age group 12 and 14. Advertising provides themwith product information and does not really provide stimulus aschildren in this age group are more like adults with their specificideologies, attitudes and behaviours where preferences of products andservices are concerned. They have been exposed to persuasive messagesfor a long time and can distinguish persuasive messages from empoweringones. Thus they are product and advertising savvy.

On the other hand opponents such as parents and consumer protectiongroups argue that advertising directed at children are not onlyunethical but they are also manipulative stimulants that promoteconsumerism in children from a very young age. Advertisements createwants and poor nutritional habits that induce children to pesterparents for products that are harmful for them (Berlger 1999). Theiropinions have been affirmed by Acuff and Reiher (1997) who suggest thatpreschool children at two and three years old tend to identify withfrequently seen images and therefore would be attracted towardsspokes-character in advertising and marketing. The desire to see thesecharacters and related products they see on television, packaging andpromotions induce demand for the same among children. According to DelVecchio (1998, p. 225), “The objective is to select an effective pieceof advertising that will break through clutter, communicate the name ofthe brand, its key feature and benefit, and do so in a cool way thatwill elicit a child’s request.” Those advertisers are successful whosuccessfully use innovation, meticulous marketing, planning and massiveexposures in their key characters according to Schneider (1989).

The ethical dilemma enters the scenario when one refers to the degreeand extent of the use of stimuli. Research indicates thatspokes-characters use role play and features that would relate animatedwith human characters and thereby influence children’s attitudes(Chebat et al 1992). The issues surrounding the use of advertisingcharacters to children stem from the fact that the characters arecommoditized without consideration for its impact on the children.Without regulations, advertisers tend to deviate from the conventionaluse of these characters. They treat children and adult related productsalike. That is perhaps the reason why Cross (2002) indicates that therehas been a rise in restrictions on tobacco advertising during the 1990sto curb tobacco companies from targeting children by the use ofspokes-characters in their advertising and marketing campaigns.

In this context advertisements have a deep ethical impact on thecognitive and development of growing children and the authority needsto recognize this fact. According to Roedder (1981) children arevulnerable and fail to utilize cognitive plans for storing andretrieving information. The categorization of processing deficienciesstem from the child’s inability to use the actual strategies and aidsfor storing information in the memory. Limited processing capabilitiesin young age group especially induce children to learn throughmemorization and are not capable of using tools for separating,segregating and processing information according to utility. Insteadthey use information incidentally. Television uses fast pace visualgraphics and audiovisual medium to influence preschoolers and aroundthat age group. The effects become consistent when children areregularly exposed to these audiovisual images so that they becomeimprinted on the minds of the young children (Alwitt et al 1980).Animation and other stimulus have double impact on the informationprocessors of children. As children become receptive to advertisementsor images that are regularly shown they come to recognize it in theirdaily experiences.

Once the images are imprinted in the targeted group’s mind it is easyto generate brand recognition through triggering keys which may be inthe form of visual or audio effects. Spokes-characters such cartooncharacters have this essential effects on the children. “Studies havefound that young children often discriminate between products on asimple heuristic of whether one particular quality (which may includebrand name or character) is present or not” (Rust and Hyatt 1991 qt.Neeley and Schumann 2004).

Another aspect of advertisements is that children tend to associatewith the characters and brand that they prefer. Instilling a brand inchildren’s minds is easy when spokes-characters are used to define thequalities of the products. For example in Bahn’s (1996) study four andfive year olds proved to be receptive to product characteristics byinferring spokes-characters. Bahn gives the example of cereal boxes.Boxes with cartoons are associated with sugary and sweet cereal meant”for kids” while those that do not have cartoons are bland and notsweet, and are meant for adults. This logic for cereal preferences andchoices indicate that advertisements with their logos, characters andcartoons all have a great impact on the minds of young children in thisage group.

While Bahn’s example seem harmless whereby advertisers are merely usingthe characteristics and qualities of products to appeal to the youngconsumers, Fischer et al’s (1991) example raises ethical dilemma. Intheir study the researchers asked children ages three to six toidentify logo brands with the appropriate product. They observe thatchildren tend to associate the Old Joe character with cigarettes. Thisassociation has been developed through the inference of the Cameladvertisements that uses Old Joe a cartoon character for brandpersonalization. Hence, the researchers conclude that regardless of theintentions of advertisers and marketers, the effects of advertising onchildren are inevitable.

Yet there are arguments against this view by psychologists such asPiaget (1929). This group of individuals are of the view thatpreoperational children between ages two and seven do not reallyprocess information logically or abstractly. They rely on processingstrategies such as “transductive” to connect between thoughts andreasoning and therefore not susceptible to the underlying qualities.They may understand simple expressions of but have difficulty inassociating it with product differentiation. Consequently Neeley andSchumann (2004) write:

“While research findings show that young children can exhibit highlevels of character/product recognition, association, and affect, thechallenge arises when we assume that these early responses lead toproduct preference, intention, and choice. Recognition, association,and affect are manifestations of simpler cognitive processing abilitiesthan preference, intention, and choice, and research supports thenotion that these simple abilities would be present in children asyoung as two or three years old. More advanced cognitive abilities arerequired for the later behavioural stages of preference, intention, andchoice because these responses require a child to position one item(e.g., brand/product) relative to others, something that a child maynot be able to d


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