Six Strategies Marketers Use to Get Kids to Want
By Bruce Horovitz
Every year at this time, visions of sugar plum profits
dance through the heads of toymakers and retailers.
Many take aim at the most susceptible target: kids.
Almost half of all kid-targeted toys, games and gadgets
sold this year will be bought in the final quarter. Kids
through age 14 will influence $160 billion in spending in
November and December, says James McNeal, author of “The Kids
Market: Myths and Realities.”
That leaves marketers little time to make a Santa-size
Meanwhile, slipping toy sales have raised the stakes. Last
year, sales dipped 2% to $21.9 billion, reports market
researcher NPD Group. Some categories went down like a kid on
a slide: plush toys by 14%, board games by 8%.
What’s a toymaker to do? Advertise like mad.
Last year, marketers spent $1.4 billion per month marketing
to children — 15% more than the year before, McNeal says. “I
call it ‘surround selling.’ “
Mattel Brands President Neil Friedman says Mattel will
spend half its ad budget — estimated at $460 million by
Advertising Age — in the fourth quarter.
Hasbro won’t divulge its ad plans, but it is ramping up TV
spots for hot toys such as its $299 life-size, interactive
miniature pony — Butterscotch My FurReal Friends Pony. When
making and placing ads, however, Chief Operating Officer Brian
Goldner says, “We apply judgment as parents, not just as
Critics don’t buy that. The annual ad onslaught drives some
“It’s greed,” says Raffi Cavoukian, the kid-music singer
turned child advocate intent on protecting kids from
commercialism. “These companies want to turn America’s kids
into sales agents to nag Mom and Dad.”
In the next few weeks, marketers will try to nudge, prod
and cajole kids into buying their stuff. Some techniques that
have worked for years are still effective — particularly,
repetitive ads on kids shows. Among new ideas in 2006: a
Wal-Mart website for toy picking that critics have panned for
putting kids in control of e-mailed wish lists.
Holiday hype has reached a point where parents need a tip
sheet to know what to watch for to shield their kids — if not
Here it is: A list of six of the most effective techniques
marketers are using this season to snatch the attention of
1. Techie wish lists
Erin Willett wants Wal-Mart to kill its toy wish list
The mother of 4-year-old Carter and 1-year-old Nolan,
recently wrote Wal-Mart’s CEO that she’ll do her shopping at
Target until Wal-Mart dumps the site.
http://www.walmart.com/toyland, features two elves who
nudge kids to select toys by clicking on the word YES when a
toy appears on the screen. Applause is played when YES is
selected. But it’s silent if NO is selected. “If you show us
what you want on your wish list, we’ll send it straight off to
your parents,” promises one elf.
Several consumer groups have asked Wal-Mart to close the site.
“Wal-Mart is encouraging kids to nag for toys,” says Susan
Linn, co-founder of Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“This site is the lowest of the low,” says Gary Ruskin,
founder of consumer group Commercial Alert.
The site “helps create a culture of nagging,” says Diane
Levin, co-founder of Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s
Even readers of ad industry trade journal Advertising Age
find the site troubling. In a poll, 52% agreed that Wal-Mart
“goes too far with its holiday website.”
Wal-Mart says the site is a modern twist on an old
tradition. “Making a Christmas wish list and sharing it with
parents is a tradition that goes back as long as Santa,”
spokeswoman Jolanda Stewart says.
But some toys aren’t on the site by accident. Some involve
financial “sponsorships,” says Stewart, though she declined to
be specific. As for consumer complaints, she says, “We haven’t
received a significant number.”
2. Repetitive TV spots
Despite the hoopla over the Internet, the vast majority of
kid-targeted ads for the holidays still will appear on one of
seven TV networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CW, Nickelodeon and
Cartoon Network, says Paul Kurnit, founder of KidShop, a
“The best way to build brand awareness with kids is the
30-second TV commercial,” Kurnit says.
TV viewing has leveled off, but the typical kid still
watches 20 hours of TV weekly, he says.
The toy industry calls the eight weeks leading up to
Christmas the “hard eight.” That’s when prices jump for slots
on kids shows and when toy ads replace cereal ads.
Some makers of kids games spend their entire TV ad budget
during the fourth quarter, he says.
3. Big-screen hype
Odds are, something with Johnny Depp’s imprint is going to
show up in your kid’s Christmas stocking.
It won’t be by accident.
On sale now are some 50 toys — from key chains to boats —
linked to his hit film, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s
Never mind that the movie was rated PG-13. Toys for kids as
young as 6 are flooding the market for the holidays. So, too,
is the DVD to be released early next month.
Using movies as stepping stones for toy licensing is not
new. But the sheer volume of “Pirates"-related toy and DVD
marketing for Christmas 2006 has some critics concerned.
“Hollywood knows if you hook a kid’s heart, the parent’s
wallet follows,” Ruskin says. “Disney exploits children’s love
for “Pirates of the Caribbean” to get them to nag for toys.”
For weeks, four different commercials promoting “Pirates”
toys have appeared on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Zizzle,
the master toy licensee for “Pirates,” also hosted a
look-alike contest at FAO Schwarz in New York for Jack
Sparrow, the Depp character.
Toys include everything from $5.88 action figures to a
plastic boat for $49.99. Most are geared for
7-to-12-year-olds, says Roger Shiffman, CEO of Zizzle and
co-founder of Tiger Electronics.
Shiffman sees no conflict between the toys’ target and a
movie that’s rated PG-13. “The toy line works with or without
the movie. Boys love to be pirates.”
Besides, the real connection isn’t to the movie, but to the
Pirates rides at Disney theme parks, says Jessi Dunne, Disney
consumer products chief.
4. Books as toys
When is a book often a toy?
When it’s sold by children’s publisher Scholastic, Linn
says. “Scholastic used to be about books, but now it’s about
toys, too,” she says. “That can carry special weight before
the holidays when children’s antennae are up.”
Over the past five years, the company has increasingly
turned to toys and games to boost sales.
The toys or games are seldom sold alone, usually being
packaged with books. Nearly half the books on the cover of its
“2006 Holiday Gift Books” catalog are marketed with games,
jewelry or plush toys.
“The Care Bears Holiday Pack” is advertised with a Cheer
Bear plush. “The Animal Ark Spaniel in a Stocking Pack” has a
charm bracelet. And “The Dog Happy Howliday Book” is sold with
stickers and a dog charm.
“We are not a toy catalog by any means,” says Judy Newman,
president of Scholastic Book Clubs. “But the world is
She won’t say what the company makes in toy sales. “We need
to make sure there’s something for everyone,” Newman says. “If
you just have Shakespeare in there, kids won’t participate.”
5. Faux toy shortages
When is a toy shortage really a shortage and not just a
stunt to build media hype and sales?
In the case of T.M.X. Elmo — an updated Elmo that keels
over in laughter when tickled — that depends upon who you ask.
When the $39.99 plush doll was introduced Sept. 19, an
estimated 250,000 units sold in one day — a record for the toy
industry. This caused an immediate shortage.
Critics insist that shortage was set up by Mattel.
“Planned shortages are the perfect way to get kids to nag
parents for presents,” says Linn of Campaign for a
Commercial-Free Childhood. “The buzz creates a sense of
urgency to get the toy.”
Executives at Mattel say that’s nonsense.
“We’re a public company. We don’t plan shortages,” insists
Mattel’s Friedman. “All that does is make for angry consumers
and disappointed customers.”
The shortage continues. “We’re shipping every piece we
can,” Friedman says. “It’s still tight.”
6. Bus Radio
For many kids riding in school buses, the background noise
is more than the drivers’ pleas for quiet.
It could be a piped-in commercial — perhaps even for a
holiday gift. About a month ago, Bus Radio began rolling out
its student-targeted programming of music, news and
commercials to about 800 school buses in 12 cities. Roughly
eight minutes each hour are devoted to commercials. Ad revenue
is shared with school districts.
Critics want it banned from the buses. “The school bus is
one of the only places left in society where a child is free
from a sales pitch,” says Betsy Taylor, founder of New
American Dream, a consumer group. “Let’s leave it that way.”
Who is advertising on Bus Radio?
The website Answers.com is. Beyond that, executives at Bus
Radio won’t name other sponsors.
“A lot of people blow it out of proportion,” says Michael
Yanoff, founder of Bus Radio. “Our shows are age-appropriate
and designed for kids.”
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