With the holiday shopping season in full swing, children
are nagging their parents for the latest toys. But
listen more closely: that may not be all they are
Marketing to children is no longer about
hawking toys, sweets and cereal in between the cartoons.
Children are now influencing purchasing decisions for
grown-up items such as cars and vacations, and firms are
Hummerkids.com offers games and colouring pages to
teach children about the joys of owning a colossal sport
utility vehicle. Honda, another carmaker, is about to
launch an advertising campaign on Disney's ABC Kids
The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism buys ads on
Nickelodeon, a children's cable channel, promoting
expensive holidays. And Beaches Resorts, a hotel chain,
has teamed up with Sesame Street to make its resorts
more appealing to children.
"The parents have ceded control. Children are making
decisions about most household products," says James
McNeal, a consultant who has been writing about
marketing to children for two decades.
He estimates that children under 14 influenced as
much as 47 per cent of American household spending in
2005, amounting to more than $700 billion. That is made
up of $40 billion of children's own spending power, $340
billion in direct influence ("I want a Dell") and $340
billion in indirect influence ("I know little Timmy
would prefer us to buy the Lexus").
With Web sites and cable channels devoted entirely to
their interests, today's children are far more exposed
to marketing than their parents or grandparents were.
And as their access to media has grown, so has their
power to influence their parents. Children now determine
everything from where their families go on vacation to
how their homes are furnished.
As the resident technology experts in many homes,
they often choose what sort of televisions, stereos and
computers their parents buy.
And when parents buy boats, all-terrain vehicles or
even barbecue grills, their children can heavily
influence those decisions too. Can-Am, a maker of
all-terrain vehicles, is one of many firms that offer
branded "advergames" on its Web site in an effort to
appeal to children.
Companies have discovered that it is often more
effective to recruit a child as an in-home marketer than
to try to convince a parent to buy their products.
That may explain why Nickelodeon is Viacom's most
profitable division --advertisers are lining up to pay a
premium for access to their most valuable targets.
Furthermore, every child represents a new chance to
build cradle-to-grave brand loyalty.
Parents' groups are upset. "How can one family in
isolation combat this $15 billion industry that's
working night and day to undermine parental authority?"
asks Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free
Childhood, a lobby group that campaigns against the
undermining of families by "rampant consumerism."
The advertising industry, already on the defensive
because of the controversy surrounding fast-food
advertising, argues that parents are responsible for
managing their children's exposure to marketing. But it
also recognizes that the subject is controversial.
Children are hedonists, inclined to make impulse buys
and less likely to make educated purchasing decisions.
This can make a lot of difference when children are
choosing cars or expensive electronics on behalf of
their families. Do you really want the "cooler" car
instead of the safer one? Can a seven-year-old really
choose the best computer?
Probably not. But children have to start learning to
distinguish truth from spin at some point, and a total
ban would be difficult to enforce. And there is another
reason why firms that target children need to tread
carefully. However hedonistic or naive they may be,
children have long memories. Advertisers that deceive
children could lose them as customers forever.