Have ethics when you sell goods to kids

Published in Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 1, 2005

WORLDWIDE, children 12 years and below in urbanized and emerging countries are key to billions of dollars of spending power, either as buyers or influencers in purchase transactions.

James McNeal, professor of marketing at Texas A&M University revealed, “spending on advertising targeted at children has been growing at 15 to 20 percent for the past six or seven years simply because children’s spending power has been growing at a similar rate”.

McNeal estimated $24 billion in direct spending each year while kids influenced an additional $500 billion in family purchases. Data gathered in 2002, by the US Center for Service in the Public Interest, show some $15 billion was spent in the US alone on marketing communications directed at children. This included TV and print ads, product placements, packaging design, sales promotions, public relations and in-school marketing.

Other than its present economic potential, the kids market is deemed a future, sustainable market where brand loyalties can be established at an early age. Debbie Solomon, chair of the Advertising Research Foundation’s Youth Research Council revealed, “Kids are more involved today in a lot of family purchase decisions. Their influence has always been primary in food purchases, but now it extends to things like cars, vacations and electronics. And every year, you see new categories, new products, new advertising specifically targeted in this market.” In the local market, these industries include cellular phones, financial services, airlines and travel.

Marketers attribute this growing influence of children towards adult and family spending to pester power, also known as psycho-terrorism to some, referring largely to the kids’ persuasive capability directed at adults and family to spend money on heavily advertised products and services.

Juliet B. Sohor, best selling author of the Overworked American and Born to Buy stated, “Sophisticated advertising strategies convince kids that products are necessary to their social survival. Ads affect not just what they want to buy, but who they think they are and how they feel about themselves.”

Recently, marketing to kids 12 and under, has become the subject of serious debate as research reveal:

1. Kids at 12 are just beginning to make informed choices; while those under 12 are impressionable and naïve, thus, making them easy targets for advertising persuasion. A Harris study made in February 2004 among 878 professionals from youth marketing and research agencies, educational and nonprofit associations including advertising and PR revealed there is deep-seated belief that “most young people can make intelligent choices only as consumers become closer to age 12.”

2. Longitudinal and youth marketing researches that include studies made by Roedder, D.; Mackin, M.C.; Roberts, D.E; Robertson,T.S.;Kimbel, D.; Rossiter, J.R., reveal that ‘tweens and younger children lack the cognitive and critical thinking skills as well as life experiences that allow them to process selling pitches objectively. This makes them highly susceptible to advertising pitches,
specifically those clothed in advertainment or advergames – advertising loaded ad creatively executed with entertainment and gaming. This susceptibility hastens the kid’s adoption of undesirable social values like materialism. Researchers maintain while ‘tweens recognize the persuasive intent of
commercials, they have not developed the cognitive and attitudinal defenses necessary to make an objective interpretation of selling messages.

Countries, like Sweden and Norway, have taken active steps to protect their children from a culture of commercialism by prohibiting TV advertising aimed at children under 12. These countries include Sweden and Norway. Denmark, Greece and Belgium have restricted children advertising. While other
countries like the US and UK recognize the impracticality of a total ban, they are nevertheless guided by strict codes of practice and self-regulation that include:

1. Restrict the quantity of commercial messages leveled at children and allow only kid-relevant messages.

2. Restrict in-school marketing. Psychologist Daniel Acuff, co-author of the book, “What Kids Buy and Why,” admits that “schools should be off-limits to advertising.”

While in-school marketing and sponsorships have been a source of additional money for schools, the best way is to encourage marketers to develop kid-relevant messages targeted to school age children that are far more discerning and well-informed, critical thinkers. Likewise, schools at all costs must avoid advertising content steeped with consumerism.

3. Observance of positive advertising content. Ad materials directed at children must go beyond raising brand awareness and avoid implicit references of becoming social outcasts without the product or service. Also, marketers must avoid consumerism pitches coated in superbly executed advertainment or advergaming commercials.

The growing data on youth marketing has practical implications to how local marketers, media practitioners, advertising agencies and its self-regulatory body, government and public policy makers, family and civil society including educational institutions and non-profit organizations, look at how children must be presently raised, educated and contribute to society in the future.

A dramatic causal finding made by Juliet B. Sohor’s longitudinal research reveals a vicious cycle that “kids who become overly involved in the values of consumerism become problem kids while problem kids continue to become overly involved in consumerism”.