Child-Targeted Marketing and Its Effects

Abstract

Child-targeted advertising encompasses a number of marketing tactics and strategies that utilize a variety of communication channels to reach the younger consumers. It capitalizes on the children’s credulity and fascination with toys and action figures to lure them into buying their products.

Companies employ various tactics, including sponsoring school events, viral marketing, and advertising through online gaming websites, in a bid to win the young consumers. However, child-targeted advertising has been associated with unhealthy consumption culture and childhood obesity. This research paper reviews the evidence on the effects of child-focused advertising on children North America.

Introduction

The population of children in North America is high making it an important target segment for marketers. In the film, Consuming Kids, the narrator says that child expenditure in North America is “equivalent to the combined economies of 115 of the world’s poorest countries” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008).

Statistics also indicate that, in 2002, children spent up to $30 billion of their funds on fast food, clothing, toys, and electronic gadgets, representing a whopping four hundred percent increase from the 1989 expenditure (Schor & Ford, 2007). This heavy consumption has attracted many marketers to the child demographic. Moreover, in recent years, children’s exposure to commercial media has increased significantly, making them the advertisers’ central target market.

Marketers employ a wide range of psychological tactics to appeal to children. Child-targeted marketing is manipulative because it capitalizes on child’s trustfulness and limited understanding of the persuasive nature of advertising. Fast food is one of the products at the center of child-targeted advertising. Often the food products being promoted are unhealthy, as they contain high levels of sugars, sodium, and saturated fats, which cause chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. The rising cases of childhood obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions have adverse impacts on Canadian public health.

This paper argues that child-targeted advertising affects the children’s physical, social, and psychological health and thus, should be regulated. It first explores the psychological tactics employed by food companies and advertisers to appeal to children below the age of twelve. The paper will then discuss child-targeted marketing as a social and physical health problem with a special emphasis on food advertising and its effects. It will end with a conclusion summing up the effects of child-targeted marketing on children.

Child-targeted Marketing Strategies

Commercials on popular media channels entertain and enlighten the audience about the features, availability, and uses of a new product. Children’s commercials are usually packaged in a fun and “cool” way to appeal to young children. In particular, commercials that contain popular action figures have been found to capture the attention of children (Schor & Ford, 2007).

The narrator in the Consuming Kids film states that children have strong “attachment to touchstones in their lives”, which advertisers capitalize on to increase sales on products such as food, children’s games, toys, and clothing (Barbaro & Earp, 2008). An example is the Burger King commercial, which bears the pictures of action figures in order to influence children to purchase the snack.

Prime time advertising on television is another strategy that advertisers use to reach younger consumers. Food ads are often aired on television during prime time hours to reach many viewers. Hastings et al. (2003) survey found that, of all the commercials aired during prime hours, 23 percent focused on children’s food with about 41 percent of them being fast foods. The advertised food products were high in fats and sugars. The prime time hours include evenings (after school) and weekends.

Advertisers have also gone a notch higher in a bid to lure younger consumers into buying their products. Nowadays, companies advertise through popular songs, kids’ movies, and books (Schor & Ford, 2007). This approach has a lasting effect on children who associate the products with famous toys or celebrities. Marketers also use giveaways, such as toys and other gifts, to children consumers to promote their products. An example is the MacDonald’s Happy Meals, where children receive toy gifts for dining at the restaurant, and the Superman Crunch advertised on children’s networks and films.

Food retailers also advertise through branded books for pre-school children, which are distributed by Amazon.com. The books carry images of popular toys such as Mattel’s Barbie Dolls clad in outfits containing a McDonald burger, sweets, candy, or junk food to appeal to young children. Some firms fund popular events, such as the American Idol, and promotional tours, zoos, and camps, as a marketing tactic to reach this market. Personal selling or viral marketing is another promotional strategy that companies employ. This tactic involves the use of child celebrities to promote fashion items and create a buzz, especially in the teen market segment.

In recent years, the internet has become an important marketing tool. On average, children spend more time on the internet than adults do, which has made marketers to invest more in online marketing than advertising via traditional media. Company websites and social media have become platforms for marketing video games, branded food products, and toys.

Food marketing is also done in schools, whereby food companies, including fast-food outlets, sponsor children’s activities, games, and other events. Firms also market their products through science and nutrition items used in school projects. It is evident from the analysis that child-targeted marketing is varied, innovative, and robust despite the existence of laws that restrict such a practice.

Food and Beverage Marketing

Child-targeted marketing primarily involves television advertising because of the many hours children spend watching popular programs. In Canada, children between the ages of two and eleven spend about 18 hours a week watching television (Toronto Board of Health, 2008).

Beverage and food marketing involves multiple channels, including ads run on “TV programs, films and DVDs, video games, viral marketing, supermarket promotions, use of celebrity endorsements, children’s magazines, and outdoor advertising”, among others (Mackay, Antonopoulos, Martin & Swinburn, 2011, p. 23). Hastings et al.’s survey of international studies (2003) found that most food and beverage ads targeting children promote unhealthy food products. They advertise cereals, snacks, sweets, and restaurants that are high in sugars, salts, and fats.

In their survey, Hastings et al. (2003), after sampling child-targeted ads on television networks in eleven nations, found that Canada ranks as the country with the highest number of adverts (seven) per hour. The study also found that over 80 percent of the ads aired on Canadian TV networks promote unhealthy food products, i.e., those containing “undesirable levels of nutrients and/or energy” (Hastings et al., 2003, p. 7).

Marketers emphasize on desirable features that appeal to children at the expense of healthy eating. Elliott (2008) established that the packaging of 75 percent of products stocked in supermarkets carry cartoons, animations, and colors that charm adult buyers who purchase them for their children. However, a nutritional analysis, based on the US standards, found that 89 percent of the food products contain high levels of saturated fat, sodium, and sugars, making them nutritionally poor (Elliott, 2008).

As aforementioned, marketers also advertise products in schools. Studies indicate that food and beverage ads targeting schoolchildren are unhealthy. In Canada, 62 percent of children in grades seven to ten consume vended food from the snack-vending machines, including products marketed by Pepsi and Coke (Hastings et al., 2003).

Since these products are largely unhealthy, it is recommended that, “places where children gather should be free from the marketing of unhealthy foods” (World Health Organization [WHO], 2006, p. 9). Governments have implemented policies that restrict unhealthy food marketing to children. Adults advocate for stricter laws to restrict child-targeted marketing due to the vulnerability of children to advertisements.

Children’s Psychology and Marketing

Marketers often capitalize on children’s credulity and gullibility to win over this market. Popular commercials contain at least one form of entertainment, such as the latest music, videos, or cartoon mascots, which appeal to the kids. Moreover, advertisers package ads targeting children as trendy and ‘fun to watch’ in order to create a buzz among the youths. Another tactic use by marketers is the inclusion of toys and action figures in commercials advertising food products or games. Research evidence indicates that commercials that contain action figures and toys elicit a strong and captivating effect on younger viewers (Harris, Brownell & Bargh, 2009).

Children are made to believe that they can become like their favorite heroes by consuming a particular drink or food. According to Hastings et al. (2003), commercials play a big role in gender socialization in influencing kids to behave or act according to what they watch on the media. They learn what is “cool” or trendy from what they see or hear in the media and learn from peers. Thus, marketers can easily create a buzz for a new product by associating it with action figures, toys, or child celebrities.

Despite strong restrictions, it is believed that most commercials are deceptive, as they leave out essential information to potential consumers. According to Harris, Brownell, and Bargh (2009), children’s understanding of the information contained in commercials is limited, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. The narrator in the Consuming Kids film says that after the deregulation, children expenditure increased to a whopping “40 billion dollars-an 852 percent rise” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008).

This underscores the fact that children, given their credulousness, fall easy prey to unscrupulous marketing compared to adults. Prior to deregulation corporations were not allowed to advertise in kid’s shows or television networks, but in the post-deregulation era companies can market their products in children’s programs and music videos.

In recent years, marketers have turned to marketing in popular shows. From a psychological perspective, this approach imprints the ads in the minds of the children, leading to increased sales for their products. For example, many advertisers used the popular kids’ film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to market products, such as children’s books and toys, because they understood that kids would associate the products with their favorite show. Consequently, children pressurized their parents to buy the toys and books advertised in the program.

The stiff competition in this market has made some advertisers to employ the services of child psychologists to assist them understand the thought patterns and behavior of children. In this way, marketers are able to come up with ads that appeal to this age demographic. Children’s understanding of the messages conveyed through commercials largely depends on their age.

Research evidence shows that children under twelve years of age do not fully understand the content of the ads conveyed through popular media. The narrator of the Consuming Kids film remarks that advertisers employ tactics such as “playing the ad much more slowly and using round figures instead of angles, because three-year olds like such diagrams” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008).

Marketers also use symbolic advertising to reach out to children aged twelve years and below. This approach focuses on the physical appearance of the product, whereby commercials depict advertised items as amazing and trendy (Langer, 2004). Thus, through symbolic advertising, marketers give a product a social meaning. Children purchase these products because they are made to believe that it is fashionable to own one. Examples include the toys Zhu Zhu pets and Furbies, which children believe possess great power.

Child-targeted Marketing as a Social Problem

Child-targeted marketing has many unresolved ethical issues. Opponents of child-targeted marketing contend that it contravenes societal norms and thus, restrictions should be imposed on companies that market to youngsters. Their main argument is that child-focused advertising is unethical because children are not ‘discriminating’ consumers (Langer, 2004). They lack the requisite cognitive skills to analyze ads, which often contain persuasive content. Thus, the responses of young children to information contained in ads are not the same as those of adults, who have the ability to distinguish and interpret the messages in TV commercials.

According to Harris, Brownell, and Bargh (2009), young children (below eight years) do not understand the intent of marketers. As such, they erroneously take ads as “truthful and legitimate” (Harris, Brownell & Bargh, 2009) and thus, are unable to resist its appeal. Advertising has a big influence on children’s thinking patterns and behavior because they lack cognitive defenses. Child-focused ads treat youngsters like adults despite the fact that they cannot distinguish truthful information from a persuasive content.

Critics also argue that child-focused marketing encourages social vices such as materialism and unhealthy eating habits that cause lifestyle diseases. According to Dhar and Baylis (2011), children have adopted an unhealthy consumer culture, which leads to health problems, such as obesity, anxiety, and depression. Thus, marketers capitalize on the children’s vulnerability to introduce them into an unhealthy consumer culture. Veerman, Van Beeck, Barendregt, and Mackenbach (2009) observe that exposure to materialism has adverse effects on individual values, self-esteem, and physical health of the youngsters. It creates feelings of dissatisfaction, which characterizes an unhealthy consumer culture.

Critics attribute the rising cases of obesity to child-focused marketing campaigns carried out by food and beverage firms. In most children’s networks, a large percentage of the commercials advertize snacks, sweets, and candy, among others, which, as indicated before, have high levels of saturated fats and sugars. Moreover, ads about fast-food restaurants are popular in kid’s networks, which, according to critics blame, have led to the increase in the cases of obesity in children. Additionally, fast-food restaurants use various strategies, such as sponsoring contests, games, and other events, to advertise their products.

The Health Effects of Child-targeted Marketing

Child-focused marketing has been attributed to a number of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions. In children, these diseases are caused by obesity, which arises from unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical activity (Toronto Board of Health, 2008). According to WHO (2006), child mortality from chronic diseases will rise by 17 percent in the next few years if the child-targeted marketing is not regulated. Chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, which are common in adulthood, arise from unhealthy eating habits acquired in childhood. Thus, dietary patterns are learned in childhood, which means that child-focused marketing shape early eating behaviors.

Evidence also indicates that the promotion of unhealthy foods, i.e., those rich in sugars, fats, and salt, increase the risk of obesity in children (Montgomery & Chester, 2009). In Canada, young children view numerous ads of food and beverages on television and other media channels. The food products often contain unhealthy levels of nutrients (Montgomery & Chester, 2009).

Further evidence indicates that food commercials targeting kids shape their beliefs, buying practices, food preferences, and consumption culture. A survey conducted in the United States established that American children who viewed food and beverage ads were more likely to consume snacks than those unexposed to similar commercials (Veerman et al., 2009). This underscores the fact that child-focused advertising influences the eating practices and food choices of youngsters.

Discussion and Conclusion

In modern times, children’s entertainment principally involves online games, music videos, and kid’s shows on television networks. As indicated before, companies have turned to advertising through online video games, as a way of reaching more clients. Examples of firms that advertise through online games websites include Disney and Chips Ahoy, which sell movie and snack offerings respectively. Dhar and Baylis (2011) write that online gaming websites gather the personal data of the users, which firms use to contact potential clients via emails. In this way, firms are able to target specific children based on the information they have in their databases.

The use of children’s personal information in advertising makes them vulnerable to viral marketing. The narrator of the Consuming Kids recounts that “if you set up five different online accounts from various geographic areas, genders, ages, and preferences, you will see five different ads” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008). Thus, it can be concluded that, in today’s highly competitive market, advertisers use users’ data archived in online gaming platforms to reach out to children consumers. The online sites, including social media, have become the new platforms for child-targeted marketing.

It is notoriously difficult to measure the success of advertisements or the productivity of marketing. As such, marketers employ a number of tactics, ranging from sponsoring kid’s shows, online marketing, and video gaming, among others, to ensure that their ads create a buzz among the youth. In some cases, marketers use neuroscience to understand the psychology of children in order to design products that will hit the market. According to the narrator in the Consuming Kids film, “it is a new scary thing to put a child on an MRI and watch what is being lit up in his brain” (Barbaro & Earp, 2008), which aptly shows that markets use unethical practices in a bid to win over this market segment.

The analysis indicates that child-targeted marketing is a social problem and has adverse effects on the physical health of the youngsters. The rising incidents of childhood obesity in North America are attributable to unregulated child-focused marketing. Food and beverage companies take advantage of the children’s inability to discriminate and analyze the content carried on commercials to lure them into purchasing their products. They employ ingenious marketing tactics to entice the young consumers to buying their products. Some firms market through websites for online games, music videos, and schools, despite the existence of legislations that restrict marketing near schools.

Given its adverse effects, child-focused marketing should be regulated. Legislations should restrict the number of commercials aired on television networks to a minimum, as evidence shows that increased exposure to food ads on TV contributes to childhood obesity (Dhar & Baylis, 2011). Alternatively, the restrictions should require marketers to advertise healthy food and beverages, as opposed to unhealthy ones. Moreover, the use of children’s personal data should be prohibited, as it is unethical and contravenes their right to privacy.

The unhealthy food advertising restrictions should be directed at the various communication channels that air the commercials. In particular, the legislations should target the advertising techniques that tend to have a big influence on children’s consumption culture. This includes ads placed on television networks, radio channels, children’s magazines, internet (social media platforms), cell phones (SMSs and Emails), music videos, video games, and mascots placed on food and beverage packages. Promotions in schools, cinemas, and social events or competitions should also be regulated, as they lead to create a buzz among youths.

References

Barbaro, A. & Earp, J. (Executive Producers). (2008). Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood. NY, USA: Media Education Foundation.

Dhar, T. & Baylis, K. (2011). Fast-food Consumption and the Ban on Advertising Targeting Children: The Quebec Experience. Journal of Marketing Research, 48(5), 799-813.

Elliott, C. (2008). Assessing fun foods: Nutritional content and analysis of supermarket foods targeted at children. Obesity Review, 9(1), 368-377.

Harris, J., Brownell, K. & Bargh, J. (2009). The Food Marketing Defense Model: Integrating Psychological Research to Protect Youth and Inform Public Policy. Social Issues Policy Review, 3(1), 211-271.

Hastings, G., Stead, M., McDermott, L., Forsyth, A., Mackintosh, A., Rayner, M.,… Angus, K. (2003). Review of research on the effects of food promotion to children. Final Report to the UK Food Standards Agency. Glasgow, Scotland: University of Strathclyde Centre for Social Marketing.

Langer, B. (2004). The Business of Branded Enchantment: Ambivalence and Disjuncture in the Global Children’s Culture Industry. Journal of Consumer Culture, 4(3), 251-271.

Mackay, S., Antonopoulos, N., Martin, J., & Swinburn, B. (2011). A comprehensive approach to protecting children from unhealthy food advertising. Melbourne, Australia: Obesity Policy Coalition.

Montgomery, K. & Chester, J. (2009). Interactive Food and Beverage Marketing: Targeting Adolescents in the Digital Age. Journal of Adolescent Health, 5(3), 18-29.

Schor, J. & Ford, M. (2007). From Tastes Great to Cool: Children’s Food Marketing and the Rise of the Symbolic. Journal of law, medicine & ethics, 3(1), 10-19.

Toronto Board of Health. (2008). Food and Beverage Marketing to Children. Staff Report to the Board of Health. Toronto: Board of Health.

Veerman, J., Van Beeck, S., Barendregt, J. & Mackenbach, J. (2009). By how much would limiting TV food advertising reduce childhood obesity? European Journal of Public Health, 19(4), 365-369.

World Health Organization [WHO]. (2006). Marketing of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages of Children. Report of a WHO Forum and Technical Meeting. Geneva: WHO.