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Advertising to Children More Subtle, More Influential

Children have been deployed in advertising techniques since nearly the dawn of promotion; adorability sells almost as well as sex. And while brands made the shift to direct advertising to children long ago, what’s new is the innovative – and, depending on your perspective, either savvy or insidious – methodology.

It’s a response to changes in the modern parent-child relationship, experts say. Earlier, when traditional authoritarian relationships between parents and children were more common, advertisers sought to draw on pester power — the ability of children to nag their parents into making a purchase.

Now, however, as the power dynamic equalizes, often to the point of friendship between parent and child, advertising to children approaches kids less as nags and more as serious influencers and opinion shapers.

“Kids have become their parents’ private Google,” when it comes to deciding which products are best, writes Devendra Chawla, group president of Food FMCG at Future Group, in a recent article for The Economic Times. “[They are] involved in any purchase decision — be it a white good, automobile, home furniture or food.”

How brands are advertising to children

The Swaddle spoke with a variety of experts to identify three key methods in which advertisers subtly target children: packaging, placement and sponsorship.

“Product packaging was traditionally an ignored aspect of marketing in India,” says R. Sriram, co-founder, Next Practice Retail, a retail consultancy firm. “But of late, it has been getting serious attention.”

In fact, the same product is now sometimes available in different avatars for kids and adults, and the accompanying ads leave no doubt about who they are targeting. Bournvita’s packaging and branding journey over the years is a case in point. Available first in tin containers,  then glass jars; as the brand realized it was missing out in its communication to kids, it completely revamped the design in favor of plastic pet jars, complete with a striking logo, bold graphics and bright colours.

Other companies have found character branding helpful. Whether it’s a popular cartoon character-turned-brand mascot, or one specifically developed for a product, it works. Studies have shown that kids, when given the same food in clear packaging and character-branded packaging, actually find the latter tastier.

But packaging only works if the child sees the product – hence, placement.

“Any product category targeted at kids is usually at their eye level,” said Pritee Shah, chief general manager of the Consumer Education and Research Centre in Ahmedabad.

Shah said ads on trolleys are specifically geared to the children riding in them.

“Also, checkout counters at supermarkets, where your eyes are bound to wander standing in a queue, are stocked with easily accessible products for impulse purchases, many of which aim for kids,” she said.

Perhaps the subtlest example, however, of advertising to children is the idea of sponsorship. Companies today know they are dealing with discerning parents who are increasingly seeing through and saying no to appealing packaging and placement even when kids fall for it. (That’s why parents, in marketing parlance, are called gatekeepers; they can prevent media messages from having the desired impact on children.) So, many are taking the route of sponsoring so-called educational activities.

In India, the clearest example of this is the role-play theme park KidZania, a mini-city complete with restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, courier services, and other facets of an urban experience children see in real life. In KidZania Mumbai, for instance, all banking transactions happen inside a miniature Yes Bank, while grocery shopping takes place at a Big Bazaar, and Nerolac teaches kids house painting. In fact, almost every activity in the theme park is sponsored by a brand, so that activity becomes synonymous with that particular brand.

The company insists this “authenticity” enhances the experience, and that wherever kids go, the sponsor brands are present anyway. But for brands, it’s a golden opportunity to instil loyalty at an early age.

“Where else would companies get such a mass engagement with their target group for a good 4-5 hours?” Shah said.

It’s a new enough method of advertising to children that most parents have yet to catch on. The Swaddle spoke to many parents about KidZania and similar brand-sponsored activities, and most hadn’t considered brand bombardment, and instead, chose the experience for its educational or entertainment value.

But the effects of this subtle branding can offset any educational benefits.

The effects of advertising to children

Kids are particularly vulnerable to advertisers’ messages because their critical thinking skills aren’t fully developed and their life experience is limited. Which is why the world is cracking down on how and when advertising to children can occur, Shah said. Malaysia’s advertising code for children, for example, recognizes that the way children “perceive and react to advertisements is influenced by their age, experience and the context in which the message is delivered.” The code, much like the Irish advertising regulations for children, also states among its objectives that kids should not be made to feel inferior or unpopular because they cannot buy a particular product.

India has no such regulation. And so, a new kind of brand loyalty is taking root here: Not loyalty to a particular brand specifically — the brands kids see at KidZania and elsewhere may not even exist when the children grow up, said Dr. Bhooshan Shukla, a Pune-based child psychiatrist — but an adherence to a brand as a statement about yourself.

It’s a new addition to childhood, this conflation of identity and consumer, one that fosters a sense of competition among children; owning a particular brand of product earns them acceptance or even bragging rights among peers, said Dr. Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist. And if established early enough, it can be hard to shake later in life, when personal and financial implications are more profound.

That said, all experts we spoke to agreed that no commercial could become a magic bullet for advertisers unless allowed to by gatekeepers – that is, parents. Jehanzeb Baldiwala, a family and child therapist at Ummeed Child Development Center in Mumbai, and Dr. Shetty both stressed that parents should think about, question, and engage their kids in discussion about what the children are watching and seeing.

Baldiwala also said parents need to be aware of their own actions, which could be reinforcing the advertising to children.

“Busy parents often try to make up for their absence by buying their children gifts,” says Baldiwala. “It’s an escape from guilt, and a validation of the work hours they put in” but it ultimately plays into the pockets of brands and advertisers.

Involving children proactively is something Shah believes in, too. Which is why she works with kids to help them become savvy consumers. Shah’s workshops take kids through exercises designed to get them to see beyond the brand. For instance, she said, many of the children she has worked with have identified strongly with a specific soft drink. But when Shah has them taste unlabeled samples of Coke and Pepsi, they find they can’t tell the difference. Another activity asks kids to create their own unique advertisement for identical pens.

“When they realized they have to think of new ways of selling the same thing, the façade of commercials became more apparent,” she said.

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