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Marketing to Children: Tips, Tactics, and Taboos

8 Min Read

Children and teens spend almost $200 billion annually, and companies spend more than $17 billion each year marketing to them.

While advertising has a long history of its own, commercial marketing to children has developed more recently, with the widespread adoption of television and then cable TV. Television allowed marketers to reach children directly in a way that was impossible in the past. This only became easier with the advent of the internet and its exponential growth in popularity. Children’s media use has grown at a rapid pace. A majority of U.S. children have television access in their bedrooms, and many children also have unsupervised computer time, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports. Much of the marketing content they view is in a context where parents are not present. These two central trends — growth in overall advertising and children’s increased media access — have led to a noticeable rise in marketing directly to children.

Why Kids Matter to Marketers

The APA estimates that children view more than 40,000 commercials each year. This is a staggering increase even since the 1990s. And young people are the target of advertising due to the amount of money they spend, either directly or indirectly through their parents. They have a tremendous impact on the buying habits of their parents, spending either their own or their parents’ money on candy, food, drinks, electronics, toys, games, movies, sports, and clothes.

“Children 12 and under spend more than $11 billion of their own money and influence family spending decisions worth another $165 billion on food, household items like furniture, electrical appliances and computers, vacations, the family car, and other spending,” expert Sharon Beder points out in ‘A Community View’, Caring for Children in the Media Age. Due to smaller family sizes, dual incomes, and having children later in life, parents are now able to buy more for their kids. They have more disposable income as well. All of this means that marketers and corporations can’t ignore the significant buying power that kids bring to the table.

In addition to spending their own money and influencing their parents’ buying habits, children represent a third type of marketing potential: that of the future consumer. Savvy marketers know that brand loyalty and consumer habits form when children are young, and that they have real staying power. Because it’s easier to shape future buyers than it is to convert customers who buy from competitors, marketers are wise to foster a relationship with consumers from a young age. Children make most of their own buying decisions by age 8 — a telling statistic from Beder’s research. Children can often recognize brand names by age 3 or 4, even before they can read. According to Media Smarts, kids influence the following, among other parent purchases:

  • Breakfast choices (97 percent of the time) and lunch choices (95 percent);
  • Where to go for casual family meals (98 percent);
  • Clothing purchases (95 percent);
  • Computer purchases (60 percent); and
  • Family entertainment choices (98 percent) and family trips (94 percent).

Marketing to Children

Children’s advertising spans all media outlets, from traditional channels like television stations to emerging media like smartphone games. Some estimates state that children will now spend more time watching television than they will spend in class for their entire schooling. Characters are introduced in movies, transitioned to television series, and then merchandised. And marketers don’t just feature cartoon characters to gain endorsements for products: they also feature them in commercials, blurring the lines between content and promotion. Marketers reach children by utilizing sales promotions such as direct coupons, free samples, gifts, contests, and appearances by licensed characters in schools and shopping centers.

When it comes to the internet, marketers personalize and individualize based on past internet activity. Ads can be integrated with the other content on websites designed to hold children’s interest. Marketers can apply child psychology and market research to better understand the wants and motivations of young buyers. Using research about children’s behavior, desires, and physical development, marketers can craft sophisticated messaging to reach kid consumers. Commercialization in schools is common as well, with budget cuts creating an incentive to work with corporations. Some ways that marketers include schools in their strategy, according to Beder, include:

  • Sponsored education materials;
  • Supplying schools with technology in exchange for brand visibility;
  • Exclusive deals to offer fast food or soft drinks in school districts;
  • Contests and incentive programs, like the Pizza Hut reading program Book It! or Campbell’s Labels for Education project; and
  • Sponsoring school events and field trips.

Advertisers face challenges when marketing to children, however. One is competition. Campaigns must stand out in cluttered channels, so “buzz marketing” is a solution that uses trendsetters to give products status and create buzz. This tactic is particularly suited to the internet, as young people use social media to learn about the latest music, styles, and other trends. In general, the internet is a choice medium for marketers because of its connection to youth culture.

Marketing Food to Children

One area of marketing that is particularly controversial is marketing food to children. Many experts see a relationship between the childhood obesity epidemic and marketing unhealthy food to kids. According to the APA, obesity rates among American children and youth have tripled over the last 25 years. Obesity rates are even rising in preschool-age children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 18 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are obese, and 21 percent of teens ages 12 to 19 are obese. Consider this data along with the APA’s statistic that children ages 8 to 18 consume multiple types of media and spend more time than ever (44.5 hours per week) in front of computer, television, and game screens, and it’s easy to see the correlation.

“Research has found strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity,” the APA says. “Food industry advertising that targets children and youth has been linked to the increase of childhood obesity.” The APA also reports that children’s exposure to television ads for unhealthy food influences product preferences, requests, and diet. Almost three out of four foods advertised to children falls into the category of “unhealthy.” Food advertisements on television are almost completely made up of unhealthy food products: 34 percent are for candy and snacks, 28 percent are for sugary cereals, and 10 percent are for fast food. None are for fruits and vegetables, the APA says.

Issues and Regulations

As children become more exposed to advertisements, a large body of research is growing about the impact of advertising on children, in particular the impact on cognitive development and the potential effects of exposure to advertisements. For example, there are questions concerning the ability of children to understand the intent behind advertisements rather than be manipulated by them. Some experts say that children don’t understand persuasive intent until they are older. Cognitive structures are still being formed in the brain, making children more susceptible to external influences. One study from Educational Leadership found that children don’t realize that athletes in television commercials are paid to promote products. They also believe that children in advertisements are real rather than paid actors, and they confuse advertisements with news items. Older children are at risk as well, because they are forming their adult identities and are susceptible to societal pressures to meet certain standards. Advertisements may encourage teens to seek happiness and self-esteem through commercial consumption.

To mitigate these risks, regulations are currently in place for marketers, from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in particular. Congress passed the Children’s Television Act in 1990 to “increase the quantity of educational and informational broadcast television programming for children.” Because market forces alone had not produced an adequate amount of this type of programming, Congress passed this law to increase its availability. The act was created to bolster “programming that furthers the positive development of children 16 years of age and under in any respect, including the child’s intellectual/cognitive or social/emotional needs.”

In addition, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 “gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids.” It put protections in place specifically for websites designed for kids or those that collect information from visitors under age 13. Such sites must include a specific privacy policy, seek verifiable consent from parents and guardians, and, in some cases, restrict marketing to those under age 13.

Regulations like these ensure that marketers can promote their products in a safe, effective way without putting kids at risk. While marketing to children requires special considerations, there is an ethical and responsible way to create engaging and effective marketing for all demographics.

Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing from CSP Global

One of the best ways to learn about the regulations governing marketing to children is in the classroom. CSP Global offers a comprehensive online B.S. in Marketing that prepares students to respond to real-world marketing problems with effective, ethical solutions. With an online format that can accommodate any schedule, you’ll have the opportunity to progress in the degree while you maintain your work and life commitments. Learn more today.

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