Today the Wall Street Journal featured an in-depth article explaining Kraft’s January 2005 decision to voluntarily limit food advertising to Children under 12 years old. The article mentioned that Kraft saw an emerging movement against food advertising to children and decided to get in front of it. The Wall Street Journal quoted Roger Deromedi, Kraft’s CEO as saying, “It’s important to align with society and engage our critics. And we have learned that from Altria.” Deromedi is referring to Philip Morris’s 1998 decision to support government regulation of the tobacco industry in the wake of successful litigation against the industry by a group of U.S. States.
The question that gets asked over and over again about children’s advertising is: Is it harmful? For younger childern, at least, the answer seems to be “yes.” A meta-analysis of studies by the American Psychological Association suggests that two problems arising from advertising to children have been proven by multiple controlled trials:
- Change in Eating Habits – Advertising affects children’s consumption patterns and seems to be at least partly responsible for the jump in childhood obesity. The number of overweight children 6-11 years old has quadrupled from around 4% in 1963-1970 to 16% in 1999-2002. (See the diagram here.)
- Increase in Child Parent Conflicts – Attributed to parental refusal of purchase requests.
The APA lays out two ‘tests’ for advertising to children:
- Can the child distinguish commercials from the main body of the program? – Children gain this ability between 4 and 5 years of age.
- Can the child recognize the persuasive intent of the ad message? - Children begin to see the persuasive intent of these messages between 7 and 8 years of age.
This would suggest that after age 8, children can distinguish commercials from programs and know that they are selling messages. The APA points out that very little work has been done to understand at what age children are equipped to evaluate these messages fairly and that this age would very likely be older than 8.
Neither the Kraft answer – which limits advertising of food products in shows with a majority of viewers under the age of 12 – nor the APA report answers the question which should be most relevant to marketers:
Is Advertising to Children Good Marketing?
Let us assume that advertising to children has a positive short-term ROI – that it produces a greater short-term financial return than the advertising investment. To understand whether it is good marketing, we need to go beyond the short-term ROI and ask two questions which will indicate whether the long-term ROI of advertising to children will be positive:
- Can Advertising to Children Successfully Position Brands?
- Does Advertising to Children Create Desirable Consumers?
This Advertising Blog will argue that the answer to both these questions is ‘No’, and further that the reason the British Parliament first passed laws protecting children from commercial solicitations in 1874 was because this practice ultimately hurts everyone involved, from the children themselves to the commercial interests of the advertisers.
Why Advertising to Children is Bad Branding
Brand Positioning has two important underpinnings. The brand must present a unique selling proposition that the consumer can understand and evaluate and, having accepted the proposition, the consumer must create a memorable and lasting association between a desirable attribute in the selling proposition (think ‘Safety’) and the brand (think ‘Volvo’).
Advertising to children cannot meet the first test. If children do not understand that they are being presented with an explicitly biased commercial message, then they cannot properly evaluate the message and there is no possibility of forming the informed emotional attachment to the brand that true branding seeks. This is similar to the position of this Advertising Blog on DTC Advertising (click here). In both cases, we believe the consumer is not equipped to evaluate the unique selling proposition. In the case of DTC advertising, the consumer does not have the medical background to weigh the risks and benefits of a particular drug and understand alternative treatment options. In the case of advertising to children, the child does not possess the emotional maturity to understand that an advertiser is presenting a one-sided view of the brand and that committing to the brand involves critically evaluating that proposition against his or her outside knowledge and experience.
In some ways, advertising to children cannot be good branding because good branding always involves informed consent. Children too young to evaluate advertising cannot “consent” to branding any more than children too young to understand the emotional consequences of sexual activity can consent to intercourse.
The Boomerang Effect – What Kind of Consumers are we Building?
The second important question about advertising to children is one that the marketing community is not asking. How does being exposed to branding messages at an age where they are manifestly unfair change us as consumers later in life? There is little clinical evidence on this, but we would suggest that it is no coincidence that the coming of age of the first generation of ‘ad kids’ from the eighties has coincided with a sharp drop in the effectiveness of advertising to adults.
It may be difficult to remember, but advertising to children was not always as widespread as it is today. Although it existed in one form or another since the dawn of commercial television, it was always limited by the limited programming available on commercial channels for children. This changed with the advent of cable networks and the boom in child-focused programming, especially in the 1980′s.
Is it surprising that two decades later we find that these same children are cautious, skeptical consumers inclined to disbelieve things that they do not hear from friend or authority figures? Can this be why marketers have turned to socalled ‘product experts’ and paid them for endorsements of their products on news shows and have paid agencies to get these same products placed in movies and television shows? All of this in an attempt to substitute for the ‘trust gap’ that these younger consumers show versus previous generations?
Good branding is a fair value exchange. It gives consumers something they want and creates a bond of trust that can positively influence not just the consumer but also the company behind the brand. (Think of Johnson & Johnson’s ethical but potentially financially devastating recall of Tylenol after the 1982 tampering scandal.)
Branding to children doesn’t meet this test. It is bad business and it hurts all marketers.