CMA Event: The How-To’s of Marketing to Children

You’ve got a great kids product. You’ve tested it with kids who aren’t your own and you’re sure that parents understand – and love – the value it adds to their lives.

So how the heck do you get them to buy it?


Ask Linnette!

That’s where Linette Attai (PlayWell LLC) comes in. She’s spent her entire career navigating the tricks, traps, and pitfalls of marketing to children, and she gave CMA a taste of her graduate school course on Tuesday, October 7 (really: she teaches graduate level courses about this at both Fordham and The New School). Feel free to check out the Live Stream to hear the whole thing; it’s full of great information.

I’m just going to give you a broad strokes overview.

lecture notes2

And save you from all the painful note taking.

First up, we learned that advertisers’ interest in marketing to children started when Saturday morning cartoons started in the 1960s. Once advertisers realized they had a captive audience at the same time every week, they did their darndest to sell it stuff. Conversations and rules about the best ways to do that started almost immediately.

mighty mouse

Fun fact: CBS ran the very first Saturday morning cartoon block in 1955, led by this guy

By the 1980s, kids were being taken to stores as babies and developing brand relationships before they could even speak. They learned purchasing behaviors from their parents, and developed positive feelings toward a store if they knew they’d always get something when they went there. Heck, parents were even involving them in major purchases like vacations and cars (and influencing about $1.12 trillion worth of spending). Today, they make up to $130 billion in purchases.

This is a market you want to reach. And you can… if you speak to them appropriately.

Language is probably the biggest challenge in marketing to children, due to developmental differences in the different demographics. The youngest children spend a lot of time in “the world of imagination” as Linette puts it, and they have no ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. They assume everything they see is real, can’t tell the difference between entertainment and commercials, and think (and act like) they are the center of the universe.


 We’re onto you, mister.

By the time a child reaches age 8-12, they’re just starting to develop logic and reason. By the time they’re 16, they develop the ability to think abstract thoughts and understand sarcasm and innuendo.  What does all of this mean for marketers? Children are NOT little adults. “Treating children like they’re little adults is wrong,” Linnette explained. “They are beings who have limited cognitive ability,” and don’t understand the persuasive intent of advertising. And even when they do (at about ages 8-9), it’s a whole other cognitive step before they realize they have any autonomy over it.

As such marketers need to give children information and tools that empower them to make (or not make) a purchasing decision.

Marketers also need to assume responsibility for young consumers, and “protect them from yourself,” as Linnette put it. Speak cleanly, clearly, and hold back a little bit; this is an audience you don’t have to push very hard, because they’re already assuming you’re telling them the truth. Presenting your product to a child is selling it.

The best way to do that?

1) Start with your value proposition

2) Make earning parental trust part of your DNA. You need them to trust you with their child, or you’re doomed. DOOMED.

3) Show how your product meets the needs of your audience, and addresses what they think is important (Mastery, Play, Sense of Adventure, Variety).


Easy peasy!

And THEN you abide by all the regulations.


NOT easy peasy!

Linnette went into all sorts of gracious detail at the event (she had multiple slides. MULTIPLE!), but I’ll give you the highlights:

Federal Regulation happens courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They’re responsible for the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which mandated 3 things: 1) educational programming had to air on broadcast networks, 2) programs had to announce the commercials, and 3) the amount of advertisements per hour of children’s television was limited.

GI Joe Commercial Screen1

This happened because of the FCC!

Self-Regulation happens courtesy of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (ASRC). They established the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) that promotes responsible children’s advertising by ensuring that advertising is not “deceptive, unfair, or inappropriate” – no hard selling, no minimizing the price (value is a complicated concept for kids), no irrelevant or inappropriate disclaimers, no showing your product doing things it can’t, no peer pressure for approval. These guys cover every facet of children’s products, from television and websites to packaging. They are very busy.

Additional Self-Regulation happens all over the place. The biggest players are the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

In short, there are a whole lot of people out there with a whole lot of criterion to make sure that children aren’t being persuaded to do or buy things they don’t understand. Or would harm them.

Technology challenges are a bit of a beast, too.  While the FCC’s Children’s Television Act doesn’t include websites, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is the main authority online, and tries to ensure that parents remain in control of kids’ data. It prohibits unfair or deceptive practices in connection with the use and/or disclosure of personal information from and about children on the internet in 3 ways: 1) minimizing data collection from children (under 13), 2) ensuring parents control what data is and is not collected from their child, and 3) mandates transparency around data policies and practices. Monetization is especially tricky because mobile is one of the few places children have autonomy with their devices – as demonstrated by the recent fooferaw over unauthorized in-app purchases (Apple and Google settled with the FCC; Amazon is fighting the charges). Sweepstakes, polls, and competitions are tricky, too, because children love entering anything they think they can win.  There are a ton of potential minefields in the digital space, and it’s up to the developers and content creators to offer their content in a way that understands those minefields and respects its target audience.

And that’s really the key to children’s marketing: remember that young consumers are afforded special protections, and do your best to adhere to them while understanding – and meeting – the needs of your target audience.  It’s hard, but if you make compliance part of your DNA you’ll last the test of time. Just like all the companies you trust.


That’s why they’re trusted

And, because I love you, here are some more fun facts that Linnette gave us that I couldn’t fit anywhere else:

  1. The FCC and FTC started raising flags about food regulation to kids in the 1970s about obesity
  2. Without commercials, TV doesn’t feel real to kids. They do not take advantage of the TiVo, so go ahead
  3. Never use the phrase “Hey, kids!” Kids automatically assume you’re talking to them, and this makes you sound like a rank amateur

Now go out there and market!