Children as companies’ new customers in the internet era

Written by Xiaoying Wang

In the consumption and media society of today, there is an increasing focus on children as consumers. Also children (4-19 years old) are becoming an increasingly important group targeted by marketers (Tufte, 2010). The main reasons are that 1) children have a considerable amount of disposable money that they could spend by themselves, 2) children have a great impact on their family or parents’ purchasing decisions in the daily basis, 3) children have a great potential to become companies’ future customers (Buckingham, 2009; Tufte, 2010; MediaSmart, 2013; McNeal,1992; Nicholls & Cullen, 2004). Therefore, companies devote a large amount of money on marketing in order to reach this big target group. At the same time, children are considered as vulnerable beings by their parents, society and government (Tufte, 2010). Thus, different regulations have been published to protect children from various TV advertising and commercial pressure in different countries (Brusdal, 2005; Tufte, 2010). For example, the Norwegian Broadcasting Act states that “Advertisements may not broadcast in connection with children's programs, nor may advertisement be specifically directed at children” (ibid, P412). The regulation leaves very limited space for companies and marketers to reach children. However, with the development of online marketing, companies start to use the more sophisticated ways to attract children, and internet becomes an extremely desirable medium for marketers to approach children effectively and efficiently (MediaSmart, 2013).

In this paper, I would start with the research objectives and research questions, then follows with the theories and concepts that are relevant to the topic. After that I would discuss why children is an important target group in internet advertising.

This report has two main objectives:

  1.  to equips the readers with a good understanding of the competitive advantages of online marketing compared with traditional TV advertising when targeting children.
  2. to explore what make children an important internet marketing target group

In order to achieve the research objectives, the following three research questions need to be answered.

  1. What are the main differences between traditional TV advertising and internet advertising when targeting children.
  2. Why children become an important target group in internet marketing.
  3. What kinds of internet marketing techniques marketers used to reach children.

The important concepts which are relevant to the topic have been studied, which includes Traditional TV advertising, Internet advertising and pester power.

Traditional TV advertising is a form of the mass media advertising, and it still regarded as the most prominent platform for advertising to children (Huang et al, 2013). The traditional TV advertising techniques includes: “repetition, branded characters, catchy and interesting production features, celebrity endorsement and free merchandise to be awarded with the purchase of of a product” (Brooks-Gunn & Donahus,2008).

Internet advertising: Marketing communications via internet have developed rapidly because of its uniqueness (Shankar & Batra, 2009). Internet advertising includes many forms of commercial content. The messages about products or services could be delivered from marketers through any channels, in any forms and at any degree of depth (Schlosser et al, 1999). At some point, Internet advertising is more interactive, since it allows people reacting to the content through different social networking platforms (Bolton & Saxena-Iyer, 2009; Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009; Shankar & Batra, 2009). For example, people could share the interesting commercial advertising with friends via emails, Facebook or Twitter.   It is also served as a marketing channel (Neslin & Shankar, 2009) and allows clickstream analysis (Bucklin & Sismeiro, 2009; Shankar & Batra, 2009). Besides, people could spend as much time as they want on internet.

The figure 1 indicates the main differences between traditional TV advertising and Internet advertising.

Figure 1: The comparisons of traditional TV
advertising and internet advertising. Sources: (Shankar & Batra, 2009; Huang et
al, 2013; Brooks-Gunn & Donahus,2008; MediaSmarts, 2012; Moore, 2006) 


Figure 1: The comparisons of traditional TV advertising and internet advertising. Sources: (Shankar & Batra, 2009; Huang et al, 2013; Brooks-Gunn & Donahus,2008; MediaSmarts, 2012; Moore, 2006)

From the table 1, we could draw the conclusion that traditional TV advertising has may limitations when target children. Instead, table 1 shows the development of advertising and the competitive advantages of internet advertising. For example, internet advertising could reach many people in a short time and it allows internet audiences to have a better interactive communication by two-way or even multiway (Diamond, 2010).

Pester power, as I have mentioned above that children have become an important target group of different companies nowadays, because children have an increasing power to influence their parents’ purchasing decisions and buying behavior (Nicholls & Cullen, 2004; Tylee, 1997; Campbell & Davis-Packard, 2000; Summerskill, 2001). The set of tactics they use to influence or the strong power that children have is called “Pester Power”. It can be defined as “children’s ability to nag their parents into purchasing items in a repetitive or confrontational way to show their strong desires” (Nicholls & Cullen, 2004; MediaSmarts, 2013).

The empirical sector answers the question of “Why children become an important target group in internet marketing” and also provides a general analysis of children’s role in the consumption and media society of today.

Children nowadays are becoming a prime target of marketers, since they are represent three markets in one: “1) a primary market spending its own savings or allowances; 2) a secondary market of influencers on their parents spending; 3) and a future market of potential adult consumers” (Buckingham, 2009; Tufte, 2010; MediaSmart, 2013; McNeal,1992; Nicholls & Cullen, 2004).

  1. A primary market spending its own savings or allowances. The purchasing power of children and teenagers have increased a lot nowadays (Calvert, 2008). There are many factors could contribute to the increase of children’s disposable savings. For example, more children are raised in the smaller size of families or in one child families with both parental incomes; also many couples postpone the time of having children until middle age due to the working pressures; and some parents feel guilty of not having spending enough time with their children (MediaSmarts, 2013). Thus, some of parents choose to give more money to their children (MediaSmarts, 2013). According to the research, the goods sold globally particularly for children had reached 396 billion US dollars in 2000, which indicated a 17.6% increase since 1997(Calvert, 2008). Children’s primary purchase took approximately 18.7% (74 billion US dollars) of the total global market (Euromonitor, 2001 cited in Calvert, 2008). In 2002, children from 4-12 years old spent 30 billion US dollars in United States (Calvert, 2008), Teenagers from 12-17 spent 112.5 billion US dollars in 2003. It means that a U.S. teenager from 12-19 spent nearly 103 US dollar per week (Cardona, 2004; Calvert, 2008).
  2. A secondary market of influencers on their parents´ spending. As Nicholls and Cullen mentioned (2004), in addition to the market that directly target them, children also affect the purchasing pattens and decision-making process of their parents. According to the YTV kids and Tweens Report published in 2008, it showed that children influence more than 95% of the meal choices of the family, over 60% of the software purchases and computer purchases and also above 90% of family entertainment choices (MediaSmarts, 2013). In 2000, it was estimated that children’s influences of family purchases had reached 500 billion US dollars in the United States, cars, holidays and even houses were included in the purchases (Campbell & Davis-Packard, 2000; Nicholls & Cullen, 2004). Also many marketers realized the strong “pester power” the children have when they nag their parents into purchasing something. McNeal (1992) stated that children on average make 15 purchase requests during a shopping visits, and he also estimated that minimal 40% of children’s requests were granted (Nicholls and Cullen, 2004). Therefore, many researchers admitted that “Pestering” is one of the most influential techniques (McNeal, 1992; Gunter & Furnhan, 1998; Nicholls & Cullen, 2004). As a result, the spending on advertising to children has increased dramatically in the past few years. For example, In 2009 US companies had invested over 17 billion US dollars on target children (MediaSmarts, 2013).
  3. A future market of adult consumers. The third major market that children represent is the future market of potential adult consumers. Many companies view it as the most significant market of all. As Barwise (1997), suggested that many marketing communications conducted directly to children are aim at developing brand recognition and brand loyalty in children’s early age, instead of just to increase sales.  It is believed that babies could form mental images of different logos  from six months old, and children as young as two years old can start to establish brand loyalty (MediaSmarts, 2013; Nicholls & Cullen, 2004; Calvert, 2008 ). Therefore, many companies aim at developing brand recognition in very young children and hope the brand recognition would become brand loyalty later on (MediaSmarts, 2013).  Different magazines, such as Time, Vogue and People have launched children editions for the purpose of developing children’s recognition since the early age (Clarke & Svanaes, 2012; MediaSmarts, 2013) .

Also another important factor which explains why children are the target group in internet marketing, is because they are the “early adopters” of new media practices. Internet has become a part of their youth culture, since they are growing up with internet and internet has become their daily part of life as well as the way to socialize with others (Montgomery & Chester, 2009; MediaSmarts, 2013). On average, U.S. children spent twice as much time online compared with the parents (Clarke & Svanaes, 2012). A research result showed that the total number of internet users who were around 2-11 years olds reached 13 million in 2004 and the number increased 34% in year 2005 (Henry & Story, 2009). The internet users who were under 18 years old accounted for 20% of the total in 2005 (ibid).

Internet marketing techniques used to target children

Today, different internet marketing techniques have been utilized by marketers when targeting children. One of the most effective techniques is the “stealth marketing” (Chernov, 2010; Calvert, 2008; Brooks-Gunn & Donahus,2008 ). Stealth marketing refers to “the encroachment of commercially tinted messages into broadcast news segments (Chernov, 2010). For example, the products are embedded in the program content in films, online websites or video games (Calvert, 2008). The advantages of stealth marketing is that children don’t even realize it is advertising, since they lack of proper cognitive ability to tell the strong persuasive intent of online advertising (Clarke & Svanaes, 2012). Either they could understand the line between commercial and program content (Calvert, 2008; Brooks-Gunn & Donahus,2008), which is totally different from the traditional TV advertising.

Another very often used internet marketing strategy is the “viral marketing” or the “buzz marketing”(Rouse, 2009; MediaSmarts, 2013; Calvert, 2008). It can be referred as a word of mouth communication led by consumers, fans and enthusiasts, who spread the news about certain products or services to the other people through different tools or platforms (Turpin, 2008). It aims to create a “buzz” or “noise” that interests people and let people spread it (ibid). Buzz marketing is a great match with the internet, where young people and children could spread the news about products, services, or anything they find interesting through social networking platforms (MediaSmarts, 2013). Viral marketing is very popular with teenagers and children, especially when attractive products or big discounts get involved (Rubin, 2004). A good viral marketing example is Evian roller babies and it catches huge attention of Youtube (Hopkins, 2010). 

As conclusion, we could see that nowadays children becomes an important group of consumers targeted by companies. Three main factors have been discussed, 1) children have their own purchasing power, 2) they have a great impact on their parents’ purchasing decisions, 3) they are the potential consumers in the future. Therefore, more and more companies started to focus on this group and invest much money to target. However, because of the limitation of traditional TV advertising, many marketers started to utilize new advertising techniques via internet, such as “stealth advertising” and “buzz marketing”, to attract children for the purposes of enforcing brand recognition and creating brand loyalty in children’s early age.

At the same time, there are many people criticizing the negative effects that internet advertising bringing to children, since they are the vulnerable beings and they do not have cognitive ability to tell the line between advertising, entertainment and information. Therefore, how could companies approach the group of children in a ethical way is a very interesting and  important question for the further research. 

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