Advertising to children

An agency view on children's attitudes to media, brands and advertising

Janet Grimes

In some ways agencies have to plan advertising to children with approaches that are very similar to campaigns addressed to adults - the target group must be carefully defined and the advertising must be likeable and, just as in any other market, levels of interest and motivation differ greatly between product areas. However, there are differences and this article discusses the relationship of children and media, their attitudes towards brands and the way age and gender affect their choices.

THE CONCISE OXFORD dictionary defines childhood as the time from birth to puberty. Time may seem to pass more quickly as you get older, but the rate of change experienced by a child far exceeds that of an adult, so trying to generalise about how to advertise to children is an exceptionally difficult task.

In fact there is probably more in common between a 30-year old and a fifty-year old, than there is between an eight-year old and a ten-year old. Just as in any other market, the features of the target audience, levels of interest and motivation differ greatly between product areas.

Planning a campaign to children is like planning a campaign to any other target audience. It has to be bespoke. You have to know to whom you are going to be talking, and you have to understand them. Of course there are differences between children and adults that we can point to in aiding advertising development; differences in their media consumption, in their attitudes to brands (if, in fact, brands exist for children) and in their consumption of advertising per se.


Children are media experts. Most of them watch TV, and they watch it a great deal. Unlike most adults, they are extremely selective. They have a very low boredom threshold - life is too short to waste time watching a boring TV programme, so they will switch to a more interesting channel far more readily than an adult.

Around 70 per cent of 11+ children have a TV in the bedroom, so the choice of programme is entirely their own. They know which programme is on which station, and at what time, and they are very familiar with satellite and cable. In fact our research indicates that those with satellite or cable, if forced to choose, would be happy without terrestrial TV, and would probably choose video over either satellite or terrestrial TV.

They adore videos, watching their favourites over and over again. There is a whole generation of children from low-income families who have been brought up on nothing but pirate videos. They think all films are of poor quality, but it does not matter to them. The key thing is the material: how it is delivered is incidental - it is what is delivered that is important.

Nearly all children listen to the radio, especially when they are over 10. Most read magazines regularly, although often they are chosen or bought by parents for them and, as advertising media, magazines and comics present difficult problems. Cinema is a major event - the trip is entertainment in its own right. The film gets absolute, undivided attention (unless dad took you to a film he thought you wanted to see, or wanted to see himself), so qualitatively, cinema advertising is worth every penny - it is as much part of the whole experience for children as it is for adults.

Interactive media is a term that only adults need, because children think that is how the world works anyway. They are entirely comfortable with video games, computers and multi-choice environments and cannot wait for their own CD-ROM. They do not suffer the technophobia afflicting many adults. Those that have access make use of cable facilities such as video jukebox; they all love 'phone-ins, and Nickelodeon's experiments with computer-linked interactive TV will undoubtedly bear fruit. So it is not a question of whether interactive media will take off, just when.

Reaching children can present problems. They are fickle, unpredictable and quick to change. This means constantly revisiting plans and using a wide range of media before considering the creative vehicle itself.

Advertising to children and parents together can create problems. Whilst there are clearly times when coverage can be maximised against both, as Exhibit 1 shows, the vehicle itself is highly unlikely to appeal to both.

Much of our research amongst both children and mothers shows divergence in advertising tastes. The children tend to like action, noise, fast-cuts, excitement, music and special effects. Their mothers cannot stand that kind of advertising - they prefer subtle, evenly paced, witty advertising. So if you design a commercial for children which they really love, and if you think that by showing it at 4.30 in the afternoon, when children and their mothers often watch TV together, that you will appeal to them both, then you may just be kidding yourself.


Given the rate at which children change, and the number of products they are exposed to, it is a moot point whether children could ever be brand loyal. It is hard to generalise, because clearly if you are one of those parents who bought your 10 year-old son Dunlop Green Flash instead of Nike then you will know what power brands can have! Of course children are aware of brands, and to some extent brand values - especially the older ones - and are drawn to them through peer pressure, but the relationship is not a close one. In the safety of their own home, the power of brands lessens considerably and they often defer to mother's choice. The watershed seems to be when they become more economically independent.

Research evidence from our regular discussions with children suggests that in many fmcg markets - and toy markets come into that category these days - the brand, as we normally understand it, is of minor importance. The relationship is simple - do children like the product, and do they like or respect the advertising? They cannot maintain brand relationships because they have not had time to form them yet.

Children are much harder to fool. If something does not taste nice it will be spat out (as in the film 'Big') and if the toy is not engaging it will soon be tossed aside. How many homes have Gameboys and video games littering the shelves, gathering dust? There is little loyalty because there is always something else new and exciting to discover.

It forces discipline and clarity in planning advertising - what are the real features or benefits? We cannot rely on advertising to create the difference alone and expect the brand to last. Panda Cola is not likely to succeed with children because the taste just isn't up to it (sorry Panda), but Sainsbury's Classic Cola has a good chance of making it because it tastes just fine - although whether it will ever have quite the playground credibility of Coke and Pepsi is the big question.


The older a child gets and the nearer to adulthood, the more the brand badges they sport matter. Social insecurity increases with age, and the need to assert oneself, whilst still fitting in with the crowd, causes confusion not to mention expense. But even at this stage, the need to wear the right gear, listen to the right bands and so on, can hardly be called brand loyalty. It is more of a passing trend. By the time you have started to build brand values they are off riding a new wave, so you had better make sure you are riding that wave with them or your brand is dead.

Pre-school children are clearly concerned with being in the bosom of their family, feeling safe, cared for and loved. Their parents are their heroes. They are often shy and scared of the big wide world, but they certainly do not need brands because their parents are their sole providers. We all know the pester power of advertising to this age group - so long as it knows what to ask for.

Gender is a very big discriminator at this age - whether this is caused by environment or genes is a much more involved discussion, but little boys and little girls are often quite different from one another, and require very different advertising approaches. Most little girls are still into dolls, ponies, animals and playing pretend, and they tend not to like strangers and boys.

Little boys often begin life on a more adventurous track, and can be destructive and aggressive. Their seeming self-confidence emerges in play. Ironically, as they get in to their teens the apparent confidence of little boys is overtaken by insecurity.

Boys and girls do have many things in common, but there are some important differences which impinge on which brands appeal to them and to which kind of advertising they respond. Boys respond to strength and power, good versus evil, things which are gross and bizarre. Girls respond to beauty, glamour, romantic escapism, gossip and giggling.

They are both keen to fit in with their peers and anxious to show rebellion to authority as they approach their 'teens. They want to be in control, but rarely are, and they are all confused by the opposite sex - having both an aversion and an attraction to them at the same time - ah, plus ça change!

Children are moulded by peer pressure - they must be seen to be cool, to beat the system, to be 'clever' and cutting, and to be trendy. But they fear failure, fear for their safety and fear looking foolish.

They all fantasise and role-play in situations where they are the ones in control. Boys are pre-occupied by destruction, super-heroes and inanimate objects - space, monsters, vehicles, weapons and cars. Girls are pre-occupied with fantasies involving people or animals - parents, friends, pop-stars, TV heroes and dolls representing a romantic or idealised view of life, such as Barbie.

Of course, to generalise exaggerates the differences between the sexes, and it is exacerbated by the way we expect children to behave, but the differences do appear to be there, and it is important to understand what drives a child's psyche, as well as the more superficial trends, if one is to communicate with them on any level.


Producing advertisements is very hard. As ever, targeting is the key. You can not expect to impress a 12-year old with something that is designed to appeal to an eight-year old, but it often works the other way around. So 'brands', as far as they exist for children, cascade down the age groups, shedding the older ones on the way - a reversal of the way it works in adulthood.

The blueprint for making ads for children is just the same as the one we would traditionally use for adults. Decide who your target audience really is and be very precise - perhaps as narrow as '10-year-old boys'. Then you need to make sure you understand this audience, knowing what makes it tick. Research methodology needs much more discussion than can be given in the scope of this article, but any and every tactic must be employed to get on children's wavelengths.

Because children's interests change quickly, the process is never-ending. You need to be constantly in touch with the latest trends, the cool labels, brands, TV programmes and ads, and particularly special effects - if you use last year's you will lose all credibility.

Children are very advertising literate. They enjoy advertising as entertainment. They can take in an awful lot in just 30 seconds. Millward Brown research indicates that children remember almost twice as much detail as adults when shown the same ad. But be careful about depending on aural messages.

Entertainment is the key - but on children's terms. You must share their humour, however gross or bizarre it seems, or you will have no credibility. They know the advertising game, they know you are trying to sell them something, so do not try and con them. The deal is simple: give them an ad which they love and they will respect you for it, and probably buy your product.

So what kinds of ads are we talking about? Yet again, it is hard to generalise. If the children are young, show them your product clearly, how it works, and dramatise the main feature. Remember, they probably cannot read, and they probably will not listen to the voice-over. If the advertisement is eye-catching, the chances are that the children will respond.

If the children are older, say from seven onwards, give them advertising which is novel, anti-authoritarian, funny - and their kind of humour is generally at someone else's expense - and visually arresting. However, as soon as this article is in print, it is probably out of date because tastes change so quickly.

The hard work is worth it. When you design a campaign well and come up with advertising they really like, children will reward you by buying your product in droves. Some of our own case histories - Nik Naks, Wotsits, Rowntree's Jelly - are testament to this. There is no argument about advertising effectiveness when you have a successful children's campaign. The results are self-evident, using whatever kind of tracking you care to name.

Advertising to children is a really rewarding business: if they like it they show their appreciation. If only it was always so!


Janet Grimes

Janet Grimes

Janet Grimes studied Economics & Politics at Durham University. She worked for National Magazines and in the publicity department of a London theatre before joining the planning department of Colman & Partners (later part of RSCG) in 1980.In 1986 she became Associate Director in the planning department of the newly-formed Burkitt Weinreich Bryant. She left in 1993 and has now joined O&M's planning department where she works on Mattel and Fisher Price.
Advertising to children