The nag factor: measuring children's influence

Elena Morales, Lieberman Research Worldwide, examines how children influence parental purchases in different markets

Nagging is typically considered a negative behaviour. But in the context of this article, it is neither good nor bad. Nagging merely describes the interaction between parents and children when the children request a product or service for their own consumption.

But what is the parental context for marketing to children, what are children asking for and how do parents respond? To answer these questions, Lieberman Research Worldwide, along with Initiative Media Worldwide, conducted the Nag Factor study.

The impact of childrens nagging is assessed as up to 46% of sales in key businesses that target children. The most pivotal finding of this research is that there is no single approach for effectively marketing to children that can be generalised across categories. Because each category has a unique dynamic specific to childrens nagging as well as a unique dynamic specific to parents reaction to marketing efforts in the context of this study as marketers we must understand the dynamics unique to our category.

The research approach

Research was conducted among parents of children aged three to eight. Initially, in-depth analysis of family behaviour was conducted to develop scales that yielded discriminating measurements of childrens requests. Once the scales were constructed Importance and Persistence a two-phase measurement approach was used with independent samples to measure the parent and child reactions within different categories.

Important nagging conveys to the parent the importance of the item for the child and usually reflects plausible reasons for the product need, whereas persistent nagging is a request without substance. Both forms of nagging can be strong in intensity, and regardless of the childs age, gender or personality, parents universally understand and distinguish the form of nagging as expressed by their own child.

Interestingly, parents generally do not use the term nagging to describe their childrens requests.

The distinction in the two forms of nagging is important because the effect of the nag varies greatly by product and service category for the respective nag forms.

Mothers, recording the circumstances surrounding specific nagging occasions, kept diaries over several weeks. A telephone survey was employed to measure specific circumstances of nagging, as linking variables, and to measure the outcomes of child nagging: whether or not a purchase was made when a request occurred, and whether or not the purchase would have occurred without the childs request.

What is the parental context for marketing to children?

To understand the overall dynamics of marketing to children, it is first important to understand parents in terms of their attitudes towards purchasing for their children, receptivity to advertising to children and their disposition towards their childrens role in the purchase process.

Using cluster analysis of parental responses to belief and attitude statements, four broad segments of parents emerged (Table 1). This enabled a more in-depth analysis of the interaction between parents and children when examining the category differences in marketing impact, and more importantly provides strategic direction for marketing and media strategies within specific product/service categories.


Bare Necessities 32%
Indulgers 29%
Conflicted 22%
Kids' Pals 15%
Above: Parents can be defined by four segments

There are two extremes. The two most significant parental segments in terms of size are the Indulgers (Exhibit 1) and the Bare Necessities (Exhibit 2), which also represent the extremes of parents attitudinal dimensions. All segments represent a unique potential for marketing to households with children, which varies based on their disposition to marketing in general and their receptivity to specific product or service categories.

The Indulgers represent one-third of the target audience, and are a group who enjoy spending for themselves and also for their children. With a propensity to spend impulsively, they have only a slightly above-average income. Their children cover a wide span of ages, from infant to teenager. These are typically dual-parent households, with working mothers, but are slightly more likely to include stay-at-home mothers if a single-parent household.

Bare Necessities represent the largest segment of parents, have low interaction with their children, and are very conservative with their purchase considerations. They strive to moderate the influence of their children in brand selection, and also strive to monitor impulse purchasing.

Their moderation does not result from a lack of discretionary income: this group has the strongest household income across all parental segments. Generally, this segment is demographically distinct from the other three segments. They are better educated, with two parents present in the household. They are also older than their counterparts, and their children are more likely to be pre-teen and teenaged.

Kids Pals (Exhibit 3), the smallest parental segment (15%), are child-like themselves. They enjoy many aspects of spending time with their children and seem to be recapturing their own childhood. They approve of advertising to children, and do not object to their childrens requests for products and services, or input on purchases.

The Kids Pals have a slightly below-average income, and this is one of the more ethnically diverse groups. They are the most likely segment to be single parents, but have stay-at-home mothers when there are two parents present. Their children are younger and highly concentrated in the under-four age range.

The Conflicted parents (Exhibit 4), representing one-fifth of the target audience, are battling between their desire to be moderate and their desire to make their children happy. They are pushovers for their childrens requests, but requests for non-essentials are bothersome to them. They wish to delay their childrens requests for special occasions, but find themselves making impulse purchases. They feel that advertising to children is wrong, but receive an informational benefit from it.

These parents have an average income and, like the Kids Pals, are an ethnically diverse group. Their children cover a wide age span (from infancy to age 17), with a high concentration of teens.

What are children asking for and how do parents respond?

Children ask for everything. Their requests cover a wide range of products and services, particularly those marketed directly to them, and parents respond by purchasing. Childrens nagging drives 20% to 46% of purchases, depending on the product category (see Tables 2 and 3).


Toys 46
Food 34
Movies 34
CD-ROMs 33
Home video 32
Theme parks 20

These data demonstrate the effect of marketing, but not how to effectively achieve the result. To achieve the greatest impact with marketing, it is important to understand how children interact and negotiate with their parents, and their parents reaction to this process.

To this end, based on the characteristics of childrens nagging, and the circumstances of purchasing, experimental models were developed to demonstrate the dynamics that can be leveraged to achieve these results. Models were developed for the categories of toys, theatrical releases, home videos, theme parks, packaged foods, and CD-ROM software.

Advertising and important nagging are key to toy purchases

Childrens requests for toys are key in the purchase decision of the parent, and the nag must be plausible. Children who convey the relevance of the toy through articulated play patterns, for example increase the likelihood of the purchase by 14% over the parents personal purchase interest in the product. The most intense nagging by children is generated in the retail environment and in the presence of store displays (Tables 4 and 5).



Intensity index

In home 100
At friends 100
Store 400
Car 100


TV 100
Print 100
Store display 600
Word of mouth 100



Intensity index

In home 100
At friends 100
Store 100
Car 100


TV 100
Print 65
Store display 111
Billboard 111
Word of mouth 201

Advertising plays an important role in this category, even more so than nagging alone. Sufficient exposure to product advertising to generate top-of-mind awareness for parents is highly linked to purchasing. Related, dual-exposed advertising (parent and child viewing together) generates strong nagging by the child; again, allowing the child to convey a plausible request and maximising the advertisings impact.

The type of nag is critical in food and beverages

Here we see how important it is to understand the distinction between childrens nagging styles, because each has a unique impact on the parental purchasing behaviour of foods and beverages. If the child nags with strong importance, parents are 16% more likely to purchase the product; but, if children are persistent in their nagging, parents are equally less likely to purchase the product. This may be because parents feel it is easier to deny children a small item if it is unimportant to the child. Therefore, advertising messages must communicate child-relevant information in order to effect a plausible nag.

Like the toy category, dual exposure of food or beverage advertising drives the intensity of childrens requests.

Parental context is extremely important in this category, for all but the Bare Necessities. Kids Pals are much more likely to purchase in this category for their children, probably because they can relate to the pleasure the item brings to the child. Conversely, the purchases among Bare Necessities who strive to moderate their childrens influence are unaffected in this category.

Children are an important target audience

Children clearly have an important role to play in the parental purchase decision, but their contribution to sales varies by product category. It is also reasonable to conclude that since brand characteristics are variable, the impact of marketing to children must also vary by brand.

Because there is no one universal model for marketing to children, understanding the key differences by category in terms of parental mindset, child nagging styles, brand advertising and, potentially, brand equity will have direct strategic and tactical implications for communications and media strategies.

The most important questions for the marketer to children are what percentage of sales are driven by children and can this be improved upon?



Annick Deseure

Elena Morales

Elena Morales is vice president and general manager of Lieberman Research Worldwide. Clients include Countrywide Funding, Initiative Media Worldwide and Microsoft. Prior to this she was vice president and director of research at Western International Research.

A Visual Way to Explore Brand Imagery