Kids' Commercials No Child's Play

By Allan M. Due

Relevance is the key to success

Advertising to children has skyrocketed over the past decade with more than $2 billion spent annually in North America on advertising directed at kids. Children, aged 2 to 12, are exposed to over 20,000 commercials – each year. In addition, children spend or influence over $500 billion worth of household purchases. Clearly, creating effective advertising is critical in today's crowded and competitive product environment.

Children, it must be remembered, aren't smaller versions of adults. When considering advertising effectiveness, 'what is important' is the same for both adults and children. That is, the same advertising philosophy applies to both groups. Yet, how you get there is different. While both recall and persuasion are key dimensions of effectiveness for both adults and children, the drivers of each are different. In fact, for kids the very nature of recall is different, and attitude change occurs in a different way.

We believe that for an ad to be effective it must do two things. First, it must capture attention, and associate that attention with the brand. This is true for both adults and children, but children pay much more attention to the ads and can play back more detail. As well, children can often remember the specific details of an effective advertisement, even if they saw it only once. Therefore branding becomes a much more important determinant of ad effectiveness for kids.

Second, the ad must be persuasive. It must change an individual's attitudes about the brand. Adults tend to need a reason to believe the information in an advertisement and are inclined to be more critical. For kids, attitude change is produced through an emotional connection to the ad. Children are more likely to be driven by wants and needs than complex rational thought and so connection to the story or the characters is extremely important.

Children view commercials as stories and they really look at the details. It's the story that draws them in and connects them to the product at an emotional level, making the product appropriate and desirable. And that appears to be true around the world. For example, in a recent study we found children from three distinct cultures perceived an advertisement's story in similar ways and conveyed similar emotional responses.

What makes a commercial a good story and, therefore, an effective advertisement for children? Understanding what is relevant to kids may be the most important dimension in kids' advertising. Greater relevance, either through the story or the characters, leads to greater involvement.

Engaging and fun

The premise and the characters should be relevant to children. The story needs to be engaging and easily followed. If the ad doesn't speak to them, they'll tune out. What adults consider "subtle" production values are critically important in a commercial aimed at detail-minded kids. Casting and delivery can make or break an ad. And, of course, a kids' commercial has to be fun and cool. In children's commercials, the fun factor is more important than the message. Lack of cool can doom an ad, but what is perceived as cool can change quickly.

Characters like Tony the Tiger or Chester the Cheetah are effective when used in children's ads because kids are drawn to things that are familiar. The image or attributes that a child relates to a character becomes part of the product association. Characters can also serve as the champion of the brand, making the brand accessible to the child and acceptable to the parent.

Self-image and security are extremely important to children. They want to belong. Commercials need to reinforce how kids see themselves or how they want to be seen. Whether it's breakfast cereal or a video game, children are using products, in part, to understand who they are, to let others know who they are, and to identify with a peer group. If kids perceive an ad to be aimed at a younger audience, they'll be turned off. Children are attracted to products and services they associate with the next oldest age group.

Commercials that target a specific gender can have a very polarizing effect on children. Boys seem to be more sensitive to gender targeting than girls and respond well to ads only featuring boys. Girls don't seem turned off by ads with just boys.

Of course, the nature of the purchase process is typically much different for kids than it is for adults. No matter how much a child may desire a product, it's mom or dad who usually decides if it comes home.