When it comes to marketing and advertising to children, companies should carefully consider their methods and messaging. With the emergence of digital, there is an abundance of ways to communicate with younger audiences and an ever increasing focus on ethics.
As Levinson (2013) points out, children have always been the largest and most dynamic emerging market in the world. In this aspect there is always a new generation exploring ways to improve their quality of life and as the years progress children are exposed to technology at increasingly earlier stages of life. Children are connecting with the world around them through a plethora of digital interactions. This creates more and more opportunities for companies to interact with children through marketing campaigns and advertising.
Wass (2013) suggests that by developing highly engaging, interactive, and personalized experiences, companies can more effectively communicate brand messaging to this impressionable audience. Many times children are interacting with media on mobile devices without supervision, and often give it their undivided attention making them the perfect captive audience.
There are numerous reasons why companies target young audiences. Despite not being the source of income in their households, they still have significant influence over purchasing decisions. Bhattacharyya & Kohli (2007) discuss the idea of “pester power”, a child’s ability to pester their parents into making a purchase they might not otherwise make. Getting children to identify with and develop loyalty to a particular brand early on my cause them to continue the loyalty later in life which make it desirable for companies to establish this brand relationship early on.
With the power this young audience has, comes significant responsibility for company advertisers and marketers. There are of course laws in place to protect children in these instances. Levinson (2013) points out that there are laws and regulations prohibiting ads that exploit the credulity of children. Examples include advertising that undermines or contradicts established social values, exploits inexperience, or encourages harmful activities.
Unfortunately the above examples are easier to monitor in traditional media than they are in emerging digital platforms. For example, a child playing a learning game on an iPad could be exposed to a pop up ad that their parent may not notice. It is not always possible for parents to ensure their children are being exposed to positive and ethical advertising.
When it comes to new media and marketing to children, it is important to consider what exactly is being communicated. With all the avenues available to influence children and by extension adult consumers, companies need to keep ethics in mind when communicating to young audiences. Key questions that should be posed when considering how to position messaging for your audiences:
- What is the intended message the company wants to convey about its product or service?
- Is the messaging clear, or does it leave room for misleading interpretations or promises about what the product offers?
- If a parent were to intercept the advertisement, would they consider it favorable or would they interpret it as having a negative impact on their child?
- Is the message attempting to take advantage of the child’s limited knowledge or experience in any way?
- Would the product claims stack up to a fact check? Or is it fluff designed to evoke emotion from an uninformed audience?
Marketing Spotlight: Mattel
Founded in 1945 by Harold Matson and Elliot Handler, Mattel has established itself as a world leader in the toy manufacturing industry. Together with its closest competitor Hasbro, Mattel accounts for one quarter of the toy manufacturing market. Mattel holds the largest market share for action figures and dolls and is the leading global manufacturer of traditional toys.
Initially, Mattel’s main product focus was picture frames but in 1947 the company shifted into the toy industry. The product the company is most famous for, Barbie® dolls were introduced in 1959. Over the next 50 years the company continued to introduce popular traditional toy products as well as several electronic toys. By 2012, the company portfolio grew to include more than 30 brands.
Today, as one of the top two toy manufacturers in the world, it is not surprising that the primary focus of targeted marketing efforts for Mattel are children and young teens. Even Mattel’s corporate website features positive imagery of children playing and interacting with one another. The phrase “play to grow, play together, play with passion, play fair” appears on each page of the corpor
ate site along with the company vision tagline “creating the future of play”. The website also highlights key company strategies including improving existing businesses, furthering globalization efforts, exploring line extensions, discovering new trends, and developing people. The design and tone of the corporate website is professional and intended for adult audiences while the Mattel brands website that features information on products and services is designed with young users in mind.
From a web development perspective, the website is setup in a way that is clean and easy to navigate. The appearance of the home page makes it evident that the targeted end users are children and young teens. A visitor would have the option to play games, search for the latest toys, or visit sub sites for specific brands. The brands featured on the homepage appear to be the latest trending favorites for both male and female children across multiple age groups. There are brands that would appeal to young children, pre teens, and early teens. From the main page a visitor could elect to play a game, watch “webisodes” and videos, or learn more about what toys are available. Bright colors make the site appealing to its audience and sections are clearly labeled. For users that are not yet able to read there is a toolbar both in the middle and at the top of the page that would allow them to select a path through familiar imagery.
From a brand promotion perspective, each brand has its own subsite, allowing users to visit the brand of their choice for more information. Familiar users can go to the area that interests them, while new users can explore the sections for multiple brands. There are sections to shop for products and apps to download related to different brands. Visiting a subsite allows the user to get promotion codes and coupons to save on certain purchases. There is also an email feature where a user can email an item they like to someone, a parent for example to share their interest in a product. There are also sections where site users can enter themselves in drawings for free products. Each brand’s sub site has different content depending on the assumed age group and gender of the user. For example, the Monster High subsite is presented in a more trendy and feminine position than the younger and more male positioning of the Matchbox and Hot Wheels brands.
The site appears to utilize ethical tactics. The majority of the site features product images. There does not appear to be any area in which questionable or misleading messages appear. The site is designed to be interactive and perhaps is meant to further brand loyalty through interaction and attractive imagery as opposed to traditional verbal messaging. A parent would most likely be comfortable allowing a young user to navigate the site alone. Mattel also has brand equity on its side. Parents are familiar with the brand and were exposed to many of the products when they were children themselves.
Mattel’s On The Right Track
Based on the positioning and content available on the site, the Mattel brand website successfully targets young users in an ethical manner. The visual layout and ease of navigation make it a site children are capable of using on their own, and the clean content make it a site parents would allow them to use frequently. The products the company offers provide Mattel with a solid reason to target children directly with marketing and advertising efforts. Its family friendly methods suggest its website will help to ensure Mattel remains a dominant force in the toy industry for years to come.