How Can You Advertise to Children Responsibly?

Last Updated Oct 19, 2007 6:11 PM EDT

kid-watching-tv.jpgThe American Psychological Association found that children under 8 digest all commercials in the same way -- whether it's Barney or Matt Lauer, it's all the same, and it's all fact. If children can't understand the difference between fact and persuasion, is it fair to try to influence them?

Some advocates think advertising to children should be banned altogether; however, marketers believe avoiding that immense market would be negligent to the clients whose business objectives and interests they aim to serve. And it would also be extremely difficult. How in the world could you create a reality that shields children from advertising?

Advertising on TV isn't going anywhere -- at least not any time soon -- so now the issue becomes about responsible advertising. Brandweek offers some thoughts:

But what exactly does "responsible" kid-targeted marketing look like? While not every brand claims to hold itself against a self-imposed moral code, some have taken measures to keep child-targeted marketing behind a certain line. Toy brand Fisher-Price, which aims about 20% of its ads at children as young as 3 or 4, tests its marketing not just on focus groups of kids, but parents, too, using the latter's input as a guard rail for content and approach. "We want to do what sells our product," said Shelly Glick Gryfe, vp-marketing research (who's also a developmental psychologist). "But we also want to do what's right."
Similarly, executives at MGA Entertainment, which now owns the Little Tikes preschool brand, added that toddler-targeted ads are acceptable if they don't overpromise, don't misrepresent and fully explain the products. "If you advertise appropriately, it won't harm kids," said Isaac Larian, MGA's CEO. "Advertising can be part of education."

While some parents might scoff at that notion, some marketers are quick to point out that the duty to protect kids belongs with parents, not brands. It's parents who should act as the filters for any media content, they say, be that programming or marketing.

Isabel Kallman echoes this point of view, both as a marketer and a parent. "Parents are smart enough to educate their children," said Kallman, CEO of Alpha Mom TV, a cable channel aimed at moms and a Web site that covers a raft of family topics. "They have to take the primary responsibility in regulating what kids do. It's our job to teach our kids about the world."

It's the parents' responsibility; that makes sense. But is it any easier to control your child's exposure and response to advertising than it would be to ban it altogether? Let's face it; there's only so much a parent can do. So then what exactly should a business' responsibility be? What, exactly, is "right"?

(Kid Watching TV image by Leonid Mamchenkov)