My daughter has lived to the age of 2 without seeing a single television commercial. I know these innocent days are numbered. Her only TV viewing now consists of “Sesame Street” episodes we record on our TiVo, and that usually involves fast-forwarding to the Elmo’s World segment. But once she starts watching other cartoons, she will inevitably be exposed to TV advertising. As parents, we automatically assume this is a bad thing Ã¢â‚¬â€ even though we might enjoy certain ads ourselves (enough to turn them into full-fledged TV shows, at least in the case of the Geico Cavemen). The American Psychological Association reports that the average child is exposed to 40,000 TV commercials a year. Marketers spend $12 billion a year on ads directed at children. To get a behind-the-scenes look at the thinking that goes into this spending, I invited an ad man turned professor to share his insights.
Today’s Questions & Parents feature, or Q&P for short, is with Paul Kurnit, professor of marketing at Pace University. Paul also has his own business, Kurnit Communications and KidShop. A Cortlandt Manor resident, Paul has had experience on the other side of the TV screen as the father of two adult children, Ara and Jesse.
Q: You’ve helped companies like Disney, the Gap, General Mills, Hasbro, McDonaldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s, Nickelodeon, Scholastic, Sony, Polaroid, Universal Studios and Pepsi market their products to children. What’s the biggest difference between reaching children and older consumers?
P: Children are consumed by and consumers of fun, wonder, fantasy, play and what if? With kids anything is possible. They are pre-socialized, direct, honest and critical in the most innocently perceptive ways. So, reaching them is both challenging and a blast. If so much of what we sell them is about enhancing their lives through discovery and fulfillment, the burden on the communication needs to be clear, differentiated, engaging and truthful. The promise of the experience had better be met by the experience itself. Because the kid buzz network can be brutal on any Monday morning in school when kids will trash an over-promised movie, toy, food or any other weekend purchase that has let them down.
Q: What are some of the techniques you helped companies use to advertise to kids? How has this business become increasingly sophisticated? Any war stories?
P: In the Ã¢â‚¬â„¢80s my advertising agency, Griffin Bacal, was a real pioneer in the kids advertising world. Here are several conventions in advertising we invented at that time:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Animation for food advertising was commonly employed, but for toy advertising, it was not permitted by the networks. We changed that.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ As an innovative response to the huge success of Ã¢â‚¬Å“Star WarsÃ¢â‚¬? as a toy line with the movies as the inspiration for the play scenarios, we worked with Marvel Comics to develop a storyline platform first for GI Joe and then Transformers to provide a vehicle for kids to access the brand play patterns beyond the TV commercials we ran. We also produced TV programming for both Ã¢â‚¬â€ and for My Little Pony and other properties that became very successful in their own rite.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We completely changed the face of board game advertising for kids by capturing the core fantasy idea of each game and executing it on film intercut with the actual game play. Until that time, virtually all board game commercials looked alike Ã¢â‚¬â€ four kids sitting around a board smiling and having fun, while a voiceover announcer explained the rules. Our work revitalized the Milton Bradley business that had been acquired by Hasbro.
Q: You also been an executive vice president at Sunbow Entertainment, which brought us TV shows based on toys like the Transformers, GI Joe and My Little Pony. When parents see programs that are tied so closely to toys, we sometimes worry the shows are little more than prolonged advertisements. What was it like inside that environment? Are we right to worry?
P: DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t worry. Much was made of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“program-length advertisingÃ¢â‚¬? issue. The Federal Trade Commission mandated that commercials for like properties could not run in or adjacent to programming of the same name or property. But, the real story here, both then and now, is if the program doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have merit and hold kidsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ interest as a unique entertainment form, the programming will die a quick death. A case in point was a doll property, Jem. We invented a great story about her, a music executive by day, a rock star by night. She had a band. There was a nemesis band. The doll property never made it past year one, but the programming had a successful run, two years after the dolls were pulled from toy store shelves.
Q: When parents hear the words “advertising” and “children” in the same sentence, we tend to get nervous. As someone who is both a parent and a marketing expert who has made a career out of selling stuff to kids, what’s your take?
P: Advertising is the engine of commerce and of democracy. Advertising plays a huge role in informing kids of whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s out there and inspiring interest in wanting goods and services. This is a rite of passage. It is access to the commercial world we live in. For those who express disdain and worse about advertising to kids, the train has left the station. We are no longer an agrarian or industrial 19th century nation where kids worked in fields and factories. TodayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s kids are integrated into the fabric of society. Marketing and advertising is an essential part of that fabric.
Q: You also are involved with the ChildrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau. What’s your reason for getting involved? And what are some of the problems you’ve seen in advertisements to kids?
P: IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been involved with CARU for over 25 years. I leapt at the opportunity to be part of this organization in the early days of my tenure at Griffin Bacal. I firmly believe that commercial communication to kids has got to be responsive and responsible. We need to be diligent and vigilant about the goods and services we Ã¢â‚¬Å“sellÃ¢â‚¬? to kids of varying ages. We need to be certain that our communication is truthful and accessible. And, we need to be constantly in step with new commercial techniques and media to ensure responsible communication to kids.
Q: What makes advertising to kids so powerful, in your view? Is it the child’s willingness to accept the message?
P: Advertising to kids has become much less powerful over time. Kids see so much of it that they are becoming both more immune to and critical of sales pitches. Research shows that about half of all kids today have a healthy distrust of advertising.
Q: What about the role children are playing in making household spending decisions? It seems kids are now only watching the ads, but using those inputs to influence their parents. How is this affecting advertising messages to children?
P: Kids play a large and growing role in household purchase decisions. We have seen a still relatively small but significant growth in kidsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ influence regarding restaurant choices, vacations, technology products, cars and evening family home-buying decisions. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s because todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s family is more closely knit than at any time in history. The post-war adage of Ã¢â‚¬Å“kids should be seen and not heardÃ¢â‚¬? is long over. Kids are active and activist members of the family Ã¢â‚¬â€ third parents in decision making.
Q: As a behind-the-scenes expert in this arena, how has this changed the habits in your own family over the years? Have you ever felt compelled to warn your kids about what they see on TV?
P: My kids grew up through all of the foregoing shift in the kid marketing world. My wife and I never restricted our kids in their TV viewing or toy playing. We always had an active dialog with them and provided a diverse panoply of activities Ã¢â‚¬â€ sports, friends, clubs, music, travel, dining out Ã¢â‚¬â€ to inspire balance in their evolving senses of self and relationship to the world.
Q: What advice do you have for parents who worry about their kids watching advertisements? What kind of conversations do you think are helpful to guide children to be discriminating viewers?
P: Worried parents create worried kids. Parents should be involved with their kids, talking to them, playing with them, guiding them, protecting them. If something on television is inappropriate for kids, parents can make that call, reasonably, realistically, rationally. Kids will Ã¢â‚¬Å“get itÃ¢â‚¬? and appreciate it. Parenting today needs to get back to some of the fundamentals. Kids need rules and limits Ã¢â‚¬â€ a good healthy Ã¢â‚¬Å“noÃ¢â‚¬? when appropriate Ã¢â‚¬â€ to grow up balanced, content and appreciative of what they have and who they are.
Thank you very much to Paul for sharing his knowledge by doing a Q&P! If you would like to be featured, or you know any parents who have expertise to share, please comment here on the blog or send me an e-mail at email@example.com.
And, in case you missed them, here are links to earlier Q&P features. There are interviews with more than a dozen moms and dads, including a dog trainer dad, financial planner mom, writer mom, mathematician mom, baker mom, drug counselor mom and pediatric dentist mom.