As a hardened child of the nineties, I remember the marketing for kids products all too well.
Pulsing kaleidoscopic ads; bellowing cartoon characters – BUY! BUY! BUY! Toys in cereal, toys with magazines, toys with everything. Sweets at the checkout, sweets on TV, drink this Panda Pop, chew this gum, nag your mum. Not those plasters, the ones with Power Rangers. I mean Pokemon. Ah yes, the nineties were hell.
Thankfully today is a little different – how children are targeted has been a hot topic, often tied (albeit without evidence) to the obesity epidemic.
One rarely sees sweets at checkouts anymore, and ads promoting poor nutritional habits are banned – as are promotions to under 12s, and those using licensed characters.
Things have certainly changed.
But many brands still get it heinously wrong, according to Emma Worrollo, founder of the Pineapple Lounge, a research consultancy specialising in building meaningful relationships with the next generation.
“I didn’t really feel the industry had moved on to reflect the generation of young people”, she says. “I wanted a business that was as though Generation Z designed a company to better understand them.”
Worrollo established the Pineapple Lounge in 2010, six months after giving birth to her first child. Seven years later, she’s advising brands from Lego to McDonald’s on how to better understand, and interact, with Generation Z. I’m admittedly confused as to what Gen Z is, Worrollo is on hand to help me out: under 18 is the easiest way to remember it.
This generation don’t watch television like kids did even a decade ago, so targeting them on the box is futile. The proliferation of video on demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, online services such as YouTube, or tablet-based apps, are a bit more up their street. Clearly kids are used to having control over their media, but it’s not just where they are targeted that concerns Worrollo – it’s what and how they are targeted that she insists needs to change.
“There’s a lot of talk about ‘purpose driven marketing’,” says Worrollo, “which is what Generation Z want. However the way the industry understands that is quite warped. Trying to combine the need for authenticity with purpose driven marketing can become quite a mess. And I think brands have interpreted purpose with trying to wade into big social issues: political stances, saving the world. And that’s not what they want from a purpose. A purpose can be fun! Or it can be something more topical and social, like when Always did #LikeAGirl, it makes sense, it fits the product and what they’re talking about – it feels authentic.
Although privacy is a clear concern for Worrollo, it’s not the origin of her bugbear with how children are targeted. She accepts that in a consumer-led society, children will be targeted, and should be educated to better understand what’s going on. It’s the tone that gets to her.
“What I have a problem with is when the techniques of communicating with children aren’t of the same quality as when communicating with an adult,” she grumbles. “When I consume information from brands, I have a range of experiences: it might make me laugh or feel emotional, or make me think or give me good information. But when you look at how children are communicated to, it’s still quite old school in terms of one way, quite shouty: ‘here’s the product. Here’s the product!’ And that’s because the blueprint does to a certain extent work, but I find that quite frustrating, it’s quite lazy.”
Marketers that have tried to buck the trend have exacerbated another one – a reverse pester power of sorts – in which children are targeted vicariously through their parents. This gatekeeper marketing takes the child out of the picture entirely, diminishing their choice as consumers.
“I hate the word ‘gatekeepers’,” howls Worrollo. “That’s not how you should be thinking of a person you want to engage with your brand. Loads of brands have used that strategy – talking to parents only. But now we’re in a place where it is possible to have a dual strategy: it’s possible to create an experience that will talk to different generations. Families now are more like teams and it’s less about something for the parents, something for the kids – there’s a more symbiotic happiness that we can create.”
I ask whether ethical standards set by the Advertising Standards Authority and Committee of Advertising Practice go far enough in ensuring that as the internet evolves, it becomes a place where children’s best interests are catered for.
“It’s difficult – it’s all still so new. These new networks and experiences have come out and it’s like we’ve binged on them for years, and now we feel a bit sick. I think – and hope – that we look back in another generation time and think ‘oh god the internet was like the Wild West’.”
For the parents of the first generation of digital natives though, she feels sympathy. “They’ve had nothing to go on – they have no personal experience, their parents didn’t have to do it. There’s no common ground for what’s appropriate.”
Worrollo adds that although the state and industry regulators might have a role to play, she takes a more holistic view.
“Rather than a practical: ‘this is what you are and aren’t allowed to do’, I’d say any marketing must have a genuine value to bring to family life. As an ethical principle for my business, we don’t make recommendations that don’t have something in it for everyone. We wouldn’t make a recommendation that’s going to be commercially valuable for a client, unless we can see a positive outcome.”