Does Technology Change The Ethics Of Marketing To Children?

Marketing campaigns for kids are rapidly evolving. Interactivity may be the future, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t ultimately alienate young users.

Does Technology Change The Ethics Of Marketing To Children?

How do brands succeed in emerging markets? By understanding customers–the contours of their lives, the ways they behave, and their needs and desires. And by showing that what they offer can make their customers’ lives better. Children have always been the largest and most dynamic emerging market on earth. Just as emerging geographical markets move toward economic independence and exploration of possibilities, so do emerging generations.


What’s new is connectivity. Today a child’s preferences and identity are shaped not just on the playground but also across an entire digital world of potential interactions and choices. Something else is sure to emerge tomorrow, but this is what’s emerging today: Kids have interactive screens of all kinds, wherever they go. And they’re not passively watching: They’re choosing what to consume and with whom to engage.

Psychologist and youth marketing consultant James McNeal has written that developed societies are defined by the consumer behavior that informs virtually every activity–working, worshipping, schooling, housekeeping, playing and more. Additionally, McNeal sees the development of consumer behavior as closely linked to our sense of self and presentation. Children as young as 2 identify with brands.

Eager To Learn Shouldn’t Mean Easy to Exploit

Many laws and self-regulatory organizations prohibit ads that exploit the credulity of children. For example, the International Chamber of Commerce prohibits advertising that undermines established social values, or exploits inexperience or credulity, or encourages activities that can be harmful, or suggests that a product conveys physical, psychological, or social advantages.

Anyone who has ever been pestered by a child or teenager to buy something will recognize these as sensible rules–but also that they don’t resolve everything. Today, supervision of children is much more difficult, as marketers have the power to create highly personalized and interactive experiences. With a smartphone or tablet, children can download apps, play games, and share personal information with friends and marketers alike–all without Mom’s approval or even her knowledge.

Some brands have exploited this interactivity. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission reports that most mobile apps aimed at kids fail to provide any information about what personal data is collected and how it is used. Many collect information such as device ID, geo-location, and phone number, and many contain interactive features such as advertising, in-app purchases, and social media links–all without any disclosure to parents.


New Technology Can Support Timeless Principles

Fortunately, the same tools that can be used to deceive can also be used to deliver responsible brand messages, as well as to spread the word about brands that fail to meet their social obligations to vulnerable populations.

Although children begin to form consumer preferences at an early age, it takes time to achieve intellectual, emotional, and financial independence. By age 9 or 10, most kids have their parents’ trust to make some independent purchases. But they don’t always exercise wise judgment, and brands can get into trouble when they take unfair advantage of that. On the other hand, brands that are seen as positive influences build their reputations, enabled by social media.

The most successful brands stand for something that transcends categorization. Today it’s not just about the share of voice, as in the children’s TV model of advertising, but about the “share of conversation.” Although brands can curate or moderate the conversation, they can’t own it. Everything the brand says, and everything kids or their parents say, becomes part of the social discourse. Brands need to seize every opportunity to shape this discourse–and it has to be about more than driving sales. is an integrated campaign by Kotex that engages girls in answering their questions, debunking myths, and encouraging personal action to end the sexualization and stigma surrounding open discussion of their anatomy and menstruation. There’s a website (including a mobile-optimized version) with questions and answers from peers, moms, and health experts; a downloadable “Bust a Myth Kit” linked with Instagram; a “Conversation Starter” linked with Pinterest and Facebook; a “Spread the Word Kit”; and more charitable and media extensions, including a hilarious traditional ad campaign.

Kotex uses social engagement to promote values that help parents feel good about bringing the product into their home. That means giving kids opportunities to express themselves positively. And it means helping parents feel in control.


Lego understands this, too. It’s a brand we all grew up with, and Lego sets are passed down from generation to generation since the essential form factor of individual pieces doesn’t change. Legos have automatic parental approval, and in their basic form they’re pure creativity.

But over the years Lego has added pre-designed and licensed figures that tap into popular culture, as well as kits that appeal to a range of ages and imaginations. This strategy is tied together with this kind of campaign, targeted to dads who want to connect with their kids.

Chances are you’re familiar with Lego’s public art installations or its pop-up events at vacation spots, but the brand also has websites, kids’ apps (for long car rides), and movies. The brand appeals to kids and parents by being always classic and yet always new.

The Youth Market Is the Future of Every Market

We’ve covered kids’ interconnectedness and how brands can lead a healthy conversation with them. But also remember this: Today’s kids can talk back to brands, whether to express a personal aspiration or register a very public complaint. Even kids without the money to spend on a product can influence its success through Facebook, Twitter, and product reviews.

It’s another reason why today, first principles are more important than ever in marketing to kids: Understand your customers. Show how you can make their lives better. This is crucial in any emerging market where people are gaining new resources and forging new communities of shared interest. But this market–the global youth market–is unlike any other. They’re all around us, they’re linked together, and they’re the future. Let’s raise them well.


Bruce Levinson is the Vice President of Brand Strategy at the New York office of Anthem Worldwide, part of the brand development division of Schawk, Inc. His previous positions include director-level marketing roles at Unilever in the U.S. and U.K. and as an advertising account executive.

[Image: Flickr user Fabrice Terrasson]