Small children mean big business for advertisers

Tue, Oct 16, 2012, 01:00

With 75 per cent of families’ household budgets being spent on children, according to UK research, it’s no wonder advertisers consider children big business, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

THE EXEMPTION of cheese has been the biggest talking point about new restrictions on the advertising of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar to children, which were announced last week.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) had caused consternation within the dairy industry back in March when it produced a draft of proposed changes to the Children’s Commercial Communications Code that targeted cheese, alongside other food classed as less healthy, such as potato crisps, confectionery and “most breakfast cereals”.

It is now saying cheese adverts will be allowed during children’s TV programmes but must include an on-screen message indicating the recommended maximum daily consumption limit. However, the advertising of cheese-based products, such as pizza, is likely to be included in the ban – although this won’t be clear until publication in the new year of the nutrient profiling model that will determine exactly which food and drink belong in the high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) category, according to a BAI spokeswoman.

The new code, due to come into force next July, will also forbid the use of cartoon characters, such as Peppa Pig, and celebrities or sports stars to promote HFSS food and drink in advertising that is broadcast outside children’s programme times but directed at children.

Revision of these guidelines for Irish broadcasters is seen by some as an important step in combating the alarming rise in childhood obesity. But others would argue that such moves against marketing to children have shades of King Canute’s futile attempts to hold back the tide.

For a start, two-thirds of Irish TV viewing is on non-Irish channels and so is not subject to the BAI code, nor does it apply to the online world.

TV advertising represents only a part of the marketing children are bombarded with.

The revised code will have “minuscule effect” in the opinion of Sheena Horgan, Irish author of a new e-book called Candy-coated Marketing, which aims to “lift the lid of the Pandora’s Box of accepted marketing norms regarding children”.

A marketing consultant and concerned mother of four girls, ranging from six to 14, she sees the issues from both perspectives.

While parents will agree that children are subjected to far too much marketing and quote certain ads, it is not just the TV ads we need to be concerned about because marketing is “omnipresent”, she says.

It comes at them online, through magazines and newspapers, supermarkets, outdoor advertising, product placement in TV and films, brand tie-ins, brand ambassadors and even through schools.

The amount of money and effort that goes into reviews, such as that of the BAI children’s code, is “colossal” she says. “And for what? I would love to say it would work but I can’t see it.”

In the US, Disney announced last June that, by 2015, food and drink which does not meet its new nutritional guidelines will be banned from advertising aimed at children on Disney-owned television channels, radio stations and websites.

Some of its own endorsements, such as Toy Story characters with McDonald’s Happy Meals, had already been stopped.

Disney said that although it would lose some advertising revenue, the initiative was good for its image as a reliable, family-orientated company.

This is a first by a media owner, says Horgan, but she notes that US advertising and marketing magazines said it was just Disney playing PR and it would not make any difference.

Candy-coated Marketing not only aims to tell parents what is going on, “often under the radar”, but also to give marketing people a “bit of a kick” to look at what they’re doing and to encourage business and brand owners to review how they are dealing with this sector of the market.

Big business is after the hearts and minds of our children. While parents are now bracing themselves for an avalanche of Christmas-themed TV advertising aimed at their children (the BAI code permits it only from November 1st), commandeering the Santa lists is only one target of marketers.

Brands are trying to enlist children as life-long followers, and businesses are levering children’s influences in all sorts of household purchases, from the family car and phones to computers and holidays. So are children fair game?

Horgan does not think so but, she says, “I can understand why they target that market. Children are consumers but they’re also children, so they are vulnerable consumers.”

Children may be the purchasers, the end users or the influencers and “sometimes they are just present in the brand environment so we do have to consider them”.

She quotes UK research that found 75 per cent of families’ household budgets go on children. “Children have moved up the agenda across the board and we are more mindful of listening to children,” she says.

This trend is reflected not just in marketing aimed at children but also in the current fad of having “know-all” children in advertising for adult products such as cars, broadband and insurance policies. Today’s consumerist society is far from ideal but she is not blaming business, politicians or parents for the current state of affairs.

“This is it – deal with it,” she says, and part of that is to be more aware and critical of marketing. Here are some key issues to consider when it comes to marketing and children:


Today’s children are the first to be raised in a world of digital media, where it is very hard to distinguish between content which has been paid for and that which has not.

Lots of brands put “advergames” up on their sites, which appeal to children. They’re fun and repetitive, so children will return again and again, and are likely to invite their friends to try them too. There’s a tidal wave of business moving online, says Horgan, and neither the industry nor politicians can police it, so parents have to find a way to do so.

“The best way parents can police it is to arm themselves with knowledge, have the conversation and empower their kids. That is why I have been constantly pushing that.”

She believes education is more beneficial than the carrot-and-stick approach to industry.


When we live in such a media-saturated society, we are doing our kids a disservice by not giving them the life skills to deal with all the media that is out there.

Children need to recognise when they are being sold to, she says.

Horgan believes a media literacy programme needs to be developed and taught in all schools.

“If you want a proper media literacy programme, you probably have to go to industry – and then have it tailored and sanctioned by educators,” she says. “It is only industry who can really tell you what is going on.”


In an ideal world, she argues, there would be no place for businesses or brands in schools.

But the reality, particularly at a time of education cutbacks, is that they are a valuable resource of both intellect and finance. For instance, pupils are benefiting from computer technology initiatives sponsored by the likes of Intel and Microsoft.

And business sponsors may be required to equip a sports team or support inter-school events.

“If they are willing to engage in schools that should be encouraged but we need strict, clear guidelines.”

At the moment there are none for schools on what the rules of engagement should be – although Horgan has compiled a draft set she will send to any school on request.

“It is to try to get the schools to think of the consequences. Make sure there is a written agreement; get the brand or the business to articulate what they want to do; make sure there is some longevity in it.”


Children’s brands have multi-marketing down to a fine art and sometimes it is hard to remember whether the toy, the film, the book, video game or TV show came first – but the stationary, confectionery, lunch-boxes, pyjamas and the tablet PC are definitely spin-offs. “Children, especially young children, embrace characters with a voracity that permeates their daily lives,” says Horgan. “Tying in a product or brand with a character that is loved by kids and accepted by mums is a marketing dream, as the product or brand can be imbued with some of that associated ‘love’.”

Unfortunately licensed characters tend to be associated with less healthy foods because, inevitably it seems, it is the less healthy brands which have the deeper pockets when it comes to marketing.


The lines of demarcation between the adult and child’s world today are distinctly blurred and children both consume and covet adult media and brands as much as their own. Advertising often plays on the desire and aspiration of children to be older than they are by, for instance, using children in the ads who are older than the age group a toy typically would attract.


Everybody wants happy children but a fundamental aim of marketing is to make people want something they don’t have – it is fostering dissatisfaction with the status quo. While it is alright to want something, children often say they “need” it.

“We have to step back as parents and realise that they think they really need it,” says Horgan. “So we need to have the conversation about what needing really is. It does work but I know it is not easy.”

Candy-coated Marketing by Sheena Horgan is published by Oak Tree Press and is available on, price €1.99.


Marketing is a powerful tool that can – and should – be used for social good as well as commercial gain, argues Sheena Horgan.

She offers the following “framework for solutions”:

1. Recognition: children need to be seen as vulnerable consumers in their contact with most businesses and brands

2. Acknowledgement: brands that engage with children and their families should have an explicit marketing code that deals with how they engage with children via all media channels, which adheres to the spirit, as well as the letter, of child-related regulations.

3. Education: a media literacy programme needs to be taught in schools, to help children recognise all marketing for what it is.

4. Empowerment: in the absence of groups such as the National Family Parenting Institute and Mumsnet, that wield considerable influence in the UK, she believes Ireland needs an umbrella movement to raise the issues and galvanise awareness and discussion. Last March she launched the Positive Childhood Campaign in collaboration with the parents’ information website MyKidsTime (see

5. Social marketing: marketing is a potentially powerful social tool and all the industry’s players need to embrace their corporate citizenship and deploy their skills responsibly. There should also be consideration of how commercial marketing skills might be used for social campaigns to address children’s issues.

6. Awareness: the biggest barrier to creating responsible marketing to children is awareness. Without adult consumers, parents, grandparents et al being aware of what is going on, it cannot be redressed.

Complaints to Advertising Standards Authority

Concern among parents and commentators about inappropriate marketing targeting children does not seem to be reflected in complaints made to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI).

In its last complaints bulletin, published in September, only one ad out of 25 it had recently investigated was due to complaints relating to children. It involved outdoor advertising by a radio station that was considered by two complainants as unsuitable for display close to a primary school. The complaints were not upheld.

According to figures supplied by the ASAI, in the full year 2011 a total of 1,535 complaints were made about 1,055 ads. Of the 326 complaints investigated, concerning 127 adverts, only 17 of them, concerning six ads, related to children’s issues.

Two of those adverts were found to be in breach of the ASAI code, which stipulates that “marketing communications addressed to children should not exploit the loyalty, credulity, vulnerability or lack of experience of children”. The previous year four adverts relating to children, which had attracted 17 complaints, were investigated and one was found in breach.

For more information about the ASAI code and complaints procedures, see

In the US, Disney announced last June that, by 2015, food and drinks that do not meet its new nutritional guidelines will be banned from advertising aimed at children on Disney-owned television channels, radio stations and websites. Some of its own endorsements, such as Toy Story characters with McDonald’s happy meals, had already been stopped

Media and marketing by numbers


ads a year are seen by children


minutes a day is average time spent watching TV by Irish children aged four to 17


of children aged nine to 12 in Europe who use social networks have a public profile

5 million

children under the age of 10 worldwide were using Facebook in 2011

€897 million

was spent on ads, excluding online, in Ireland in 2011

€132 million

was spent on online ads


of children in the UK aged under 13 play video games rated above their age

Source: figures quoted in Candy-coated Marketing

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