For 2004, Chicago-based Teen Research Unlimited (TRU) estimates teens ages 12 to 19 spent an average of $91 per week, or a total of $169 billion annually. That's down slightly from 2003, but TRU projects teen spending will continue to rise, with all those crumpled bills and cashed checks from relatives, accounting for $205 billion in annual spending by 2008.
With that much money at stake, the business of youth marketing has grown exponentially, not only in the amount of dollars spent but also in the perception of how appropriate it is to target children specifically. According to a recent poll done by Harris Interactive, youth marketers now say that the age of 7 is an appropriate age to begin marketing to kids. By about age 12, kids think they're old enough to make intelligent choices as consumers. In the same poll, marketers overwhelmingly agreed (91 percent), that kids are being marketed to in ways they don't even notice.
And that's the key. Kids are savvier than ever, and traditional advertising is simply not as effective as it once was. For Smashing Ideas, a Seattle-based agency specializing in interactive media for kids, integration and branding are critical, as is letting kids feel like they're part of the scene, not outsiders being marketed to.
"It's all about autonomy," says Jill Brown, a senior producer at Smashing Ideas. "It's taking the traditional TV shows for kids or the new toy coming out in the market and making it an interactive experience with that item."
In practice, that means clients like Nickelodeon will approach Smashing Ideas and say they'd like an online SpongeBob game created for Nick.com. Or Lego, looking to create an emotionally resonant experience for kids, wants to develop a fun, interactive maze on Lego.com. The maze features animated Lego products that kids can get their parents to buy at retail.
Rahna Barthelmess, a brand manager at Lego, says the company has expanded its use of interactive games and experiences over the past several years, though traditional advertising remains part of the mix.
"We won't walk away from traditional media, but we're really focused on how to add other ways to reach kids," Barthelmess says. "Kids are multi-tasking now. The TV is on, they're IMing a friend with the computer while also flipping through a magazine. So we put a commercial on TV, but we also have something online to hit them in multiple ways. The goal is to ensure we make the brand as pervasive as possible."
Barthelmess says Lego tries to stay sharp and fresh. "We want to make sure the media we use is just as creative and imaginative as our product," she says. "So we're always looking for something that will make people think of Lego in a different way, or at a time when they might not have thought of us."
But even with whiz-bang Flash animation becoming more prevalent, there are still some marketers who do just fine with more traditional vehicles, like catalogs. American Girl, for instance, has become hugely popular with girls, mostly through awareness built around its books and dolls catalog.
"Our success comes through a proprietary product that we promote through direct marketing," says Julie Parks, public relations director at American Girl. "We just focus on getting those catalogs in the hands of girls from 3 to 12. It's a very targeted marketing plan."
Parks says American Girl goes for a deeper message through its books and the stories surrounding its dolls. By controlling the story, she says, American Girl also controls the channel. Last fall though, the company did turn to traditional media, teaming with the WB on "Samantha: An American Girl Holiday," an original made-for-television movie. The program attracted 6 million viewers.
The Vendors<>br Kids don't necessarily differentiate between a PC and the TV; they are both screens filled with entertainment. This has compelled media outlets such as Disney and Nickelodeon to make their online presence every bit as engaging as what they put on TV. But even as vendors from Discovery Kids to Cartoon Central work to integrate what's on TV with what's online, there's always the added concern of who's watching what the kids are watching.
"It's a type of intrusion," says Smashing Ideas' Jill Brown. "It's the marketer placing themselves between the child and the parent, and it's getting more stringent - what you can do online."
Brown refers to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which limits the type of data vendors can gather online from kids under 13. Even so, those vendors who target kids continue to perform strongly. Nickelodeon, for example, which saw its "SpongeBob SquarePants" movie rake in more than $80 million, continues its reign as the top-rated basic cable channel over the entire program day. Barring a broad scale societal backlash, it appears the dollars aimed at marketing to kids will only increase.
For Lego's Barthelmess, electronic and technological advances will provide a lot of opportunities in the near future, provided they don't go overboard.
Smashing Ideas' Brown agrees.
"The next five years will be huge for mobile [toys and games]," she says. "From GameBoys to cell phones... anything you can take with you so you're not just sitting in a chair looking at a monitor."
Brown says the focus on interactivity will accelerate in part, due to the migration from Java to Flash, enabling developers to create more sophisticated games.