Branded: The Kids Are All Right

Hey kids, just say no to drugs -- and to product integration. That's been the prevailing line over the years, and marketers have generally toed the party line. Most marketers, anyway. In the recent Universal Pictures children's release "Curious George," the studio thumbed its nose at all the product integration no-nos, having the famous chimp from the popular book series crash into crates of Dole fruit, while the Man in the Yellow Hat tools around in a Volkswagen.

Of course, Ralph Nader and his notorious band of busybodies had something to say about it. "It's targeting young children who don't understand advertising very well and definitely don't understand product placement, which is more stealth," quoth archangel Gary Ruskin of the Nader-backed Commercial Alert, a product placement watchdog group.

While "Curious George" doesn't appear to be directly targeting kids, it does appear to target them indirectly as influencers. Kids obviously don't buy food for the household or cars, their parents do; but kids do influence their parents' decision-making process. Brands like VW and Dole apparently believe enough in the difference kids can make that they've risked raising the ire of regulators and children's special interest groups. VW's integration in the film was borne from a reported $200 million overall branded entertainment deal that the German automaker made with NBC Universal in 2004.

Over the years, marketers as big as McDonalds have run afoul of both regulation and public relations in their efforts to engage America's youth. Kellogg's recently faced litigation in the state of Massachusetts, where it was accused of unfairly and deceptively marketing food of poor nutritional quality to children under the age of eight.

Despite these obstacles, marketers remain undeterred. In March, Radio Disney said it would offer ad-supported podcasts aimed at 6- to 14-year-olds, beginning this month. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Xbox, in an attempt to expand beyond its core 18- to 34-year-old male gamer franchise into children's games, announced a plan to hype its new Xbox 360 game "Viva Pinata." The characters in the video game, which will be available at retail during the holiday season, will be introduced on a new Fox animated series also called "Viva Pinata," to air Saturday mornings during Fox's 4Kids TV block.

These new efforts echo similar programs from the past several years. Last year, toymaker Mattel launched a yearlong promotion of its line of 2005 Hot Wheels AcceleRacers through a multiplatform branded entertainment effort targeted at boys ages 6 to 11. As a part of a deal with Time Warner's Cartoon Network, the campaign included a 4-part series of one-hour animated movies that ran on the cable network, as well as 16 Internet short films that ran on the Cartoon Network Web site, alongside downloadable games and other interactive content.

The films, depicting a face-off between World Race drivers and the villainous Gelorum and her Racing Drones, were later distributed on DVD and VHS through Warner Home Video. The effort was inspired by a steady year-on-year sales decline for Hot Wheels. Mattel had employed a similar entertainment strategy to stem a sales slide for its Barbie brand.

In February 2004, NeoPets Inc., the popular kids' Web site that allows members to create "virtual pets," inked a multiyear pact with General Mills for a brand integration and "immersive advertising" deal. The pact encompassed branding for Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, and other cereals.

As a part of the arrangement, General Mills got an interactive interface on that served as a gateway to the General Mills Cereal Adventure, a gaming area on the site. The General Mills brands were actually characters in the games and were purchased using "neopoints." The deal also included the streaming of cereal commercials from the site. NeoPets, which was purchased by MTV Networks in 2005, generates 5 billion page views per month and is available globally. Kids are generally early adopters of new digital offerings. The Internet, cell phones, and podcasting present great new opportunities for brands.

So it looks like full steam ahead, at least until the FCC comes up with a P-Chip for product placement.


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