Is Kid-Targeted Marketing Unethical?

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As members of a digitally native, tech-reliant generation, most U.S. children use the Internet daily. Market research firm KidSay says that more than 40 percent of children ages eight to 11 use it as often as five times each day, for periods from several minutes to more than an hour during each session.

Younger kids are contributing to this growth as well; by next year, analysts predict that 24.3 million U.S. children under age 11 (roughly half of all kids in that demographic) will be regular Internet users. As young viewers are increasingly exposed to online content, marketers are faced with an ethical dilemma: Is it ever appropriate to advertise to children?

Kids watch roughly 16,000 advertisements every year, but as the number of smartphones and tablets per home increases, the number of advertisements viewed will likely grow as well. Roughly 84 percent of kids that KidSay surveyed have tablets in their homes, and that percentage is even higher for smartphones, says Ryan Scofield, creative director at KidSay.

A historically divisive issue, marketing to kids has faced strong criticism in recent years. In 2013, First Lady Michelle Obama brought kid-targeted advertising to the forefront of national discussion, naming food companies as the biggest offenders. McDonald's, for example, spent more than $42 million on its Happy Meal advertisements in 2012, The Guardian reports. Obama, who has championed the fight against childhood obesity in recent years, said that advertising fast food to kids leads to unhealthy eating habits, and called on brands to curb the practice.

"Marketing is an integral part of our culture, but while adults develop mental calluses from the constant barrage of ads, children are still developing the ability to distinguish between content and advertising messages," says Cynthia Baron, academic director of the digital media program at Northeastern University. "No matter how smart or sophisticated they may appear, kids are not skeptical. They often have difficulties distinguishing between reality and fiction, truth and consequences."

But youngsters are still consumers—according to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, children under 14 spend more than $40 billion annually, and while they may not technically be doing the buying, those under 12 influence more than $500 billion in purchases, making the choice to end or significantly change kid-centric advertising a tough one. Still, context and content make a difference, Baron says, and many brands have responded positively to the need for more responsible advertising.

In January, 18 companies, including Campbell's Soup, Dannon, General Mills, Kellogg's, Pepsi, and Kraft, adopted strict category-specific nutrition criteria for food that's advertised to children, making it easier for parents to compare products across brands. Though not every item advertised to children under 12 met the new standards, companies have vowed not to advertise those products to kids until changes are made, and have gone so far as to cut certain brands from their product lines.

Even McDonald's has made sweeping changes. After coming under fire for spending millions on marketing the unhealthy items in its Happy Meals to children, McDonald's not only added milk, apple slices, and juice to these meals, but also introduced a new mascot, Happy, to promote the healthier meal option. Though Ronald McDonald will continue to have brand presence, his association with the restaurant chain's classic, less-healthy foods made him a liability to the company's image-changing efforts. Happy, on the other hand, represents a new era for McDonald's, according to the company. "When we make [healthy] choices more fun, it makes kids choose them," Julie Wenger, senior director of U.S. marketing for McDonald's, said in a statement.

Though companies that advertise to kids have made strides in improving their messaging, some critics continue to take up arms against the practice, according to Baron. "There will always be some people who feel that there is no such thing as appropriate advertising for children below a certain age," she explains.

Still, while eliminating kid-centric advertising might be unrealistic for some brands, striving for a compromise in an age where children access the Web regularly is inevitable.

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