Pierce Hollingsworth

Kids today have more money, time, and discretion than ever before. In some ways, they’re just like the rest of us were at that tender age—6–11 years is the generally accepted age bracket for kids—but this group has far more buying power than any before it, and they are more independent and absorb more information—and opinion—than any previous generation.

In 1998, kids spent $25 billion of their own money and influenced another $187 billion, according to Griffin Bacal, a Manhattan-based kid-focused ad agency. That’s more than twice as much spending as five years earlier.

Spending increased by an average of 20% per year through the 1990s.

One-quarter of kids in the United States are bilingual, with most speaking Spanish.

Eight of 10 U.S. kids live with one or more siblings.

The average 6-year-old shops about three times a week, including one trip to the grocery store.

After a decade of decline, births are increasing. This will begin to expand the kids market population within six years.

Almost half of all kids regularly prepare meals for themselves, up from 15% in 1988, according to a 1999 study by Yankelovich Partners. More than a quarter of these young chefs regularly prepare meals for their families. According to the study, “Two working parents, more convenient food offerings from brand manufacturers, and Generation Y’s sense of independence are making it more feasible for kids to share in the cooking responsibilities.”

Among teenagers, food spending ranks third behind clothes and entertainment. Fast food leads the category, according to this year’s Rand Youth Poll, a New York–based research study.

“Kids are becoming active and sophisticated consumers at an extremely young age,” asserts Heather Chaplin of American Demographics magazine. “At the same time, their very childishness makes them particularly good targets.” Childishness usually means fun and irreverence, and food marketers are increasingly willing to oblige. Last year, Good Humor-Breyers introduced a new line of Popsicles® called Tongue Splashers—a big red mouth of strawberry and lemon ice, featuring a dangling tonsil and extended tongue on a conventional wooden stick. Inside the “tongue” is a gumball that releases food dyes in “awesome hues,” according to the company. In addition, the company launched Big Bang—layered sweet-and-sour ice embedded with carbon dioxide granules—and Micro Pops—ice beads with carbon dioxide capsules that pop when eaten.

The kid culture is surprisingly homogeneous. It cuts across ethnicity, geography, and social status. What appeals to a kid on the South Side of Chicago will probably appeal to a kid in Beverly Hills. This makes them easier to reach, through marketing programs that connect with them in virtually every context, including kid-oriented food company Web sites.

One of the most controversial environments, however, is the school. Food product advertisements reach students on book covers, kids’ magazines, newspapers, educational posters, and teaching materials in increasing numbers, according to Jane Levine of Education Digest. One elementary school cafeteria in Massachusetts has a large chart featuring McDonald’s Golden Arches and the theme Pig Out on Books. Students get free food and trinkets depending on the number of books read. Many branded food companies are initiating school lunch programs. About 9% of elementary schools in the school lunch program offered brand-name fast foods during the 1995–96 school year, according to Education Digest. The most popular brands were Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Taco Bell. Programs such as Pizza Hut’s Book It and McDonald’s McSpell It Club reward kids with food for good classroom performance.

Kellogg developed nutrition education kits that promote Pop Tarts and several of its cereals. General Mills sponsors teaching materials and computer software that emphasize the importance of breakfast, and its Big G Box Tops for Education program donates cash to schools based on box top collection. Some schools even permit direct paid advertising, primarily from snack food and soft drink companies. Sampling Corp. of America is the leader in placing food samples in schools for major branded food companies. In its Halloween promotion, students receive trick-or-treat bags displaying brand logos and safety advice along with product samples.

The debate surrounding these marketing tactics can pit food companies and administrators seeking needed revenue against school policy advocates who are concerned about kids’ diets and would guide marketing emphasis away from foods high in fat, sugar, sodium, and calories. School is a suspect commercial environment, so the winners will be those who can truly deliver education and health benefits and demonstrate that the sponsored programs and financial support are a real value.

Marketers should follow ten basic approaches, according to James McNeal, in his book Kids as Customers:
Hire specialists who have experience in working with children and youth.

Replace the adult moderator with a peer in focus groups.

Go where the kids are—home, school, camp, sporting events, and concerts.

Assist kids in accurately expressing themselves through pictures, story telling, or personifications.

Establish new and continuing relationships with children and youth.

Utilize modern technology—the Internet.

Seek out and use trend information.

Study minority children and youth, who usually make up one-third or more of a given market.

Add parents and educational personnel because of their potential role as “gatekeeper.”

Search out one-stop resources.

Finally, remember the Mom test: If it’s yucky to her, it’s got real potential in the kids market.

Contributing Editor