Content Marketing
The Ethics of Marketing to Children and Teens

The Ethics of Marketing to Children and Teens

November 27, 2017
3 min read

Do you remember waking up early on Saturday mornings, grabbing a bowl of sugary cereal, and settling down in front of the TV to watch the best cartoons around?

If so, you probably remember the wave after wave of commercials that attacked your senses. Crazy characters, bright colors, amazing toys, and catchy jingles, all designed to get kids to beg their parents to buy a new toy or snack food.

Back in the day, what came through the TV and the newspaper was the extent of marketing kids would encounter, but that is no longer the case.

Just like adults, kids are being constantly bombarded by ads from every direction. Yet, because of their impressionable nature, there needs to be ethics on how businesses market to children in today’s world. If part of your target audience includes children, here are some ethical guidelines you need to follow to maintain consumer trust.

Don’t Trick Kids

Kids are easy to trick. Hide a ball behind your back and you can convince them it mysteriously disappeared. A good general rule is to not try to trick kids into getting something they don’t actually want. Don’t mislead, lie to, distract, or confuse kids.

A very common place this happens is on mobile devices. Often, parents use tablets and phones as a way to entertain kids when they have other things they need to do. There is a whole market of apps to teach and play with kids, but all of these have ads of some sort. Since kids are often on these devices with little or no supervision, some devious app developers include ads that either force kids to click on them and buy stuff with their parent’s money, or just make it too hard to exit out of the ad.

If at any time you are either taking away a kid’s agency or straight up lying to them, reconsider your strategy. Not only is it the wrong thing to do, you will damage your business’ reputation with adults — the people with the real money.

Don’t Target Adult Products to Kids

Back in 1991, a study was done to analyze the brand recognition with three- to six-year-olds. Twelve brand logos were shown that included ones meant for both kids and adults, including logos for two cigarette companies. The children were able to properly identify most brands, but the ones with the highest recognition were for Disney and Camel cigarettes (who had a cartoon mascot and logo).

This study demonstrates that children can identify and remember marketing that they see as long as it resonates with them. Theoretically, if a company wanted to start building brand recognition and loyalty early, they could begin with kids around three years old.

Marketers, though, have a duty to help protect the youth and not expose them to adult themes with their marketing. That’s why after the above mentioned study, governments everywhere created laws that prevented tobacco companies from using cartoon mascots or airing ads on daytime television.

Protecting Children From Danger

Marketing to children is not a bad thing. It’s how toys get sold, games get played, and it’s a part of the economy. If your target market is kids, though, it is your responsibility to keep them safe.

If at any point, you capture data or information from the child, you need to make sure that it stays safe no matter what. For example, a company that sells teddy bears that have recorded messages from children to their parents was hacked, which could put the names of children out in the public. Not only does this put kids at risk, this kind of data breach can be a black mark on a company’s reputation for years to come.

Another area to consider is companies marketing video games or online services to children. Kids might put their personal names or emails to sign up for a service and it’s the company’s responsibility to protect them. Because of their vulnerable nature, if emails get leaked, people might start harassing or taking advantage of them. If you aren’t able to fully protect your children market, you need to upgrade your security measures.

Similarly, if you market to kids, you need to make sure your product is safe for kids to use. You wouldn’t want to market LEGOS to kids young enough to choke on the pieces or dangerous tools like electric drills to eight-year-olds.

Help Children Become Informed Consumers

Children are the future. The future is also trending towards having more informed consumers, meaning content marketing will continue to grow. Instead of encouraging children to make purchasing decisions based off of emotions like advertising of old, help them become thoughtful buyers. Help them make comparisons between products and do research. If you have a strong content marketing designed for kids, not only will you find better higher sales, but you are helping improve the world.

Do your part to protect children. Be ethical in your marketing and not only will you stay legally safe, you’ll find lifelong advocates for your business, both in children and their parents.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.