Marketing and Ethics and Kids, Oh My!

By: Richard Hill
Nov 1, 2016 12:55 PM ET

Marketing and ethics are two words that some may think are too often at opposing sides of the same spectrum, especially where kids are concerned. Kids are a unique demographic to market to, but a vital one that we must be careful with if we hope to make sustainable behavioral changes that will drive positive, healthier life choices.

Why does marketing to kids have such a bad rap? It’s largely because major media often focus on advertising and marketing’s negative effects. The Guardian published an article in which Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, argued that, “Advertising, in and of itself, is harmful to children.” Marketing targets emotions, not intellect, Linn said. “It trains children to choose products, not for the actual value of the product, but because of celebrity or what’s on the package.”

She has a point. But this argument completely ignores the other side of the issue: the positive effects of marketing. Statesman Winston Churchill said it best: “Where there is great power there is great responsibility.” Marketing is a powerful science that can easily persuade, especially kids, to not only buy things, but to do things. So instead of condemning a science like marketing, let’s look at how responsible adults can harness its power to achieve positive outcomes. Let’s leverage it to improve the quality of life of our children.

So how should companies design marketing strategies to create a positive impact for kids? First, as with any marketing strategy, understand your consumers—and when kids are your target, that means kids AND parents. That is not to say that we should market to kids and parents the same way. First we must understand how kids think, play, and process information. Then we need to understand the parents’ desired outcomes for their children. Marketing content should be fun, and kids can tell instantly if you are trying to work them. If it’s about fun first, then you can sneak in the educational or behavioral components that support the parents’ desired outcomes.

When marketing to kids, success requires a marriage of psychology and marketing. Researchers and psychologists, using in-depth knowledge about children’s developmental, emotional and social needs at different ages, analyze children’s behavior, fantasy lives, artwork, and even their dreams so companies are able to craft sophisticated marketing strategies.

One such strategy that has proven successful with kids for companies from Disney to Sodexo is the field of behavioral economics.  Behavioral economics marshals psychology and economic research to demonstrate how individuals make choices. The key to influencing behavior is the way choices are presented. In a rushed, distraction-filled environment, choices that are more convenient and attention-getting are more likely to be selected, and simple “nudges” can yield results. An example of this is Sodexo’s partnership with Cornell University on the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement. This project uses little to no-cost tools to improve the eating behaviors of children, and thus their overall health.

With projects like this, marketing in action is already making a positive impact in kids’ lives. So let’s continue to choose the positive side of marketing, be ethically responsible and use our powers for good to nudge kids to products or behaviors that will truly increase their quality of life.