Should word-of-mouth be child's play for advertisers?

Weetabix "brand ambassadors" Thomas and Jack Milmine (image courtesy Weetabix) "Brand ambassadors" must make it clear they are being paid to promote products

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Advertisers are increasingly trying to find ways to get consumers to spread the word about their products, but controversy over the involvement of children in this is forcing the advertising industry to examine its practices.

Personal recommendations can be big business.

Often when advertisers try to convince us of the life-enhancing qualities of some new product, we don't buy it. But a recommendation from a friend can be far more persuasive.

"There is this idea that it is a more trusted source, if you have got members of the public saying how brilliant your brand is," says Charlotte McEleny, senior reporter at New Media Age magazine.

"You trust your friends more than you do marketing messages."

However, concerns over the involvement of children in what's called peer-to-peer marketing were expressed in the recent Bailey Review for the government looking at pressures on growing up.

A particular area of concern was the use of "brand ambassadors", where companies recruit children with perceived influence among their peers, and reward them to promote products face-to-face to friends and online on social networks and blogs.

Start Quote

Charlotte McEleny

It's not only because it's more trusted, it's cheaper”

End Quote Charlotte McEleny Senior reporter, New Media Age magazine

Cereal-maker Weetabix recently scoured the country for especially busy children, and is paying 15 youngsters - including a pair of seven-year-old twin boys - to wear Weetabix-branded clothing on their most-active days.

The cereal-maker admits that using children in marketing is controversial, but said its scheme was "completely above board" and required parental consent.

While industry rules say children "must not be made to feel inferior or unpopular for not buying the advertised product", the Advertising Standards Authority says the use of child brand ambassadors is not prohibited.

Megan and Gray Milmine, parents of twins Thomas and Jack, say they are "very proud" their sons were chosen to front the campaign.

"Parents know why Weetabix is great for big days, but we need to find different ways of getting that message across to kids," says marketing director Sally Abbott.

'Spreadable as butter'

With young people readily at the forefront of the technology that is changing the ways we communicate with each other, so the ways that advertisers can target children are also constantly evolving.

Free, branded online games - known as "advergames" - are considered one of the fastest growing areas on the internet, and a whole new sub-section of the marketing industry has sprung up to produce them.

'It happens at an unconscious level'

Young girl on computer

"Advergames and all kinds of online marketing are now regulated by the same codes as TV advertising, but what the codes don't cover is the amount of time a child is exposed to an advert nor the type of messaging.

"There are lots of experiments that have shown that if you don't consciously notice a brand, but you're playing a game that you are having fun with, you make a positive association between the fun you are having and the brand - but you don't really realise that's happening.

"When you then go to the shop and you see this brand, you just somehow feel a strong affinity with this brand, but what you haven't done is you haven't thought about the fact that someone is trying to advertise something to you.

"Even kids of quite a young age, if they see a TV advert, they know it's an advert and they can be a little bit sceptical about it.

"With advergames and other kinds of immersive advertising, you don't have the opportunity to do that. It happens at an unconscious, implicit, automatic level."

Dr Agnes Nairn, co-author, Consumer Kids

The games are considered effective because they expose players to a brand for longer than a conventional advert - and longer still with repeat plays.

If registration details are required to play or record a score, that can mean valuable consumer data for the company.

And the games are easily emailed to friends, delivering viral marketing for businesses.

"As spreadable as butter on hot toast," is how one London-based digital marketing agency describes its advergames.

These games can be a particularly potent form of advertising, suggests Dr Agnes Nairn, a professor of marketing and co-author of the book Consumer Kids.

"Children from really quite a young age, certainly from even four or five, they can tell, 'That's an advert, that's a programme,' and as they get older they develop scepticism towards the advert," she says.

"With an advergame that's not the case because your primary focus is not on the advert, it's on the game.

"So you are having fun with the game, the brand's there in the background, you make an automatic association between having fun with the game and a positive view of the brand, and that sticks in your subconscious without any kind of sceptical awareness around it at all."

Advergames are being used by all kinds of companies and public bodies.

So, while a ban on junk food advertising on children's television was introduced in 2007, youngsters can now spend hours playing online games featuring many of the same brands.


While these word-of-mouth strategies are still minor in terms of advertising spend in comparison with traditional TV and print campaigns, the level of industry interest is disproportionately high, says Ms McEleny.

"People are quite keen to understand how they can use social media and word-of-mouth because of this opportunity that they see," she says.

"Before, you put your new ad around TV programmes and hoped children talked about it in the playground the next day. I don't think that works so effectively these days."

Marketing on social media allows easy analysis by companies of how their campaigns are being received, Ms McEleny says.

Start Quote

Steve Barton

If this fledgling industry gets undermined by people acting unethically, then it's not going to grow”

End Quote Steve Barton Global brand partner, Ogilvy One Worldwide

"Some online sites are the new playground," she adds. "That is the opportunity for marketers to get your customers to spread the word - it's not only because it's more trusted, it's cheaper."

Industry figures will admit that, right now, they have little idea of the extent of children's use in peer-to-peer marketing.

But in response to the Bailey Review, the advertising industry is conducting a kind of internal audit of the practices ahead of a meeting with government on these issues next month.

The industry insists that its system of self-regulation remains best suited to stay on top of changing methods, arguing that parliamentary legislation takes too long to keep pace with new techniques.

"Research shows that the more parents understand the rules and regulations governing advertising, the more reassured they feel," says an Advertising Association spokesman.

He adds: "The commercial world is a big part of what makes childhood enjoyable and fun but we must not forget that kids are still learning to understand it."

Steve Barton, global brand partner at Ogilvy One Worldwide, says that it is in the industry's interests to work responsibly in order to maintain credibility.

"If this fledgling industry, word-of-mouth marketing gets undermined by people acting unethically or unprofessionally, then it's not going to grow," he says.

"Secondly, a lot of us are parents, we have kids, our friends have kids, and we're not going to do inappropriate activity for those kids."

But overcoming many people's instinctive concerns about young people's involvement in marketing will not be easy.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    "The commercial world is a big part of what makes childhood enjoyable and fun but we must not forget that kids are still learning to understand it."

    Surely that statement tells you everything you need to know that is wrong with the advertising industry in the UK...

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    49. toycollector
    Yet another stunningly un-important topic for the HYS site.
    I disagree. The impact advertising has on kids is obscene: junk food, gadgets, games, and don't get me started on product placement in kids' movies - it's the Marlboro Man all over again. Advertising targeting under 18's should be illegal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    With even 'zed' 'celebrity' given free stuff, like cars, homes, wardrobes, endorsements, highly styled and organised/staged exposure from unlived in fantasy houses or hotel suites in our face - it's all a bit sad and increasingly boring/tedious.

    Majority of adults and older children know it's all fake/staged/sanititised rubbish. But those relentless fake images cause unrest/disappointment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    There can be no serious doubt among right-thinking people that abusing children as product ambassadors in this way is deeply immoral.

    Youngsters are quite simply unable to discriminate and so are at the mercy of these unconscionable techniques.

    Utterly disgraceful and fully reprehensible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Don't you realise that advertising is as old as the pyramids in ancient Egypt where there were all kinds of signs depicting things that you women might like to purchase. They just hadn't got round to branding or product placement on telly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    There is so much advertising around that I ignore it. But it is nauseating to see "cute" kids promoting products.

    And those of us born before the advertising boom managed better than our current brain-washed commercialised youth.

    If a product is good it will sell; it does not need a billion dollar advertising campaign.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    In response to the question the answer is no, let children be children, it's a privileged time in life and they shouldn't be cash cows for big business to manipulate, basically encouraging peer pressure/ bullying to buy their goods and trying to create the next money/image obsessed generation that thinks money will bring happiness. Almost all advertising to children should be banned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Yet another stunningly un-important topic for the HYS site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    'completely above board and required parental consent'.

    Not so.

    I haven't given my consent for my children to be influenced by other children whose parents are being paid. I think it grossly unwise that we allow children to be ambassadors when their targets are other children; it is using children to perpetrate commercial exploitation on both advertisers and their victims.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    almost all wheat bisks are made by weetabix. You've only got to look at the box size and shape and the notches on the lid. Why buy a logo when you can have exactly the same product with the harvest morn/sainsburys/morrisons/whatever logo for much less money? People do that because of gimmicks like this. I hope my word of mouth here stops people paying more for 'weetabix' on the box and not bisks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Personally, I think you should be allowed to use children for advertising purposes - we do it already through buying them branded products, slapping logos all over their clothing, etc. What's so wrong with taking it to the next step.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Perhaps advertisers will one day realize that we are totally peed off with them invading every aspect of our lives. We are not all mindless people that they think we are.
    A service industry that needs serious curtailing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    When I was young (decades ago) we had "don't forget the fruit gums, mum! ", and "the milky bars are on me! ", spoken by children, aimed at children. My parents heard the "Ovalteenies" (WWII-ish), with children singing the praises of a bedtime drink to other children. This is nothing new.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    The degree of resistance to adverts rises rapidly the more one is exposed to it. Just watch how quickly the onscreen ads are skipped over by Computer users of all ages. Even 'word of Mouth' only acts if the source is trusted.
    Ultimately, products will not sell unless they have a value to the purchaser,even where that value is transitory. We all know that there is nothing more transitory than kids

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    These people are after your kids minds... and if that doesn't bother you, it should. If advertising aimed at children isn't stopped, then this is only the start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Using kids is sick. Advertisers take note; it doesn't work on me, I don't buy anything I don't actually need, I never look at or read any ads, I purposely gaze out the window whilst the page is loading so I am not infected by your ads, all junk mail is binned, all loyalty cards are refused. I use charity shops & bargain out-of-date stores if I need anything. And I grow my own veg.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I find it more worrying that advertising is aimed at children than that advertising is using children (e.g. children's clothes need child models, etc.).
    Adults should make purchasing decisions (hopefully rationally), so any encouragement to buy should be aimed at them. Using their children as pressure tools shouldn't work in a well functioning family, but definitely doesn't help family peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    If you really expect greed driven profit obsessed manufacturers or retailers in this country to have any regard for morals, values or standards in their attempts to addict children to their products let alone use children to sell them you must be very naive indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I think this is an absolute disgrace.

    We need to get back to a time when children are allowed to be children and protected from things like this.
    It's bad enough that companies target their advertising at children, but to use them directly as pawns in advertising campaigns is sickening.

    Kids should be allowed to grow and have fun in an environment protected from such manipulation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I can honestly say that I am immune to advertising. I record TV progs & ff through ads. If I am channel flicking & there are ads on I switch over or off. Apparently there are ads on websites I use? To me it is just a load of mess round the edges that I don't even register. Mind you I hate shopping and am not acquisitive. I have a list & buy what I need!


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