Search form

In the Belly of the Beast: The Advertising to Kids Conference

Buzz Potamkin attended New York City's first serious look at the increasingly complex and important world of taping into the kids' market. He was pleasantly surprised by the insightful panels and discussion. he 1998 Golden Marble Award Winners were announced at the event as well.

Discuss kids advertising with an adult-centered ad maven, and you get a statement like, "Selling to kids is like taking candy from a baby." Surely, the argument goes, the little tykes are so open, so trusting, so wanting to believe, that those little minds are wide open to the wiles and ruses of any self-respecting snake oil salesman. Everyone tells you it's easy, and then you try it. And then you try it again. And again. And then you begin to understand just how hard it is to take candy from a baby.

Because kids advertising has always been a minor portion of the ad game (just like animation - which needs kids advertising for life support - is a minor portion of Hollywood), there have been very few serious attempts to explore it within the overall advertising industry. There have been "think tank" retreats (at great expense) to help those already in the industry stay abreast of the latest in the tricks of the trade; there's usually a panel or two at most of the major ad conventions; and recently, there have been a few books on the subject. (See AWM, "The Entertainment/Marketing/Exploitation Relationship: Two Takes," May 1998 issue.) But for the most part, kids advertising has been overlooked, misunderstood, and generally ignored - except when it impinges on the political consciousness (e.g., Joe Camel). So, when the Advertising to Kids Conference was announced for early September in New York, my ears perked up. Was someone really trying to bring an intelligent examination onto Madison Avenue -- into the very Belly of the Beast? On a bright, crisp, spring-like late Summer morning, I strolled across Manhattan to Chelsea Piers, over where the City drops off into the turgid waters of the North River. The long-deserted piers, once the busiest in the world, bustling with trade and excited passengers, have been reborn as the largest indoor health club in Gotham, perhaps the largest in the world. Spread across the old structures along the river from 17th to 24th Street are facilities for every form of athleticism known to urban life - gyms, rinks, fields, cages, alleys, rings, courts, walls, pools, and ranges - each with its own set of joyfully sweating adherents.

In the midst of this paean to hard bodies, snuggled down on the end of a pier, right under the ice hockey rink, and several hundred feet out into the River towards the Jersey shore, the developers carved out space for one of the nicest meeting venues I've ever seen. Capable of handling meetings of up to 500 or so, Pier 60 is a delight, with three large well-appointed rooms, two of which face right on to the River. The combination of the setting, light, weather, and mass of avian life swirling around outside combined to lift my spirits and perk up my interest in the two days to come.

Day One - Part One

The first day was chaired by Paul Kurnit, President/COO, Griffin Bacal, one of the "old hands" in the kids biz. He opened the proceedings by giving a rousing speech - a call for the outside world to take kids advertising seriously: "You should all be proud to be part of this industry. [M]any of the captains of industry don't see our work. They don't understand it. They don't respect it. Kids advertising has blazed many communication trails... This is a sophisticated industry we're in. There's a lot less room for error in the kids industry than many others. We have to catch the, stay ahead of the wave...." Paul then took us on a quick tour of the current kids market, outlining the two main points supporting the brief for bringing respect to kids advertising, both of which came back repeatedly throughout the entire conference: Kids are an important and powerful separate market, which is growing by leaps and bounds; and kids ad-supported media are spreading like weeds across the landscape.

The rest of the day built on Paul's start. Michael Cohen, Ph.D., gave us a quick Kids 101 - what makes them tick. Precise, witty, and informative, Cohen explored the same territory elucidated so well by Dan Acuff (see AWM, "The Entertainment/Marketing/Exploitation Relationship: Two Takes," May 1998 issue) and Gene Del Vecchio, among others, adding timely information from his ongoing research. The main update: media is pushing kids into the world more quickly, and kids are getting older younger - even more so than a few years ago, with strong physical indications that puberty has advanced two years! (An interesting subject for another venue: What was the age of puberty in the past? Was mid-20th century puberty held back by the Victorian nature of society, or is this advance a major turning point in evolution?) Furthermore, Cohen spoke before the Starr Report hit the mass media with shock waves that must have accelerated this trend.

Following on was a panel discussion on media brand building (product brand building came later), featuring representatives from everyone's favorite vertically and/or horizontally integrated media conglomerates: Time Warner (Cartoon Network), Viacom (Nickelodeon), News Corp. (Fox Family Worldwide), Disney (Disney/ABC Radio Networks), and Time Warner again (Sports Illustrated for Kids). Not surprisingly, they all agreed that the future will belong to strong brands that are backed by strong, vertically and/or horizontally integrated media behemoths that can squash any upstarts. What else did you expect? Actually, before the lawyers call, I will admit that no one said anything about squashing upstarts, but it sure was strong sub-text. This panel also provided my highlight reel with the, "Did I really hear that?" quote of the day: "This year we slimed some nuns. The kids loved it."

Day One - Part Two

After lunch, we segued over to product brand territory. For those of us interested in animation, this was perhaps the most compelling part of the first day, but not because it told us anything new. There was very little about actual brands, but lots about characters in brand building advertising. It was mostly very old - old products, old characters, old campaigns. The Trix rabbit was the touchstone (both in cereal and - a new product - yogurt), with a strong supporting role for Ronald McDonald, and multiple parts for Fred and Barney in Pebbles cereal advertising. Through a panel and a separate presentation (by one of animation's biggest fans, Alice Germanetti, Senior Partner & Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather), it came through strong and clear that it's becoming more and more difficult to launch a new character. In fact, nearly every speaker told the audience that the best way to use a character was to go out and license one (either animated or real, i.e., either Bugs or Michael Jordan), with the obvious warnings about making sure the licensed character fits the brand profile and doesn't overpower the brand. Why? It costs too much to launch a new character, it takes too long (the average brand manager is only around for 18 months, much too short a time frame to really seat a character), there's too much "noise" out there, and launching a product is tough enough without launching a character at the same time.

Whew! Quite a full day, good information, but very straight and not too variegated. It began to look like no one would ever contradict anyone else, more like a `60s Love-In than cutting edge. The Conventional Wisdom was weighing heavy on my head; the kid biz really is a small business, and I guess we all know each other too well. Even when we suggest something new, it appears that we collectively suggest the same new thing. Almost to underscore the familiarity of it all, as I wandered back down the pier past "The Highlander" (the large Forbes yacht anchored at the pier), I couldn't help noticing that its helicopter looked just like one we had used in SWAT Kats.

Day Two - Part One

The weather held for the second day, and again we got off to a rousing start. Joan Chiaramonte, VP, Roper Starch Worldwide, gave us an overview of the macro economics of kid spending - it's big, and it's getting bigger. The population bulge coming in the 2-11 market is not only the biggest since the Boomers, it's actually bigger. More kids, with more purchasing power. Why?

62% of kids are in families where both parents work, and 31% are in single parent households; both these figures are the culmination of secular trends that haven't peaked yet, and both push kids far more into the heart of the purchase decision. As for issues facing kids, AIDS is #1 - frightening, isn't it? - followed by the Clinton scandal (and this was before the Starr Report was published). Pollution is still big, and more importantly, it's the only one of the top three about which kids feel empowered - they can actually do something about it. Joan's closer was simple. Kids will demand: More, Better, Faster.

The next presentation was a joint effort by Julie Halpin, CEO, The Geppetto Group, and Lisa Fernow, Senior VP, Global Marketing and Strategy, Cartoon Network. It was a tour-de-force on pure marketing. Julie did, "How do I build my brand for the long term when the world in which I compete is oriented to the short-term?" while Lisa did (in my words), "How do I take a 30 year-old classic property and make it sparkle in today's market?" What followed was a step-by-step examination of the current re-launch of Scooby, and, while not brain surgery, it sure was complex and complete. I wouldn't know how to do either presentation justice in less than several thousand words, so you'll just have to believe me that if you ever have the opportunity to hear these two, it's well worth it. They spend time developing insight into both the world around them and the problem at hand, and they apply a well thought-out and rigorous conceptual framework to the data uncovered to establish a solution.

The following panel looked on paper to be dry and academic, dealing with Advertising Wear-Out. It was anything but. Lang Rust, President of Langbourne Rust Research, gave a very short overview of his decades of research in watching kids watch TV. He has a very specific testing regimen for measuring viewer attention to the same ad when viewed twice. A few things stand out from his research: boring ads wear more quickly; older kids get bored more easily; and humor works best for repeat viewing. And then we finally entered the future.

Rebecca Randall, VP, Marketing & Brand Development, MaMaMedia, held up the mirror so many marketers want to avoid. Her definition of "wear-out" was a clarion call for quality and intelligence. To her, it's: a) a rationale for going to L.A. to shoot a new spot; b) proof that kids aren't "getting" your ad, a signal that your copy isn't working; c) a relic of a bygone era; and d) an adult media invention, as is "media fragmentation." Don't ask me to explain c), as it may have been a throwaway, but Rebecca was very explicit that in a world of souped-up cycles (attention spans, products, and decision making), wear-out is "an adult, reactive broadcast concept" that will have no meaning in the wired world to come. All media is ultimately experiential and individual, and the advertising world must recognize that the solutions of past media may not fit the new media. Kids' relationship with media has changed: in the `70s, consume; the `80s, choose; the `90s, create. They now control the media, where the media once controlled them. Today's kids have new expectations, new attitudes, and new behaviors. Plus, the future will bring the Clickerati: non-linear, multi-tasking, interdisciplinary, techno fluent, accustomed to control, looking for "hard fun," and learning all the time. (As the guy next to me said, "How the hell do I do a media buy in that world?") Rebecca brought back the ghost of Marshall McLuhan (the media is the message), and I for one was happy for the chance to stretch my brain a little. Is she right? I don't know, but it sure will be exciting to find out.

After Rebecca came some laid-back wisdom, but spot on to today's media planning problems. Alan Gersten, Director of Media Planning Services, Senior VP, Campbell Mithun Esty, took Rebecca's tomorrow head-on and turned us back to yesterday. He takes fragmentation very seriously, and pulled some figures from 1977 to set the tone. In the February, 1977, sweeps, a few of the top network K2-11 ratings were: Batman - 23.8; Bugs Bunny - 17.7; Schoolhouse Rock - a range from 15 to 24. By happenstance, the same shows were also on network TV during the February, 1998, sweeps. And the numbers: Batman - 2.5; Bugs Bunny - 3.5; Schoolhouse Rock - 3.5. Yep, that's an 80-90% drop, and there you have a very clear definition of TV fragmentation.

As Gersten underscored, in 1977 kid shows had strong "reach" and an advertiser could impress a critical mass of consumers with a relatively low frequency. Network buys were quality buys, and they deserved (and got) premium CPMs. In 1998, big reach is tough, and very expensive where it exists. So frequency is now the king, and ad wear-out becomes a more substantial problem. However, "if [an ad] works, stay with it. Err on the long side, not the short. [And] bad ads never wear out, since they were never good to begin with."

Day Two - Part Two

After lunch, we were treated to what I thought would be the most informative panel of the conference: TV Audience Measurement - Who's Watching? As was pointed out before lunch, fragmentation of the audience is a hot button in the kids biz, and constant readers of AWM know that I've got my own thoughts on the subject. (See AWM, "The Cost of Eyeballs, " September 1997 issue.) Well, kids, you should have been there.

The four panelists were evenly split between those who report the ratings (Nielsen Media Research - the Nielsen ratings people - and Statistical Research - the developer of the SMART rating system) and those who have a vested interest in high numbers (Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network). Bruce Friend, VP Worldwide Research and Planning at Nickelodeon, started with a lucid and intelligent summary of the main questions, and raised these same points for the rest of the panel to discuss. Three of his five questions (content ratings & the V-chip, three and four year-old viewing, and kid/parent co-viewing) are important to media planners, but not of overwhelming interest to general toilers in the trade. His other two are perhaps the two most important overall questions facing the kids TV ad sales business today: Are kids viewing levels (PUTS - persons using TV) declining? And, how is PC/Internet usage affecting TV viewing?

PUT level is the key to the very basis of the ad-supported TV biz. No matter how high the share of the available audience goes to any one of the networks (Nick has been cited with a 55+% share), the total size of the audience must be large enough to imply "reach" - the ability to gather a "critical mass" number of eyeballs. As was pointed out by Gersten earlier in the day, frequency can only substitute for reach to a limited extent. (A simple analogy: if you have 25,000 people each draw one cel, you have a Disney-level cel count, but you most likely don't have Disney quality.) So any secular decline of Kid PUT levels strikes fear into the heart of the ad sales guys. Well, what's the story?

Friend opened the discussion with a straight statement: "While Nielsen has reported stable K6-11 TV usage (PUT) levels since 1990, K2-5 levels were on the decline...until last year." (Data was from Nielsen, 24-hour day.) He went on to explain that the K2-5 PUT level reclaimed all its loss last year, and therefore is also virtually flat - or slightly up - for the period 1990-97. However, and this is a big "however," K2-11 PUT levels are down 5% over the same period. You may ask how the total can vary from the underlying segments, to which I reply welcome to the world of numbers. Barry Cook, Sr. VP, Chief Research Officer, Nielsen Media Research, didn't argue with these figures (as the raw data came from Nielsen), but he did startle some members of the audience with another look at the same K2-11 universe. Narrowing his remarks to what we all used to call "Kid Prime Time," he cited a secular (ten-year trend) decline of 15-30%: 15% in the Monday-Friday 3-5 p.m. daypart, and 30% in the Saturday morning sector.

To put it mildly, these are figures for thought. "Why?" you may ask, "So a few dayparts decline, there are still just as many kids watching, just slightly scattered. This is a result of the movement from dedicated dayparts on broadcast to total day usage on cable. Kids are watching at any time, because there is now more kid-friendly programming on in all dayparts." While not a quote from either Friend or Terry Kalagian, VP Research, Cartoon Network, that pretty much summarizes their comments in response to Cook, who, for his part, was more concerned about their attack on his methodology (too complex for quick summation) than drawing conclusions from his PUT figures. Since most of us there had only a passing interest in the methodology, I had a short discussion with my row-mates as the, "Do kids really know how to push peoplemeter buttons?" and "Why can't you guys measure guest viewing correctly?" arguments waxed and waned.

For the most part, they were too young to remember the good old days of the high ratings Gersten mentioned earlier in the day, but they were as concerned as I was: while the total count of eyeballs may be the same, these "Kid Prime Time" PUT level drops underscore a drop in audience quality -- that critical mass component that is so important to "reach." To be blunt, that quality is what gets the big bucks, the high CPMs; all the rest is really "ROS" (Run of Schedule), which is not worth a premium. Without that substantial CPM premium (sometimes 100% or higher), what's going to pay for new shows? [For more information on this phenomenon, please read Are Kids Following Little Bo-Peep's Sheep?, a sidebar discussing the continuing erosion of audience numbers that will, in time, lead to a lag in advertising dollars...]

As for the PC/Web question, both Friend and Kalagian were relieved to report that Web usage is minor, as the undisputed research shows that only about 10% of kids log on regularly, with average usage about ten minutes a day. In addition, those users are not "high usage" TV viewers, so the conclusion was that the Web is no threat to TV at this time. What happens when connection speed increases and entertainment content migrates to the Web -- as opposed to the current info-heavy content -- well, that appears to be at least one generation (5-10 years) away, and we'll face that problem when we get there. Besides, all four of our friendly media conglomerates aren't taking any chances: Disney, News, Viacom and Time Warner are all heavy investors in Web content. (If you believe, as I do, that Web migration will be faster than 5-10 years -- well, we're in the minority. Check back in a few years for the follow-up, but do spend some time learning Flash Animation.) Speaking of Flash Animation, Dave Shea, Sr. VP/Creative Director, Saatchi & Saatchi Kid Connection, was the next up, with a thorough presentation of, the General Mills' web site for kids.

It was a pleasure to have insight into the creative process which produced the site (Dave created it and writes all the content), and the actual demo of the site underscored some of the elements of web design that work better for kids. Here's his basic rule: keep it relevant - kid relevant, site relevant, and brand relevant, but don't do it like other media. Go try the site. I did, I liked it, and it looks deep enough to make it interesting for the intended audience.

The remainder of the session suffered from being at the tail end; while both Renny Gleeson, Associate Creative Director, Darwin Digital, and Leslye Schaefer, Senior VP, Marketing and Consumer Products, Scholastic Entertainment, should have had a more attentive audience, the room was emptying as the day wore on. Renny went deeper into web design, but this group wasn't interested, and probably mainly for the reason Renny himself identified: ad agencies are holding back in this new media, as it's too new and unknown. Leslye made a point all too often forgotten in this biz: we are the shapers of the minds of the future, and we have a responsibility to that future, a responsibility that all too often is swept aside by visions of greed.

Speaking of greed, the final presentation for the day was one that was sorely out of place. Promised as "A Sponsored Entertainment Surprise," it turned out to be a blatant promotion on behalf of a property (nameless here) that is looking to break wide next year. The event organizers should have known better, and I hope that in the future they won't let such obvious and intrusive material sneak into what was -- on the whole -- a successful and informative two days. I also hope the sponsors hold another conference like this one next year, with an agenda on the same high level. We could use some more like it.

The Golden Marbles

A few hours later, the Golden Marble Awards were held at the same venue, as a cap to the conference.The top award winners are included in this issue.

There were two observations that were to me obviously interesting to AWM readers. First, despite all the talk about animation characters, there was virtually no animation presented with a Golden Marble. (Yes, Cartoon Network did win for some on-air promos, but that's not the Trix rabbit, or Tony the Tiger, or any of the other brand building characters we heard so much about.) Either these characters are effective advertising presented with a creative flair, and therefore deserved to win awards that went elsewhere, or, despite all we heard at the conference about animated characters being effective, they didn't win awards because they aren't effective. Which is it? Lastly, I couldn't help noticing that the overwhelming number of awards went to the ad agencies that helped create, organize, and co-sponsor the Golden Marbles.

Buzz Potamkin is an award-winning independent producer, best known for The Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss. Before he escaped L.A. for New York, he had been president of Southern Star Prods and then executive vice president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.

Thanks to the University of Texas, Austin Department of Advertising, for the selection of quotes used to illustrate this article. The quotes are borrowed from the department's web site,