Advertising to Kids in the Age of Streaming and Self-Directed Viewing.

Advertising to children in the age of streaming and self-directed viewing has become more challenging than ever. With the high costs of media and anemic returns on investment, marketing products to kids has become more expensive and problematic than ever.

One significant issue is acknowledging and understanding the evolution in the marketplace—specifically what a television commercial needs to accomplish in this new era of dense media. Traditionally, most television spots targeted at kids concentrated heavily on product differences, product demonstrations, and product features. Unfortunately, what has worked reliably in the past fails to resonate with today’s younger audiences. Instead, contemporary creative strategies should be designed to instill a desire to buy into the fantasy the product represents.  

In the clutter of visual and audio bomb bursts attempting to cram every sales point into a thirty-second or fifteen-second format, the child’s imagination becomes left behind. This approach becomes a costly mistake. Creating a fantasy addressing how or why the toy or product can engage the imagination of the target audience needs to be the primary focus in any commercial.  

Product intricacies, which might apply to sell-in or other retail-oriented presentations, are a waste of time to a generation of children who have grown inured to thinly disguised sales pitches. They wish to be engaged, not barraged with factory-talk. I believe this is why most toy-kid targeted commercials today are producing poor results.

Consider the fact that most children have access to streaming, commercial-free media. From what I and many others have observed, a kid’s self-directed choices of what they select to view can be baffling to adults. Yet, what their selections all have in common is they engage a child’s interest in ways commercial pitches can’t, or won’t emulate.

For example, let’s consider a basic action figure spot. Conventional wisdom says we should name them, reveal their personality (why we should love them), and tell or show how they interact with the over-arching story the audience is presumably familiar with—courtesy of the licensor. Additionally, we name the villain and have a closing scene (ideally), which features a confrontation where the bad guy is defeated.

So, what’s wrong with this scenario? Simple. We have not provided a reason for the audience to participate in the fantasy, which ultimately can serve to instill a desire for our product or the scenario that comes with it.  I propose that commercials in this new era need to entertain, rather than advertise in the strict sense.

Referring to our basic figure spot, we should conceptualize the commercial differently, beginning with visualizing the characters interacting from the kid’s point of view. We need to see or dramatize a conflict or an interaction that immerses the audience in the fantasy.

Perhaps at this point, you might object to what we’re leaving out. The figure has incredible features—what about those? It talks, it has an action feature, a unique weapon, or some exclusive interactive feature. Isn’t all of that important? Not any more. Why? Because technology and product similarities have turned what used to be magical features into pedestrian non-sequiturs, which mean little to our modern child. Our tech and media-savvy audience know, and more importantly, expect this—relegating those types of call-outs irrelevant. In the past, they worked to sell the toy, but not so today.

The other elephant in the room is the IP licensor. Shouldn’t the tv show or movie be enough to promote the product? After all, that’s why you’re paying the big bucks so that you, the licensee, can avoid the heavy lifting.

Unfortunately, the landscape has shifted there as well. Depending on the media popularity and marketing, there are likely to be varying degrees of interest in a toy product—especially if the IP’s audience encompasses a wide demographic.  

Besides the obvious, such as the success of the IP, and its ability to sustain relevance over the product’s practical shelf-life, there are other considerations. Primarily, the sheer volume of similar products and properties along with the speed at which they come and go in the public consciousness becomes another factor.

With this in mind, the IP owner may not be able to promote the licensee’s interests—and certainly not at the expense of its own.  In this case, it may fall to the product marketers not only to maintain but expand the IP’s presence in the marketplace. Strategic media buying is an essential factor in this regard, but only if the advertising remains fresh, vital, and entertaining.

To create a realistic ROI in an era when viewership on commercial platforms continues to decline, advertising creative will need to be saturated more densely to achieve the desired GRPs. I would suggest in that event, different versions—more than just slightly different commercials that feature the same products might be more effective in keeping the audience engaged.

Clearly, these suggestions will not apply to all situations; and I’ve attempted to present not only the challenges but some possible solutions. The dollar for dollar returns on investment are plain reminders that the techniques we’ve adopted over the last several decades have become less effective.  It makes no sense to keep repeating the same formulas over and over and expecting different outcomes.