Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

As a marketer, it’s a given – at some point you will have been challenged about  how to bring your brand to the attention of the ever-elusive youth market, a market which not only influences household spend, but also has an astounding R137.3bn of its own money to devote to the brands they deem worthy.

Millions have been allocated in the quest to understand this sector of the market and the planning of clever campaigns that will resonate in this space. However, lest we forget, these are children, and so enormously vulnerable. The question must be asked – are marketers considering whether their youth marketing campaigns are ethical; and are they thinking through the consequences of their communications within this market?

As a guest speaker at the recent Sunday Times Generation Next Youth Marketing Conference, parenting expert Nikki Bush brought to light some eye-opening issues relating to marketing to children, teens and young adults.

Bush asked the audience to imagine a scene from the 1820s in which a tribe of native North Americans are meeting to discuss the possibility of going to war. To assist in the decision, they call on the custodians of the tribe, the Council of Grandmothers, who are guided by just one principle: “and nothing shall harm the children”.

Bringing us back to the present, Bush highlighted the power of “kidfluence” and the fact that targeting children is the most effective way for marketers to get hold of the family budget, influencing matters that range from the cereal they eat in the morning to the cars their parents drive and where their homes are located. “Yes, without a doubt, marketers need to make money, but at what cost?” she said.

Children, she said, are the most vulnerable members of society and therefore easily exploited. Add to this the fact that they are exposed to a plethora of social media platforms, which makes it even easier to connect with them in a way that bypasses the traditional gatekeepers – their parents. She made mention of the Blue Whale App, an online game which will reportedly soon hit local shores. The app, which originated in Russia, allegedly encourages teens to perform a number of outlandish tasks over a 50-day period, culminating in suicide.

Bush pointed out that any marketer worth his or her salt will understand the neuroscience around selling and purchasing behaviour, but she also noted that children’s brains are not fully developed – and won’t be until they reach the age of 25 – making them easy targets for unscrupulous marketers.

Another example she used was an advertising campaign for Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” world tour, in which a local radio station encouraged listeners to enter a competition to win the opportunity to dance on stage with Bieber. The entry mechanism? Post a video of yourself dancing online, including your name, age and email address. Bush questioned the ethicality around this campaign, asking who protects the information received and what it will ultimately be used for. She added that schools and parents are finally starting to fight back against brands and marketing campaigns that shamelessly target children with little thought to the consequences.

Bush likened youth marketing to modern warfare: children are given the ammunition and the marketers who provide it rarely, if ever, see the consequences of their actions. And the consequences are dire, she said, listing obesity, heart disease, diets, bulimia – even in young males – jealousy, teen depression, insomnia and meanness as the collateral damage.

If marketers don’t start asking the right questions about the ethical consequences of their campaigns, said Bush, it is likely the industry will become regulated and measurements around ethical impact will be put in place. “As marketers, we have a responsibility to empower, and not exploit, our youth. Perhaps, when planning campaigns, marketers should consider the Council of Grandmothers from years gone by and evoke their mantra: ‘and nothing shall harm the children’,” she concluded.

The big take-out: While marketing to the youth is a lucrative business for brands, parenting expert Nikki Bush, at the recent Sunday Times Generation Next Youth Marketing Conference, cautioned marketers to consider the vulnerability of this market, and highlighted the damage that a thoughtless marketing campaign can cause.

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