Advertising, Business

Lines blur between advertising and children’s entertainment

The newest addition to American Girl’s line-up of historic dolls is Maryellen Larkin, supposedly a nine-year-old living in Florida in 1954. But the toy company is using decidedly modern tools to promote her, creating a short live action film about the character developed through a “crowdsourcing” platform.

The finished movie will be showcased on American Girl’s website and social media channels, including YouTube. There, it will run alongside videos promoting other American Girl toys, tutorials on braiding dolls’ hair and craft sessions demonstrating how to make garlands of stars and doll-sized suitcases.

American Girl, an arm of the US toymaker Mattel, is not alone in its approach to content marketing, the increasingly common practice of companies creating their own videos, news-style articles, graphics and other snippets to attract and engage customers.

US businesses will spend $50bn this year on such “content marketing”, according to Contently, a venture capital-backed start-up that connects companies with freelance writers. In some cases they partner with news organisations to create “native advertising”, sponsored spots that look like and run alongside editorial content.

Other companies are hiring writers and editors to create content that the brands promote on their own social media channels and websites.

The ultimate goal is to reach audiences in a fragmented media world, where consumers — and particularly young people — have more choices in what, where and how they partake in entertainment.

“You have to fill the pipeline of social and traditional media with enough content that brings people back to you,” says Chuck McBride, founder and chief creative officer of Cutwater, an advertising agency. “And it has to be more than just your TV spot. Kids are on mobile devices, sharing stuff — that’s how an ad gets seen these days.”

Companies are moving beyond the traditional world of television adverts to reach a generation of kids who have access to smartphones, tablets and on-demand media from the start.

Lego’s YouTube channel is stocked with episodes of cartoons tied to its various lines, including Bionicle and the girl-targeted Lego Friends as well as promotions for the Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales mini-series, which airs on pay-TV.

The Danish toymaker was behind one of the most successful examples of a consumer brand being integrated into kids’ entertainment: The Lego Movie , one of 2014’s biggest box office hits.

In many ways the intersection of entertainment and marketing to kids is not new; companies like Walt Disney have long excelled in merchandising their most successful brands. Disney and Viacom’s Nickelodeon this year both launched divisions that work with advertisers to create content and promote it to their wide audiences on social media.

But the blurring of lines between content and advertising online raises new challenges for parents, says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a non-profit organisation that advises families on media and technology. “Ads should really be separate from the content,” she says. “We think it’s really important to protect kids from deceptive advertising.”

In the US, concerns that children are less able to differentiate between ads and content have led to Federal Communications Commission restrictions on TV advertising during children’s programming. There are limits on the number of commercials that can be aired and prohibitions on advertising products within shows or using characters to sell items.

Consumer groups have appealed to the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates deceptive advertising practices, to examine online ads aimed at kids.

In the meantime, the marketing industry is preparing itself for a future where traditional 30-second television commercials are no longer the cornerstone of their advertising strategies.

“We’re starting to see clients move percentages of media budgets — in some cases large ones — out of broadcast and into online and social video,” said Tom Pettus, executive vice-president at advertising agency Deutsch LA.

As competition heats up in the streaming video market, children’s programming is emerging as a key area of investment for new players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, as well as established brands like Disney, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

Indeed, many of the new companies pushing into children’s programming tout that they offer advertising-free environments.

HBO, the premium cable network best known for dark and often violent dramas such as Game of Thrones and True Detective, announced in August it would be the new home of Sesame Street, the classic children’s TV programme.

Netflix licenses movies and shows from Disney and DreamWorks Animation but is also making large investments in creating its own kids’ programmes as part of its broader emphasis on original content. Amazon, which carries Nickelodeon’s pre-school shows, this year launched six original pilots, all aimed at kids.

A notable exception to the trend towards ad-free online destinations for kids’ programming is Google’s YouTube. Its YouTube Kids app carries programmes aimed at young kids with advertising from family-friendly brands, under extensive rules that prohibit advertising food or beverages and including material not suitable for children under the age of 13.

But advocacy groups including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Consumer Federation of America and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have raised concerns with the FTC that it is the videos, not just the ads, that highlight the eroding boundaries between marketing and content online.

On the channel for Pocoyo, a popular Spanish TV programme aimed at preschoolers, interspersed with short episodes showing the adventures of the title character and his friends are live-action videos showing Pocoyo toys being unwrapped and played with. They are the toddler version of the “unboxing” videos popular among adult tech fans keen to visualise a new gadget.

YouTube declined to comment on the advocacy groups’ letter to the FTC. But such clashes are only likely to become more common as the trend evolves.

“It’s this rabid consumption of the content,” says Deutsch LA’s Mr Pettus. “That’s where if you got kids hooked on a show or character, the ability to weave into that content companion experiences, whether standalone mobile apps or products like colouring books, becomes incredibly effective.” FT.COM (Shannon Bond)

Tablets: Young swipers
Two-thirds of US children under five use tablets and one-third own one, according to a 2014 survey by Communicus, an advertising research group.

“With the younger generation, what sets them apart in this changing of the media landscape is their very, very early adoption of mobile devices compared to adults,” said Fiona Su, a director at Eleven Inc, a marketing agency.

“Television is changing in format from a very traditional scheduled programme to on-demand delivery right on tablets and mobile devices,” she says.

The marketing industry needs to be aware that this new distribution system is no longer entirely supported by ads, she adds. A recent study from PwC, the consultancy, found more than half of eight- to 18-year-olds said streaming television was their favourite media content, ahead of cable and network TV shows, games and short videos.

Kids still watch more TV than any other media, however. Those surveyed spend an average 7.8 hours a week watching traditional network TV, compared with 7.2 hours watching YouTube videos, 6.2 hours watching cable TV and 6.1 hours streaming shows and movies on a laptop, smartphone or tablet.

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