These days, seeing a kid play games with a cell phone or tablet is commonplace. Constituting about 1/3 of the U.S. population, children are definitely a market that shouldn’t be underestimated. However, recent controversy surrounding marketing promotions directed at children has brought up a great question – what’s the right way to market to the youngest generation?

Children have expendable income as well as the ability to influence many family purchasing decisions, however, they are significantly more inexperienced when it comes to making sound purchasing decisions. This has proven profitable for companies, but there is an ethical problem at stake due to the fine line that companies are toeing when it comes to using children’s lack of purchasing experience to influence sales and drive profits. Advertising Executive Barbara A. Martino admits “we’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product, rather than going straight to the mom.”

The FTC has been revising rules and fiercely cracking down against the constantly evolving technology industry. One recent example is TinyCo – a mobile game developer who paid the FTC a $300,000 fine for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Investigators said the studio was marketing its games, such as Tiny Monsters and Tiny Village, to kids under 13 — and collecting their personal identifications which is very illegal under current law.

While the youth market is able to differentiate between the various marketing mediums, they are more susceptible than any other age group to the manipulation of the messages being delivered. Due to the extensive media channels that children are surrounded by, there is an increased risk that they will be exposed to negative and potentially harmful messages about violence, sex, and unhealthy body images – these are things they should certainly not be privy to.

What should you do?

Businesses should all have a responsible marketing and advertising policy in place that prohibits unethical and potentially harmful advertising related to children.

Currently, many industries have responded and developed voluntary, self-regulatory international codes of conduct that specifically address the issue of marketing to children. For example, the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA) has outlined an expansion of its global marketing policy. The enhanced version strengthens the policy in three areas:

  • Expanding media coverage to include radio, direct marketing, mobile and SMS marketing, interactive games, DVD/CD-ROM and product placements.
  • Detailing marketing techniques, such as licensed characters, movie tie-ins and celebrities that appeal to children under 12 by only marketing products that meet the “better-for-you” criteria.
  • Members are now committed to working towards common standards of the “better-for-you” definition.

Additionally, the FTC has revised the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. The revision to COPPA extended the act, broadening the definition of children’s personal information to include “persistent identifiers such as cookies that track a child’s activity online, as well as geolocation information, photos, videos, and audio recordings.”

Technology and other marketing mediums are both constantly evolving and the guidelines for promoting to children need to evolve simultaneously. It is important to consult with a promotion marketing expert and ensure that any marketing materials are reviewed by legal counsel that specialize in COPPA prior to beginning a new campaign. Communities coming together and combining the efforts of governments, business and other industry leaders can go a long way to ensuring marketing and advertising practices offer a positive contribution for our children today and future generations.