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Advertisers compete for favor of 8- to 12-year-olds

By Jim Kirk

Chicago Tribune

She might not know it, possibly because she's out shopping, but 11-year-old Alex Wagner is at the center of a marketing war.

While the 1990s were all about teenagers and their angst and anti-establishment, the 2000s are shaping up as the decade of kid consumerism.

Alex is in that age group known as the "tween" years -- that truncated frame of years roughly sketched as between 8 years old and 12 years old.

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Once considered off-limits to advertisers, they are now part of a 30-million person force -- nearly twice as many as a decade ago -- that is one of the most powerful consumer groups in the nation. The demographic is one of the most diverse in the nation: one in every three tweens is non-white.

It is estimated that this group directly spends $10 billion annually, and influences an additional $74 billion of family spending.

It's an ideal combination for manufacturers and retailers, who have helped fuel the buying craze with faux leather pants and flirty tops. A line of pedicure products beckons to this age group. Marketers even host slumber parties to find out how to make a tween spend.

Too much, too soon

The trend raises the anxiety level of many parents and consumer advocates, who say that some girls barely past Beanie Babies are being pushed too quickly toward mascara and navel rings.

Yet parents are spending enormously on their tweens. And much to the dilemma of marketers, this group is still one of the most difficult, and ethically challenging, for marketers to reach. Even while there has been some movement to limit how much tweens are pitched, companies are trying harder than ever to target them, mainly because the stakes are higher than ever.

If you're successful at reaching someone this young, chances are good you've got brand loyalty for life, so the thinking goes. That fact isn't lost on savvy parents, who find it increasingly difficult to monitor how much is too much of everything from Internet usage to TV watching, and when to indulge their children.

"She's trying to be as independent as possible," said Alex's mother, Edye Wagner. "It's so different than when I was her age. We really didn't have a say in what we got."

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Like most tweens, Alex will go shopping with her friends to such places as Abercrombie Kids, and boutiques like My Generation. And like most in her age group, the shopping is confined to mainly looking. She'll go back and buy something with her mom. That's why in some cases, marketers are trying to hit both parents and the tweens with separate messages. Hitting them with the right messages at the right times is one of the biggest gambles.

Early negotiating

"Parents are having to make more choices and start the battle over what's purchased for the teen or tween at a much younger age," says Michael Wood, vice president of Northbrook, Ill.-based Teen-age Research Unlimited. "Parents are recognizing that they have to start the negotiation at a much younger age, 'You're not going to wear that thong from Abercrombie &; Fitch. But I will allow you to put temporary hair color in your hair.'"

The explosion of "fun" colors in food, from green Heinz ketchup, to blue applesauce, were born with the tween in mind. Fast-food restaurants have developed tween meals as a way to separate from the younger kids meals.

Belwood, Ill.-based Sanford this year launched its most extensive marketing blitz ever behind its tween-targeted Colorific line of writing instruments. It also struck a tie-in with a major kids flick for the first time: "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams," which debuted this month.

Just how serious is the tween consumer power? Ask hair-care giant Unilever.

Unilever this spring rolled out its first line of tween shampoos and styling aids. Called Suave Hair Vibe, the products, aimed at boys and girls, included a sponsorship on a special tween programming block on cable network Nickelodeon, as well as the launch of its own Web site, www.suavehairvibe.nick.com.

Creating the products was the easy part. It was reaching the tweens that was tough.

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"It's a real paradox," said Ralph Blessing, Suave brand director for Unilever. "They want to fit in and stick out at the same time. They want to be unique and in a peer setting. Overall, they are still pretty happy. They don't have the issues that older teens have. The 'cool factor' is as challenging as anything."

According to 360 Youth, a research company that specializes in studying teen and tween trends, a tween's appearance or "look" is extremely important, and consequently they have a great deal of control, or purchase influence, over the apparel and footwear they are wearing.

More families have two working parents and more discretionary income. And with families under increasing stress, experts say, parents have a greater need to believe their children are competent and able to make their own decisions.

"There have never been so many influences on them, whether it's MTV or the Internet, or wealthier parents willing to spoil these kids," said Brian Tunick, an analyst with J.P. Morgan Chase, an investment banking firm in New York. "With both parents working now, this is a way for them to show love to their kids. That's what has changed."

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