While much advertising is aimed at a broad spectrum of children, it should be recognized that there are wide differences in cognitive and emotional development between younger and older children, and for advertising communication to be comprehensible, the message must fit the needs and skills of children at the various developmental stages. Marketing research by Kantar Millward Brown has shown that kids go through four basic stages of emotional needs. These overlap because different children progress at different rates.
The Nursery stage (up to 4 years) is characterized by a safe, cozy, warm and nurturing environment. Parental guidance is essential at this stage. Toward the end of this stage kids learn to shift their play style from playing side by side to sharing playtime activities with friends.
The Playground stage (ages 3–10) is where pleasure, excitement, exploration (with mom and dad) and discovery take place. It is also a time where kids become aware of advertising. Initially, when kids first understand that advertising is something that shows you things you can have, or ask mom to buy, they take everything at face value, but within six months they learn that sometimes advertising doesn’t tell the truth.
The Street Corner stage (ages 9–12) is when kids start to develop a sense of identity and peer groups gain increasing influence. While children can adopt a rebellious stance at this point, it tends to be a safe stage, likely to be demonstrated by their choices in fashion and music.
The Underground stage (ages 13 or over) is about being different, and is rarely a place where adults are allowed to venture, although some brands can exist there.
When targeting children under 10 years old, messages need to be fairly direct, and time should be presented in a linear way. Under-10s prefer a happy story, one that is amusing, exciting or adventurous; a simple, complete story with a playful or imaginative mood. At the younger end of the spectrum, children enjoy slapstick comedy and simple verbal jokes.
Older children are better able to cope with more complex messages, and tend to prefer more intricate situations, with a realistic mood. As they grow older they are more likely to appreciate double entendres and complex lines, as well as cynical humor. For example, a cereal brand introduced a campaign aiming to bring kids into the brand with a character who was designed to be a “friend” of the kids. The ads encouraged the children to become part of his world and his adventures. Six- to seven-year-old children had problems understanding the idea, older children did not.
Children pay more attention to advertising and in general, we see that advertising has three times the impact among kids as it does among adults. Kids also remember it for longer, and show greater appreciation of advertising. This has implications for media planning and should be considered when making decisions about media weight and copy rotation.