What kids really, really want

A new initiative promises greater insight into children as consumers, says Roger Trapp
IN THE film Big the Hollywood actor Tom Hanks has a great deal of fun with the notion that nobody knows better what children want than the children themselves. As a child hidden in the body of a man, he enjoys huge success in the toy business - the point being that he alone among the executives has the insight into children.

The film was very successful but it did not do much to change the habits of businesses that rely on selling to children. Although such organisations and their advertising agencies make increasing use of focus groups and other facets of the marketer's trade, there is still a sense of adults feeling they know best what children want.

It is this situation that the London office of the international advertising agency McCann-Erickson is seeking to challenge with the introduction of what it describes as a "child consumer initiative".

The idea is a response to the growing realisation that the modern child is perhaps more misunderstood than any of his or her predecessors. While previous generations have generally been perceived as behaving little differently from how their parents did at that age, the explosion in technology combined with changing social conditions are felt to have brought about a different type of child.

Marc Le Pere, deputy chairman and head of strategic planning at McCann, says the agency's initial researches indicate that many young children have televisions, video recorders and computers in their own bedrooms - giving them a great deal of control over what media they see. In particular, through being able to tape programmes, they are able to make a mockery of the 9pm watershed - and presumably of advertisers' marketing plans.

Moreover, he adds, the fact that many children are these days given large amounts of pocket money means that they have money in their own right as well as great influence over parents through "pester power".

But while that much is known - and is fairly obvious - the details of children's desires and responses to different types of communications have largely proved elusive.

McCann Junior, launched last week, is designed to help clients build awareness of the reality of the lives of children aged between five and 11 years by issuing them with a quarterly compendium that takes the form of a brightly-coloured box.

Its contents will vary according to developments at the time but the box, issued in return for a subscription of pounds 6,000 a quarter, will typically contain reports and product samples covering product development and packaging, analysis of children's behaviour and interests, surveys of children's attitudes to marketing and an expert view on a certain children's issue from a specialist in the field.

The idea, according to Ben Langdon, managing director of McCann-Erickson London, is to create "a way of getting into the minds of kids and, most importantly, reminding ourselves of what it is like to be an eight-year- old again". In the first of what is intended to be a series of strategic products, McCann Junior aims to provide subscribers with in-depth knowledge of how "this highly important market" thinks and behaves, of what it wants, and of how they are influenced by existing communications.

In addition to compiling collections of press cuttings covering children's issues and the expert analysis, McCann-Erickson is also conducting weekly focus groups as an adjunct to the regular "pulse" research it carries out with adults. Accordingly, it claims to have already started to build a picture of the lives of children - covering such matters as the growing US influence, their attitudes to health and the importance of branding.

Perhaps most importantly it is starting to learn that children cannot be grouped in a single category, but - as has already happened with adults - must be divided up.

The first divisions were made along age lines - on the basis that five- year-olds will have entirely different interests and perceptions from 11-year-olds. As a result, focus groups are split into three: one for children aged five and six; another for those aged seven, eight and nine; and a final one for 10- and 11-year-olds. In addition, it was quickly realised that the groups worked better if boys were questioned separately from girls.

Katherine Hannah, senior planning director, explained that this was because at the lower ages, each sex thought the other "silly" or "smelly", while later on such attitudes gave way to competitiveness and pre-adolescent sexual tensions.

It is not quite the same as letting Tom Hanks run the company, but it seems that business is intent on injecting a little science into the process of marketing to what is clearly a powerful consumer group.