When children rule, ad men obey

Understanding the culture and psychology of young purchasers has become crucial to the advertising industry, reports Sally Williams; big money is at stake

Stefano Tirateli wants your children. If they're aged between three and 12, he really wants to understand them: how they think, what crisps they like, what pop stars they hate, what trainers are "in", which jeans are "out", where they go at weekends, what they do after school. And, most important of all, what they spend their pocket money on. "pounds 225 a year on average," he trots out, "The Germans have pounds 200, the Italians pounds 180 - our kids have more pocket money than any other kids in Europe." Stefano - "Stef" - knows all about such things because he heads up Kid Connection, Saatchi and Saatchi's new venture: a unit dedicated to marketing to children.

Based on the agency's New York model, which has been running since 1992, it has the same name, but is not, as yet, a self-contained unit, or that large - the American unit employs 60 staff, the UK six - and all of those were already working for Saatchi. Tirateli is an account manager. So just how expert the "experts" are, remains to be seen, but Tirateli, unlike many in advertising, does at least have children: three sons. "Professionally, an imbalance, I know." As one insider says, "Saatchi either has so many clients in the kids' market it has decided to specialise, or doesn't have any and wants them."

"No, we don't have a huge amount of business in the children's market," admits Tirateli. "I can't show you a reel, and say this is all the work we've done. But I can tell you that nobody is doing it seriously or well, and if we do it seriously and well, we will reap rewards."

Huge rewards. Children influence vast amounts of spending - pounds 3,000 from the family budget each year, according to a Saatchi survey. Nationally, this figure adds up to pounds 31bn. No wonder advertisers are sitting up and taking notice. It isn't just that children buy things, or twist the arms of others to have things bought for them. Children also dictate what their parents buy. Big household purchases such as the family car, the computer, even the house itself, can, without your really being aware of it, be decided by your children. "It goes beyond choosing an estate over a saloon," explains Tirateli. "It comes down to brand choice. Most children are driven to school, so what you get delivered to school in becomes the subject of conversation. Is it a MPV like an Espace, or a Toyota Picnic?" The latter appeared in the recent (Saatchi) ad with the little girl who wanted to stay an only child, and spent the ad stopping her parents from having sex. A back-seat tyrant.

Which is exactly how Robin Wright, chairman of WCRS Advertising Agency, characterises children today. "I coined the term `tyrant child', not because this child is badly behaved ... In Victorian times children were seen and not heard; nowadays, with what I call `youthism', adults are looking at the younger part of life as being the decision area. Younger members are consulted. We used to look up to our elders and betters. Now we look down to our youngers and betters."

Like it or not, pester power goes beyond a packet of Frazzles and a Pingu sponge cake, and advertisers are working out just how to reach this lucrative "three markets in one": purchases, influencers and the future. Lose Mum, for a start. Forget about old-style ads with Mum popping in at the end, saying, "and it's good for you, too". "Show that to a five-year-old and they go `ugh'," says Tirateli, sticking his fingers down his throat. "If you want to reassure Mum, do it on the packet. This is about talking to children in their own language."

In a recent interview in Marketing, Jane Mathews, an adviser for J Walter Thompson, which produces ads for Nestle's Smarties and Kraft Suchard's Dairylea, complained: "Half the ads you see on a Saturday morning are a waste of money, because the advertisers are stuck in a Seventies time warp. They are usually written by 20-year-old copywriters with no experience of children."

Lego, says Tirateli, "thought that if they made bricks that were pink, girls would play with them." Kid Connection, of course, knows that bricks are essentially masculine in appeal; that girls are more sociable in their play. There is a way of marketing Lego to girls, but Tirateli isn't telling. Getting to understand children is not easy. They're a fickle, novelty- loving bunch. "You're either in or out", remarks Tirateli. "If you're a cool brand for a five-year-old, almost by definition you're not a cool brand for a ten-year-old." Keeping up with trends is imperative; Leo Burnett uses the Internet to keep clued-up. Questionnaires are posted online to schools. Getting anything meaningful from discussion groups involving exuberant under-sevens is not easy. "Pairs work quite well," says Tirateli. "One controls the other, and stops any out-and-out lying. You know, `I caught a fish at the weekend.' `No, you didn't.' Your dad did.'" "We try to look at children in context," says Claire Byrne, director of Verve, the children and youth unit of the Research Business. "We go to McDonald's or go shopping with them, to try to understand them in a more anthropological way." Advertisers keen to tap in to kid power have to face stringent guidelines (a crucial, but hard-to-police requirement is that advertisements should not actively encourage children to make a nuisance of themselves to parents); competition from other agencies gearing up to woo children; and the prospect of chasing children across different media. "Ten years ago there was Tiswas," points out Tirateli, "now there's Nickelodeon, MTV, the Funday Times, and so on."

Not that Jim Murray, director of the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC), sympathises. "Consumer organisations all over Europe are more and more concerned about marketing to children. There is so much more of it, and it is so much more intense in impact."

Worries which Brian Young, psychologist, Exeter University, says are unfounded. "My research has shown that from as young as five or six children are quite capable of working out what's going on. The assumption that a soft sell ad is a bit like witchcraft, that it can get you to do things, is ludicrous." Most of the items marketed to children are things they want anyway, points out Robin Wright. "The real test of a good ad would be one that got children to do things others can't: clean their teeth, be nice to their parents."