Compression quandary

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Kids are growing up too fast.

Parents have been saying it for years. But now marketers and agencies realize it, too, and it's shortening the life cycles of the products and services they target to the youth market.

Age compression-which marketers contend can be caused by such varied influences as single-parent families and the Internet-is prompting changes in ad messages.

"I'm losing kids earlier, and they top out at age 6," says Kathy Lalley, senior VP at Bcom3 Group's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, and co-founder of its KidLeo unit, which serves such clients as Walt Disney Co., McDonald's Corp., Nintendo of America and Viacom's Nickelodeon.

Age compression was recognized in the early 1990s in the toy industry, as younger children started playing with toys traditionally marketed to kids several years older. The trend has become more evident in categories such as fashion and fast-food.

FASHION FOCUS

"The interest in fashion has started earlier, especially for girls," Ms. Lalley says. "Girls outgrow toys and play with cosmetics and fashion."

At Diageo's Burger King Corp., "What we're doing with kid meals is related to age compression," says Richard Taylor, VP-U.S. marketing. "We noticed it was accelerating in the early '90s." The No. 2 burger chain launched the supersize Big Kids Meals in 1998.

Segmentation becomes more difficult in an era of age compression, when certain products cannot be strictly associated with a static age range. Age is just a starting point.

"The kid market 15 to 20 years ago was viewed in a monolithic way," says Paul Kurnit, president of both Kid Think and its parent agency, Omnicom Group's Griffin Bacal, New York.

Mr. Kurnit says today there are at least six recognized kids segments: newborn-2 years old; 3-5; 6-8; 9-12, the tweens segment; 13-15; and 16-18.

But with age compression, the interests of each group are changing-a tween in 2001 will have markedly different interests from a tween just a few years ago.

ACTION FIGURES START EARLY

Marketers traditionally define kids as ages 6 to 12. Today, the group is more in the 3-to-8-year-old range. "We used to look at the preschool market from 0 to 5 years as mom-targeted," Mr. Kurnit says. "Today, 3- and 4-year-old kids are playing with action figures, and babies are getting into the kids space."

Factors from media and technology to working mothers have propelled kids toward adulthood.

"Kids have access to information and influences that are mature more than ever before," says Jennifer Boehlke, account planner at the KidCom unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, which last month won Burger King's estimated $80 million kids marketing account.

MATURE INFO AVAILABLE

The Internet also has made the world much smaller, Ms. Boehlke says. "Now it doesn't take as long for trends to move across country."

Half of U.S. families have dual incomes, while another one in four is a single-parent household, so "kids are being forced to be more responsible and live on their own," she says.

Nowhere is the uncertainty of fluid boundaries more challenging than the tween realm. "They live in both worlds of kid and tween," Mr. Kurnit says.

Ms. Boehlke cautions that many people believe "kids are literally growing older younger because of all these new influences. That's not true. It means more kids have a foot in both worlds of the younger and teen/young adult world. You just can't assume kids are little teens because developmentally they're not ready."

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