Foods targeting children aren't just child's play

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Mothers are known for instructing children not to play with their food. But increasingly marketers are encouraging them to.

While tyke-targeted shapes, sizes and colors of conventional package foods are nothing new, food marketers going after the videogame-savvy kids of today are going a step further. A next generation of "interactive" foods are hitting supermarket shelves, in colors, shapes or flavors that magically metamorphose into another.

Kellogg Co.'s Wild Magicburst Pop-Tarts, being introduced this month, feature sprinkles that shift to vivid hues when toasted. General Mills' Squeez-It drink, which already marketed a color-changing crystal that kids drop into the potion, is now advertising a taste-altering tablet.

New for summer, from Unilever's Good Humor division, is a Popsicle product called Tongue Splashers, an ice pop shaped like lips, tongue and neck. But "the best part," according to the marketer, is a gumball hidden inside the tongue that "paints kids' lips and tongues an awesome hue."


"These products are like what Tootsie Pops were to our generation," said baby boomer Julie Halpin, CEO of Gepetto Group, New York, a kids marketing specialist.

Experts on marketing to kids believe the floodgates are opening for similar food products as children gain clout as consumers.

"Marketers are just waking up to the enormous possibility of kids-targeted products," said Johann Wachs, VP-strategic planning at Saatchi & Saatchi's Kid Connection unit, also New York. "As kids become more powerful as consumers, they are being targeted more directly."

Kids aged 7 to 12 account for $8.9 billion in spending annually, according to Just Kid Inc.'s Global Kids Study, shelling out 26% , or $2.3 billion, of that toward purchases of snacks and beverages alone.


And it's not only young kids that wield purchasing power. Teens, too, are becoming more of a force in the supermarket.

Julie Klyce, editor of newsletter Selling to Kids, cited a recent Channel One figure that teens account for $58 billion in grocery-store purchasing.

Food companies seeking their fair share of the kids' lunch money are pursuing innovation full-tilt to stand out.

"Kids marketing in general is becoming more sophisticated," Ms. Halpin said. "There are more people and more product categories competing for share of mind, so the need for creativity is higher. Ten years ago, cereal and cookies were marketed to kids--now there are banks, computers and software. The stakes have been raised."

Psychological components also are at work. Denise Fedewa, VP-planning director at Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, which counts among its clients such kid-directed marketers as Keebler Co., Kellogg Co. and McDonald's Corp., said moms are now more likely to allow kids to eat foods that might once have been considered off-limits.


"Moms have loosened nutritional controls," she said, trying to avoid eating disorders in their offspring. "They now believe there are so many battles to fight, is fighting over food really worth it?"

And there's a payoff for kids in playing with their food, Mr. Wachs said.

"Food is so charged with rules, regulations and canons of behavior that whenever there's a break from the [food] routine, it empowers kids," he noted.

Kraft Foods has come up with a cupboardful of kids products--from Kool-Aid and Pebbles cereals to "Rugrats"-shaped Macaroni & Cheese--but hasn't introduced any shape- or color-changing foods.

"Children like the fantastical because it's safe and entertaining at the same time," said Deb Sawch, director of marketing development at Kraft, who cautioned that new bells and whistles and alterations alone won't sell a food to children.

"Above all, it has to taste good," she said. "Kids won't be fooled."

Because many marketers take the "in and out" approach to children's chow--meaning unusual products sold for a limited-time, such as holidays--there isn't always a large ad campaign behind them. But there are exceptions.

General Mills is now running a campaign on national TV for its taste-changing Squeez-It; the commercials use humor, showing an old man's false teeth flying out of his mouth and ending up in a child's drink.

The marketer also has been advertising its Go-Gurt, a kids yogurt packaged in a toothpaste-like tube. Both are handled by Saatchi & Saatchi, New York.

Likewise, Quaker Oats has been running a TV commercial for its Dino Eggs, containing "eggs" that hatch in hot water to reveal edible dinosaurs.

Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, created the spot, which shows the eggs quivering in a bowl as the resounding steps of an unseen dinosaur shake it--a la "Jurassic Park."

Although the cool factor allows for word-of-mouth advertising for these foods, Mr. Wachs said paid advertising is not only necessary but can enhance that effect.


"Kids are exposed to so many messages" that it's risky to rely only on word-of-mouth, he said. Besides, "Kids love the sheer bigness of a brand that advertises. It gives them something to talk about in the schoolyard."

As the younger set becomes more courted by marketers, Ms. Halpin suggests the element of play will be injected into the marketing of other product categories. "What's happening is a convergence in `kid culture' overall," she said, predicting that child's play will come into play in many markets.

After all, adults play with their food, too.

Copyright February 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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