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Kids' ability to do two things at once is nothing new-who among us didn't hear our parents shout "Turn off the radio!" while we were doing our homework?- but the explosion of media options is raising the habit to new levels.

And therein lies a potential problem for advertisers trying to reach the youth market.

It's not just a matter of doing two things at once. These young people are engaged in "media multitasking"-a term describing how children and teens routinely bounce from one medium to another, and often settle with more than one medium, and sometimes more than two, at the same time. Fueling this practice is the proliferation of media options-TV and radio stations by the thousand, fighting for attention with thousands of magazines and millions of Web sites. At the same time, technological advances now allow kids and teens to carry on several conversations at once, on cell phones through text messaging and, when online, with instant messages and postings on bulletin boards.

Teens are especially prone to multitasking. About 80% regularly use more than one medium at a given time, according to a study by Arbitron and WPP Group's MindShare.

The problem for marketers is that while the stimuli are increasing exponentially and kids desire to experience as much as they can, the capacity of the young brain to absorb it all is pretty much where evolution had it a generation ago.

Kids market consultant Paul Kurnit believes multitasking might undercut the effectiveness and, eventually, the value of TV advertising. "Media companies are shaking in their shoes that this may be a fact," says Mr. Kurnit, former president of New York agency Griffin Bacal, which worked for youth-oriented marketers including Hasbro and Pepsi-Cola Co.

Media companies are in a chicken-and-egg situation. While they helped spark multitasking by expanding into new areas, they respond to kids' multitasking by trying to grab their attention through as many outlets as they can.

Nickelodeon, which over 25 years has built itself into the premier franchise for kid-oriented TV, says it was aware as far back as seven years ago that young people were engaging in media multitasking, based on intelligence gleaned from the 350 focus groups it conducts annually on programming, kids' attitudes and lifestyle.

But Viacom-owned Nickelodeon doesn't perceive multitasking as casting a dark shadow on TV's future. "We don't see it as a problem," says Jim Perry, senior VP-advertising sales. "Nick TV is our biggest business, and television viewership hasn't gone down." The cable network reaches into more than 80 million U.S. households.

Nickelodeon responds to multitasking by trying to also reach young people through its magazine, Web sites and even theme park attractions. "If we are really going to be a part of kids' lives, we've got to be with them wherever they go," Mr. Perry says.

a brand, not just network

Likewise, the founders of Time Warner's Cartoon Network were thinking of more than just a TV channel when approaching the youth market. Cartoon Network was to be a brand, with the cable network as one of a family of synergistic ventures. For example, Cartoon Network retooled its Web site in 2000 and now routinely includes interactive games with elements requiring players to gather information on-air.

Similarly, Cartoon Network TV audiences are often directed to the Web to participate in events and contests.

No matter where youthful audiences move, they remain in the Cartoon Network fold, at least in principle. Media multitasking "isn't a problem," says Cartoon Network General Manager Jim Samples. "It's a strategy."

Radio Disney also sees an opportunity in multitasking. "We operate in a TV-centric world as far as marketers are concerned. As they realize it's not possible to operate with a one-dimensional media plan, it enables vehicles like us to step in and demonstrate our worth," says Jim Pastor, VP-sales and marketing at Walt Disney Co.'s radio outlet.

Samantha Skey, senior VP-convergent marketing group at Alloy's 360 Youth, a marketing services company, says advertisers are dismayed by rising TV ad rates, particularly when confronted with research showing the "diminished mind share" that results from kids pursuing three or four activities at the same time.

connecting with football players One answer may be non-traditional tactics such as the "Players of the Year" awards that 360 Youth created for Procter & Gamble Co. As part of the awards program for high school football players, P&G distributed samples of Old Spice Red Zone deodorant to teen boys at 4,000 high schools.

"Ultimately, you spend less money than you would with traditional media, which is becoming prohibitively expensive," Ms. Skey says.

Debbie Solomon, senior partner-group research director at media-buying giant MindShare, Chicago, emphasizes that young people have been multitasking for decades, and she's not convinced it's a problem for media or advertisers.

"There's always the question of whether multitasking means they're not paying attention to the program or to the advertising," Ms. Solomon says. "It always raises that question. But I think since it's not a new phenomenon, it's no worse today than it was 10 or 20 years ago in terms of how it impacts the receipt of a commercial message ... There are so many other things that affect the value of the commercial."

TV is still paramount to advertisers intent on reaching preteens, Ms. Solomon says. "It's the medium [kids] use the most, understand best and are most comfortable with," she says. Yes, advertisers are routinely expanding into non-traditional media and promotion-including magazines, online in-school and video arcades, to name a few-but not because of the waning value of TV advertising.

Instead, these moves are prompted by the many new, intriguing outlets that have emerged in recent years. "Ten years ago, there were not as many places to do it," Ms. Solomon says.

Few are suggesting TV commercials aimed at kids are going away anytime soon. But many, such as Jennifer Goodman, managing director at WPP's youth specialist Geppetto Group, New York, believe change is in the offing. Advertisers are now more open to shifting media dollars into less traditional venues in their quest to reach ever more elusive youth. Kids advertisers "have to go where the consumers are," Ms. Goodman says.

And that may be a challenge when young consumers' brains are in several places at once.

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