Kids, media literacy and the need for brand education at school have been the focus of recent reports from Mintel and the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).
Both are attempting to get a handle on the direction this market is taking in order to help marketers build brands in this arena, but experts are divided on whether their predictions are accurate.
The main point of contention is with the concept of kids getting older younger (KGOY) and the consequences of that for responsible marketing to kids. Mintel devotes a large chunk of its Marketing to Children aged 11-14 report on the KGOY phenomenon, arguing that because kids are increasingly brand aware they are "able to make informed decisions about the products they buy" as a result.
The research house argues that the increasing popularity with children of adult TV shows such as Friends, The Simpsons and South Park "bears testimony to the KGOY factor in terms of children's lifestyle and behaviour".
Yet practitioners such as Dave Lawrence, planning director at Logistix Kids, feel the balance of power between children and parents has at last come full circle.
"The balance has already been overthrown in terms of kids having too much say in the family dynamic," he posits.
"Over the past 10 years, there has been a much more commercial focus on kids - for example, the increased retailer concentration on the tweenage market."
Lawrence is totally unconvinced that the next generation of children will be acting like today's 18 year-olds at the age of 12.
"It's over-simplistic to say that kids are getting older younger," he says. For him, marketing to children in the future will be affected primarily by a shift in parental attitudes.
As a result, Lawrence predicts, parents will start to take much more of a lead in shaping their children's lives and socially responsible promotions will start to become more effective.
This in turn will bring about a reduction in the very intensive children-based marketing activity seen in recent years and uncover fewer commercial opportunities for brands.
Not all agree with this view. Lawrence's assumptions are challenged by another kids marketing expert and author of BrandChild, Martin Lindstrom.
He's equally adamant that children will continue to take more control of their lives.
"The kids will, without any doubt, have more influence than any generation seen before," he says. "Children will be targeted by marketing because they are the main point of influence. The parents will have no say at all."
But that's not to say marketers won't promote responsibly. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents to a CIM questionnaire said they believed partnerships between brands and schools can play a positive role in the community without exploiting kids - a finding that clearly underlines the importance of promoting responsibly to kids among the majority of marketers.
It is a view shared by one top marketer who has spearheaded the launch of an in-school loyalty scheme for Britvic Soft Drinks, Andrew Marsden.
The soft drinks giant has run a number of initiatives for its brands, including Pepsi and Tango, under the name of "B Stars" and Marsden, who is category director at Britvic, feels that not exploiting the audience makes both ethical and commercial sense - and that's not going to change in coming years.
"Anything we do in schools is done as properly as possible and under far stricter codes than, say, advertising," he points out.
B Stars is a collector scheme that enables schools to buy access to sports coaching for children. It has been developed in conjunction with educational agencies and parental bodies.
"It's not a ridiculous scheme in which you need five zillion tokens just to get a carriage clock," says Marsden.
"We don't want to adversely affect the next generation of consumers and be seen by them as rubbish."
Another issue on which there is a general consensus is that promotions will increasingly have to appeal to teachers, parents and children in a sophisticated and responsible way.
As Logistix Kids' Lawrence points out, the perils of not doing this are public enough to have a direct - and unfavourable - impact on brand equity.
He cites Tammy Girl as an example of a brand that didn't cover its bases in this respect and suffered as a result.
"The girls' clothing brand launched provocative underwear at 9-12 year-olds and the media started to question whether this was right," he says.
"And in the UK, Sunny Delight came in for a lot of bad press, too, for the role of artificial colouring, and soon no self-respecting parent would be seen buying the brand for their children."
Clearly, when it comes to marketing to children the ground remains as unsteady as it has always been.
Despite the fact that Lawrence spends every day immersed in tackling the kids market (or perhaps it's because of this), he is unwilling to make predictions too far into the future.
"It's like any projection: you can't legislate for everything that's going to happen in the future," he says. "All you can do is take as much of an objective view as possible.
"We have a very uncertain world as we stand and you have to react with it."
OPT-IN MARKETING THE WAY AHEAD
Britvic Soft Drinks category director Andrew Marsden has been involved in a number of brand initiatives targeting schools and it has given him an insight into the future of marketing to children.
"The advance of mobile communications means that people could be bombarded with deals in the future," he says. "Offers could be sent by stores people are near when they are walking down the street."
But Marsden argues that opt-in marketing could be even more successful because teachers, children and parents will have more control of the information they receive. "If the messages are not relevant, large numbers of consumers might say to hell with it," he adds.
The key for Marsden is that brands utilise technology in an appropriate way. With mobile communications reduced to the size of a lapel badge, the issue will be ensuring the message is of a suitable quality.
Servant, not master
"Technology will be the servant and not the master," he says. "The promotion will still have to be focused, relevant and highly creative." For Marsden, there will be no end to the current trend of brands targeting schools, teachers, parents and children. Even if there were a complete ban on advertising and marketing to children, Marsden argues, they would still be influenced. "No parent can protect their child from the outside world completely," he says.
Marsden says there will always be mass media, such as posters and TV, but children can be taught to interpret these messages in a sensible and marketing-literate way.
"You will be in a sophisticated world but giving a simple message," he says. "If your product doesn't deliver, the customer will punish you. The consumer always decides what the brand's value is."