"The telephone is dead for this age group." The author of this rather arresting statement is Nick Piggot, the digital content manager for GWR's production and programming arm, Creation. And he doesn't mean that the phone is literally dead - after all, some 90 per cent of the population now has mobile phones. Rather, he is saying that the youth demographic would rather text than talk - 95 per cent of incoming communication to GWR's digital radio station Core is in the form of SMS messages. "They outnumber e-mails 75 to one," he says.
Of course, children do still talk on the phone, but not as much as you'd think, and certainly not to advertisers. According to research by MediaCom, in the eight-to-12 age group, more is spent on ringtones and logos than on actual calls.
Welcome to the weird, chimerical world of the under-16 consumer. Selling stuff to children used to be relatively easy. In marketing terms, at least, anyone over 25 can justifiably look back at their childhood as a gentler and simpler time. But children these days really are very different.
For starters, there are fewer of them than ever before. Although the population is still growing (albeit slowly), the most recent census (2001) showed that for the first time the over 60s outnumbered the under 16s.
Indeed, since the 1951 census, the proportion of under 16s has fallen from 24 per cent to 20 per cent.
The flipside of this is that, although there may be fewer of them, they are considerably richer: children between the age of seven and 16 now receive an average of £5.79 a week in pocket money and year on year this figure grows comfortably ahead of inflation. One in four 11- to 16-year-olds will augment this with a part-time job, averaging £27.31 a week. And, best of all, from a marketing point of view, less than a third of them are inclined to save it: more than 70 per cent say they'd rather spend the lot.
Although people tend to lump the under 16s together, this is in fact a far from homogeneous group. Seamus O'Farrell, the managing director of Soul, explains: "Five to six, seven to eight, nine to 11 and 13 to 16 are massively different markets in terms of attitudes and sensitivity.
Which audience is it - a pocket-money audience or a teen audience?" That said, across the board, there are some common themes: "You've got to entertain them, but it's not just about being cool - it's making them laugh."
With wealth comes sophistication. But it is often a kind of sophistication that makes little sense to anyone over 20. "It's all about letting this group of people discover it for themselves," the MediaCom director, Tina Digby, says. "They don't like to feel as if they are being sold to. We need to get the brand or product to become part of the fabric of conversation - to make it cool and talked about." And to grown-ups, the demarcation line might seem totally arbitrary: "For instance, PC gaming is not cool while PlayStation 2 is. It can be very dangerous to try and be too cool."
How to be cool is perhaps the most difficult thing, Clare de Burca, the head of consumer insight at Starcom Motive, says: "If you don't want to appear patronising and out of touch, you have to get out and meet real people. You can't just sit at your desk and read reports. You have to get out of London, as Londonite families can be very different from the rest of the country ."
She adds that diving into the thoughts of children can also be a challenge.
"Most people in agencies are far away from the mindset of a ten-year-old boy and it can be easy to miss their opinions." Bearing in mind that ten-year-olds might be reticent about divulging their preferences to researchers, in one piece of research, Starcom gave them cameras and told them to take pictures of their things and what interested them.
And, she cautions, it's not just the child as an autonomous consumer, it's the child as part of the family unit. Children nowadays, she says, have far more adult, negotiated relationships with their parents and have a subtler and larger influence in bigger decisions such as cars and holidays.
"Obviously, you'd don't target car ads at children, but you have to treat the family as a democracy," she says.
Perhaps the most important point, though, is the most obvious: even at this age, you cannot patronise your audience or treat them as fools. Entertainment is key, but so is honesty. "You've got to tell it how it is. If you don't, they'll know," O'Farrell says.
HOW COCA-COLA CAPTIVATED CHILDREN
In March this year, Coke launched a campaign that used one of its customers' favourite accessories, their mobiles. Called "Txt for music" the promotion is the UK's first-ever "mobile-based credit collection mechanic" and its largest-ever on-pack text promotion. In simpler terms, this means that products in the promotion carry unique codes. Consumers then text (or e-mail) the codes in, allowing them to build up a virtual bank account of credits that can be redeemed for limited-edition CDs. They can also win backstage tickets to exclusive Coke "Red Room Sessions".
"We're always looking at innovative ways of tapping into people's everyday lives," Joan O'Connor, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, says. "Texting is a very good way of doing that. People always have their mobiles on them - they're modern necessities." Coke and music, she continues, are natural partners and because the CDs aren't available in the stores "you get a 'money-can't-buy experience', particularly with the special gigs". Rather than the usual kind of concert tickets promotion, these are more intimate and feature up-and-coming UK artists.
Interestingly, although an SMS campaign might be seen as something aimed primarily at children, O'Connor says that its appeal is pretty broad: "The Music For You promotion has also had a lot of redemptions in the 16-to-40 age group. It's too early to say what the results are, but mobile phones work across the board."
So the "Txt for music" campaign may not only be appealing to 14-year-olds, but to their parents too.
Brand-conscious babies - The idea that an individual's brand awareness may start around the time that language develops; about six months.
Captive kidspace - Using marketing in places children cannot escape - ie. fast food/soft drinks in US schools.
Cradle-to-grave marketing - Get 'em young and hold on to them until they die.
Cross-generational targeting - Commercials that may be aimed primarily at mum and dad, but that have a message for younger consumers too.
Fast-food dad - A divorced father who has the children at weekends and assuages his guilt by treating them to the burgers and fries that mum forbids.
Generation Y - A vague, catch-all term that can mean any group from those just younger than Generation X to tweenies.
Imprinting - The belief that, if you get to them early enough, they'll remember you forever.
Junior Joneses - The peer group that children have to keep up with.
Little big spenders - The increasingly affluent under 16s.
Pester power - When children irritate their parents into buying something.
Retail field trips - School excursions "sponsored" by companies, which are as much about encouraging consumption as edutainment; like an "infomercial" made flesh.
Tweenies - Teen wannabes (nine- to 12-year-olds).
Tinys - Under 5s.