Mr Wormwood switched on the television. The screen lit up. The
programme blared. Mr Wormwood glared at Matilda. She hadn’t moved. She
had somehow trained herself by now to block her ears to the ghastly
sound of the dreaded box. She kept right on reading, and for some reason
this infuriated the father ...’
When Roald Dahl invented his character, Matilda Wormwood, he created a
child who was in control. Despite her square-eyed, TV-fixated parents,
she chose her own media - in the form of books - and proceeded to read
as much as she could.
This decade has seen a surge in media-literate Matildas - children who
might not be obsessed by books, but who know what they want to watch,
read, listen to and browse for. Today’s thirtysomethings and
fortysomethings might be the TV generation, witnesses to the media
explosion, but the new generation X hasn’t grown up at the same time as
TV did. It’s grown up with VCRs, cable, satellite and now digital
choices - the internet, computers and games consoles, not to mention a
wonderful and, at times, weird selection of alternative media.
But more to the point, like Matilda, 90s children are not just
spectators of the media explosion. They are learning to control that
media, to make choices. They are growing up wise to marketing and media
messages. And they are not afraid to flip between channels or even turn
It’s potentially a nightmare situation for advertisers. That cosy,
passive audience is becoming an untamed and self-willed animal.
Instead of choosing between reading the Beano and watching Play School,
they can tune into cartoons on the Cartoon Channel 24 hours a day. And
girls might prefer to tuck into a copy of Sugar or Bliss, while
increasing numbers of boys are choosing to read lads’ mags like Loaded,
or its younger brother, Front. BBJ’s marketing director, Nigel Morris,
says his company’s rolling research among 13- to 17-year-olds ’shows
that boys use men’s style magazines almost as cultural catalogues’.
With two thirds of children over six now having a TV set in their room
and VCR technophobes as parents, the control of the box is often in
their hands. And, as the digital revolution advances, with new set-top
boxes already in the home and the future of the internet and digital TV
colliding, this should speak volumes about the shift of power into the
hands of the younger generation.
Faced with all these choices, children are getting increasingly
They might have learned to surf the internet with ease, but they are
also likely to pick out various sites and not to spend an age staring at
the PC screen in awe. They’d rather be in the playground. Even so, 16
out of the 20 top children’s advertisers are able to justify the expense
of having their own websites targeting children. If children are going
to stick with it, they need to be glued in. But, equally, unless you’re
top of their internet list, they are just as likely to want to be
pulling Daisy or Jack’s plaits outside.
Or shopping. Children under ten name supermarkets as being among their
favourite shops, and have been known to rate them above Toys ’R’ Us. So
they are showing predelictions that should warm the heart of marketers
everywhere. Not just that, but pester power seems to be getting stronger
and starting younger.
However, children have never been more selective about which brands they
prefer. It’s now received wisdom that they become brand aware at about
the age of four. They are then living in a media and marketing jungle:
according to Mintel, the amount spent on ads to children increased from
#26 million to #150 million in the five years to 1997 and Friends of the
Earth estimates that British children see 18,000 ads a year on average.
Parents may attempt to screen messages and teachers may veto brands that
advertise at school, but these are just fingers in the dike.
Children are changing. They are growing up in a world where they need to
master communications if they are going to cope successfully with life’s
challenges. Clearly, marketers targeting children increasingly need to
look to how they choose as well as what they choose. For clients,
finding agencies that can keep up with the changes is a core element of
But, whatever efforts are made, children will always be a fickle
Like Matilda, they quickly learn to run rings around adults. It’s a
tough job to second guess what choices they will make. Favourite TV
shows often include those geared specifically to adults, including the
hugely popular US animation, South Park, or soaps like Emmerdale and
Favourite ads might predictably include Sunny Delight’s, but
eight-year-olds might equally be clamouring for Colman’s mustard with
the singing pig or a commercial for Castlemaine XXXX lager.