Special Report on Merchandising and Marketing: The art (and benefits) of reaching kids

Kids. Whether you mean to entertain them, educate them or scare the bejesus out of them, you've got to reach them first. The marketing and promotion departments of some broadcasters are eagerly tapping into the lucrative tween culture while others are...

Kids. Whether you mean to entertain them, educate them or scare the bejesus out of them, you’ve got to reach them first. The marketing and promotion departments of some broadcasters are eagerly tapping into the lucrative tween culture while others are using the littler ones to touch the consciences and wallets of their parents. Beyond t-shirts and baseball caps, broadcasters are creating more elaborate and strategic methods of utilizing the loyalty of the school-age set.

tvontario, building on the strength of its children’s programming and the tvokids block, decided to make kids and families the driving force behind its fourth annual Open House, held last month.

Ontario’s public broadcaster, in its 25th year, facing a revenue crisis and privatization threats, gave this year’s Open House a two-tiered function. Although still intended as a means of inspiring a sense of ownership within the community towards the network – particularly important should tvo fight off privatization any time soon – this year, as pressure mounts for the network to become more self-supporting, the event took on a fundraising role as well. And in order to get the Mommies and Daddies out with their chequebooks, tvokids was the drawing card.

‘tvokids was the driving force behind the event, absolutely,’ says Josh Morris, executive producer, children’s and youth programming and chair of the Open House committee. ‘In the first few years we tried to be all things to all people, we tried to appeal to seniors and everything else. But the fact is, who’s going to come to a big open-air carnival on a Saturday afternoon in September? I think it’s going to be mostly parents and kids.’

The event, scheduled a week prior to the start of tvo’s fall slate to give the new programs a push, has been deemed a success. Attendance was estimated at over 30,000 throughout the day. On the financial end, the number of memberships sold doubled over the previous year, and the ‘marketing tent,’ which sells tvo merchandise, did ‘quite well.’

The event was also an opportunity for the broadcaster to launch the new tvontario Children’s Programming Fund – an initiative which hopes to raise $3 million over three years to support the production of quality, non-commercial children’s programming. Kids threw coins into the ‘Fountain For Youth’ to make wishes, and parents, with their pockets freer of loose change, were made that much more aware of tvo’s commitment to kids’ tv.

The key to success for such an event, says Morris, is to engage the parents while entertaining the kids. ‘Rather than promoting a show like Studio 2, and talking about all the stuff Steve Paiken will discuss regarding Ontario politics, we would have Steve Paiken behind a ring-toss booth in the tvo programming tent. It’s something for the kids, but the personality is there and available to the parents who might be interested in speaking with him.’

While Mom and Dad might be the quickest way to reach a preschooler or someone in the five-to-eight age bracket, tweens (kids aged nine to 14) would rather be caught dead than associated with Ma and Pa. Reaching an older market means knowing what they think is ‘cool’ and sounding as un-parental as possible. This has been ytv’s strategy for its successful Dark Night promotion.

A strong believer in adhering to the ‘calendar of kids,’ ytv dedicates an evening of programming to celebrate the holiday that tops most kids’ lists – Halloween. Dark Night began in 1993 when the network delayed the season launch of one of its most popular shows, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and pre-empted programming on the Saturday closest to Halloween to air five back-to-back new episodes.

Building on the popularity of the previous year, ytv added more programming to the mix for Dark Night 2 and made it an event. It launched a six-week progressive on-air promotion, with each spot airing a minimum of 15 times a week, supported by six weeks of on-air mentions by the ytv pjs. The pjs were also incorporated into a building sub-plot and hosted the segments between the shows.

The results from Dark Night 2 thrilled both the network and the sponsor, Hasbro Games. Ratings, at about 605,000, were double the previous year’s and the contest line logged 4.5 million attempted calls. The sponsor sold out of the product featured, a board game called 13 Dead End Drive. The network was compelled to create an even bigger evening of programming for this year.

The promotion schedule for Dark Night 3 (Oct. 28) follows a similar path and a logo, incorporating the familiar ytv branding and the seasonal ytv icon – a skull with neon lettering – has been developed especially for the event.

Added to the slate of new Are You Afraid Of The Dark? episodes are Freaky Stories, a Canadian-produced animation special based on scary urban legends, and the Canadian premiere of Protocol Entertainment’s Goosebumps, the highly anticipated series based on R.L. Stine’s best-selling novel series. This year’s sponsor, Canada Games, is hoping for the results of last year, if not better.

Liz Armstrong, ytv’s media relations co-ordinator, says events like Dark Night are what keeps the network firmly entrenched in ‘tween culture.’

‘It positions us so that ytv really is part of the tween landscape. A lot of kids view ytv as more than a network. We’re constantly working along their calendar. Halloween, April Fool’s Day, March Break – they are as important to us as they are to a kid in grade six,’ she says.

Grade six or age six, grabbing the attention of kids makes good business sense. And catching kids can also mean some unexpected side benefits. Says Armstrong: ‘Last time I checked, we had the second-highest adult audience of all the specialty networks. We were number two behind tsn.’

Hmmm. Tarzan Dan hosting Sports Desk? It could happen