Why targeting kids isn’t child’s play

The Middle East has one of the highest concentrations of children in the world. Richard Abbott looks at how media owners and advertisers are targeting the next generation of Arab consumers

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By  Richard Abbott Published  January 22, 2006

Why targeting kids isn’t child’s play|~|kids-n-mnms200.jpg|~|Children watch TV in Sharjah|~|“Mummy, I want one of those.” The language might be different, but parents across the Arab world will be familiar with this pleading cry from their child. Youngsters are just as susceptible to marketing as adults and the influence of ‘pester power’ means that they have a major say in their parents’ spending. Now marketing directors in the Middle East are beginning to realise the potential of pester power, which is good news for TV channels and magazines in the children’s market, who are upping their game in order to court the advertiser’s dollar. Arab children are glued to their TVs in the afternoon and early evening, especially in the extremely hot summer months, when playing outside is not an option. And if they are not watching TV they are likely to be reading a book or comic. Media owners have already woken up to the potential of advertising to children. There are now several TV channels and comics vying for advertisers’ money. “The children’s TV market has evolved and developed in a big way over the last 12 months,” says Michel Costandi, business development director at pan-Arab broadcaster MBC. Less than two years ago, MBC launched a dedicated children’s channel in response to the growing popularity of children’s entertainment on the flagship MBC station. “We had really good loyalty from young children and their families,” says Costandi. “We are hopeful that there will be a market that will cater for young children from an advertising point of view.” The channel, MBC3, appears to be doing its job so far. “For seven to 11-year-olds we are becoming the first choice for advertisers in this category. “We realise that it will take time, but we are only in year two and we are already impressed by the commercial results,” says Costandi. And the figures suggest that this is a market worth fighting for. Statistics from the Pan Arab Research Center show that toy firm New Boy spent US$12.6 million on pan-Arab television in the period from January to September 2005. Other notable spenders included the toy range Beyblade and chocolate egg brand Kinder. But debate rages over exactly who advertisers should be targeting when it comes to children’s products. Should it be the parents, the holders of the family purse? Or should it be the child themself? Raja Halabi, commercial director at Emirates Media Incorporated, which publishes children’s comic Majid, says some advertisers have got it wrong. “They still believe that the decision makers are the parents and not the children,” he says. “So you get advertising placed in the mainstream media and family magazines even though the products are targeted at children.” But advertisers must be responsible when it comes to targeting children. Anything that is seen to corrupt traditional family values is frowned upon by many. Fahd al Hajji, editor in charge at the Jeddah-based Basim magazine, part of the Saudi Research and Publishing group, is well aware of this. “We care about what adverts appear in our magazines because we have a goal to promote a healthy lifestyle,” he says. “We don’t want to give kids anything that hurts their values. We don’t publish anything that calls for anything bad.” Kids are notoriously fickle consumers, but once they find something they like, they will stick with it, whether it is a weekly comic or a TV channel. And advertising carried within that medium will resonate strongly with them. They are likely to dwell on a colourful advert that sits amid their regular comic strips and puzzles. For media owners in this region, the key is establishing that loyalty. And the challenge is to balance local Arabic content with the increasing influence of Western entertainment. They must strike the right medium between popular and recognisable figures like Spiderman, and local stories and features that are relevant to their young consumer’s everyday life. “Children like colourful things,” says al Hajji. “A lot of kids spend their spare time in front of the TV. They play a lot of video games and they enjoy playing outside and reading.” Alla Nemeh, executive director for children’s TV channel Spacetoon, adds: “We think our channel fills a gap ||**||Why targeting kids isn’t child’s play|~|halabi200.jpg|~|Raja Halabi, commercial director at Emirates Media Incorporated|~|in their day and presents something interesting and educational. But children here have multi-regional cultures and languages so it is difficult to address them all at once.” Like all children, he says Arab children want to be entertained and he warns against having too much educational content. “They don’t want to learn all the time because they study hard at school. When they get back to their home after school, they don’t necessarily want to be told what to do. So our role is to entertain them.” Spacetoon is one of the most successful children’s TV channels of recent times, broadcasting in both Arabic and English. Content is divided into ten different ‘planets’, which cater for children’s different interests, from action and adventure to sport. This is also designed to help advertisers better target their advertising. The channel will expand its network this year into new territories like India and Russia. Costandi says MBC3 shows a lot of programmes in English so that children get used to the sound of the language from an early age, although the core language remains Arabic. MBC3’s plans for this year include a new programme called Live Safari, starting in February, where Arab children are sent to summer camps and set a series of challenges. While TV is seen by many as the dominant medium for targeting children in the Middle East, magazine publishers believe they remain in a strong position because the child can interact directly with the product — through puzzles, games and colouring. Majid, a weekly magazine distributed throughout the Middle East and North Africa, has a combined circulation of more than 150,000, according to figures from its publisher Emirates Media Incorporated. The magazine — one of the longest established children’s comics in the region, at 27 years old — contains a mix of comic strips and features that are relevant to children’s lives. Majid uses characters that are inspired by the Arab world, penned by local artists. It’s heritage means that it is recognised by parents, who may have seen it when they were children themselves. Basim, is another weekly Arabic comic with a strong heritage — it has been in circulation for nearly 20 years. Editor in charge Al Hajji recently oversaw a redesign which has pushed readership up by 70%. He says the most popular forms of animation are in the Japanese and American style but he is concerned about the over use of imported material. “Imitators are mimicking this style. Many magazines in the Arab world are just a translation of the Japanese or American comics. This is not right. We want to create our own content,” he says. However, producing Arabic content can be an expensive business, according to Spacetoon’s Nemeh. “We don’t just translate, we also put some special songs in for local children,” he says. “But we don’t have too much local content. It is costly to produce Arabic animation.” For media owners, the key to sustaining long-term loyalty from children is through making their products as interactive as possible. And now publishers are taking this a step further by taking their brands and characters on to the internet. Readers of Majid can now colour in their favourite pictures online — as well as in the comic itself. Halabi says. “We have a loyal database of children across the Arab world, with great interaction between the children and the magazine, which is very important.” Basim has created an e-mail address for each character that appears in the comic so that children can write to them. Of the 1500 e-mails that the comic receives each week, more than 200 are addressed directly to one of the many characters. Al Hajji says: “Kids who find a magazine and like it, will love it forever. We are always in contact with the kids, encouraging them to do things for the magazine. “We publish their work. We know that when the kid sees their name in the magazine, they will love it even more.” As children become more technology savvy, media owners are looking into tie-ups with video games in order to achieve cut-through. SMS marketing remains small but is a fast growing media choice. Debate will rage on over which medium is the best for targeting children, but Emirates Media’s Halabi firmly believes that TV and print can work together. “We want to co-operate with TV channels who are targeting children, especially when we can align the TV channel and the magazine using the same characters,” he says. MBC’s Costandi adds: “The media are complementing each other rather than providing competition.” As advertising to children becomes more popular, kids’ media is sure to diversify, but Basim’s Nemeh warns against over-complicating the matter. “The cartoon is the same all over the world,” he says. “Wherever you are, you can watch Tom & Jerry and it is still funny.”||**||

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