Car makers are increasingly targeting a new set of car buyers: ones who can't drive yet.
A growing number of auto companies are trying to place ads and products in child-oriented areas such as gyms that cater to kids, social-networking sites where young people hang out and the Saturday-morning cartoons. Their aim is to spur sales to parents -- and, down the road, to the children themselves.
My Gym Enterprises Inc., a chain of franchise gyms around the country for kids between three months old and 13 years old, is in talks with at least three car makers to pick an auto sponsor that could advertise in the gym and incorporate miniature vehicles into classes.
In Whyville.net, a virtual world where nearly two million children ages 8 to 15 hang out, kids can now buy virtual Scion xBs if they have enough "clams," Whyville's monetary unit. If not, they can meet with Eric, a virtual Toyota Financial Services adviser, to finance an xB. Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion xBs became the only car models available in Whyville.net earlier this year in a deal signed with the site's owner, Numedeon Inc.
And then there's the promotion that got 5-year-old Daniel Lower-Basch his own tiny Hummer, which he calls his "red monster." He got one of the toy Hummers given out in McDonald's Corp. Happy Meals in August -- the first time a car maker directly offered versions of its vehicles in the meals. That month, the General Motors Corp. brand also launched a Web site, HUMMERkids.com, with games and printable coloring pages of H3 models. Daniel, of Alexandria, Va., says of his toy car: "I think it's really cool. When I push it, it goes for a long time."
Auto makers have also been buying more advertising during kids' shows and on channels like Nickelodeon. Walt Disney Co.'s Disney ABC Kids Networks plans to have its first-ever auto advertiser by next spring, as Honda Motor Co. plans to sponsor an advertising campaign that likely will include a sweepstakes to win a 2007 Honda Odyssey and to lead a parade at Disneyland Resort. The campaign may also include spots on Radio Disney, ABC's Saturday morning block and Toon Disney. Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon has brought on nine auto makers to advertise or sponsor events since 2000. Before 2000, it had no auto makers as advertisers.
While auto makers have long licensed their names to toy-car companies and designed some TV commercials to attract kids, the numbers doing so have increased in recent years. At the same time, auto makers' methods of reaching kids have become more sophisticated, extending more product placements into nontraditional spaces where kids go to play.
"I think it's insidious and a little sneaky," says Debbie McDonald, a 38-year-old teacher in Blakely, Ga., of the Scion presence in Whyville. Her 9-year-old daughter, a Whyville "addict," bought a Scion xB on the site, but it was repossessed because she didn't make her loan payments.
Some child advocates, too, are worried by the subtlety of the product placements, which they fear may have more influence on kids than traditional ads. The product placements are "an outrageous manipulation of young children, using them essentially as miniature salespeople to get parents to buy these cars," says Susan Linn, a co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a coalition in Boston made up of health-care professionals, educators, advocacy groups and parents.
While there are federal regulations and industry guidelines for advertising to children, including how much time during children's programming on television can be devoted to advertising and requirements for a buffer between program and advertisements, there are few guidelines for product placement in new advertising media like virtual Web sites and videogames.
But the companies say the promotions are fun and in some cases educational. "We are providing a product that has legitimate play value for the kid," says Martin Walsh, Hummer's general manager. Hummer's licensed goods geared to kids are increasing in volume. A Hummer kid's bicycle, a children's tent and a number of new ride-on products are new this fall.
Toyota Financial executives, meanwhile, say the Whyville promotion helps to educate kids about how financing works. Whyville.net says kids know and understand that Scion's presence on the site is funded by Toyota, partly because Whyville refers to Scion and other advertisers on the site as "sponsors."
The increased targeting of kids and their parents comes as evidence is growing that today's doting parents can be nagged by their children into buying big-ticket items like cars -- or at least take their kids into account when picking a brand. According to a May report from Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com, about 37 percent of parents of kids ages 3 to 11 say their children have a significant impact on the brands they choose. James McNeal, founder of child-marketing consulting firm McNeal & Kids and the author of books on the subject, estimates children under 14 last year influenced about 47 percent of household purchases.
As for cars, about 62 percent of parents now say their children "actively participate" in car-buying decisions, according to a study by J.D. Power & Associates for the Nickelodeon network. A study done this year for Disney ABC Kids Networks by Strottman International found that 28 percent of moms of 6-year-olds to 14-year-olds say they listen to their children's wishes regarding vehicle purchases.
"If nothing else, when Mom or Dad are discussing at the family dinner table what kind of car they should look at, the kids might think Mazdas are cool and suggest a Mazda," says James Jordan, alternative marketing manager for Mazda Motor Corp. in North America. Mazda dealerships are featured in Electronic Arts Inc.'s new "Need for Speed Carbon" driving videogame, which hit stores last week. Between 35 percent to 40 percent of "Need for Speed" buyers are between the ages 13 and 17. The car brand also paid for its RX-8 model to be the superhero's vehicle in the Top Cow Revved comic book series, which debuted in August.
Still, some parents say they aren't necessarily going to be swayed by their kids' appeals. Elizabeth Lower-Basch, Daniel's 34-year-old mom, says her son has told her "he wants to be a monster truck driver when he grows up." But she thinks Hummers are ugly and expensive, and she has no plans to buy one.