Marketing healthcare to kids: Moneymaker, minefield or both?

Marketing health education to children makes good business sense.

Not only is the audience highly impressionable, but the market represents some significant bucks.

Healthcare spending on children rose 5.7 percent annually between 2010 and 2013, compared to just 3.9 percent for the overall population. Kids’ healthcare costs now represent 8 percent of the lifetime costs of raising them, compared to 4 percent in 1960. And when last measured by the Healthcare Cost Institute in 2014, per capita spending on healthcare for children with employer-sponsored insurance reached $2,660, plus $472 in out-of-pocket expenses.

That said, marketing to children requires an entirely different strategy from pitching to adults, mainly because public opinion and major media so often focus on potentially negative effects. Some believe any and all marketing aimed toward children is unethical, even healthcare or healthy products that would seem to be in their best interest. And many agencies such as drug industry trade group PhRMA has set guidelines to try to control the nature of such marketing.  

Even the food industry has been subject to criticism.

"There's no moral, ethical or social justification for marketing any product to children," argues Susan Linn of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in regard to a kids’ healthy-eating campaign by Subway restaurants.  

Several medical vendors of late have devised clever ways of marketing to kids that seem to walk the line of being effective, yet responsible. Among them:

  • Many have sponsored high-quality lesson plans that have been well-received by time-strapped teachers. For example, vaccine developer Pfizer Inc. offers worksheets on meningitis, Clearasil sponsors handouts on puberty and Johnson & Johnson offers worksheets focused on naming body parts.
  • New York-based publisher Medikidz offers physician-written comic books that explain medical conditions including ADHD, Type 1 diabetes and growth hormone deficiency; drug companies then sponsor them.
  • Medical device companies DePuy Synthes invited teens with scoliosis and their parents to their Boston-area campus for lunch and a series of scoliosis discussions. Costumed superheroes entertained younger siblings.
  • Makers of acne medication OXY launched a smartphone app challenging teens to clear up their acne in time for prom, using coupons, daily alerts and invitations to post before-and-after pics.
  • Diabetes drug vendor Sanofi S.A. created an online game for kids with Type 1 diabetes that encourages blood glucose monitoring.

So what are some general best practices for navigating the ethical path of healthcare marketing to children? Consider the following:

  • Establish an ethics policy: Your marketing department may match guidelines set by The American Marketing Association, promoting honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, transparency and good citizenship. Such a policy may serve as a guidepost if and when elements of your campaigns veer toward gray areas.  
  • Communicate with parents: Go out of your way to inform them about the offers you’re promoting, along with disclaimers or safety recommendations.
  • Be transparent: Avoid unsubstantiated claims and acknowledge any potential dangers or negative effects associated with your product. Clarity beats sensationalism.
  • Engage: Continually survey customers to be nimble in adapting to the constant change in the youth market. Kid-generated content also lets your audience express itself.
  • Use endorsements selectively: You’ll lose credibility, for instance, if you enlist a celebrity sports star to discuss a medical condition that doesn’t really affect him.
  • Be vigilant about privacy: For minors, your privacy policy should extend beyond HEPA laws to include any personal information provided.
  • Understand and empathize: Do whatever it takes to gain knowledge about the topics your youth market is thinking, stressing and talking about.
  • Be a role model: Establish yourself as a force of good (not a source of controversy) in the community, environmentally, socially and otherwise. Focus on long-term effects, not short-term gains when building your brand.
  • Respect their venues: TV is still powerful among youth but streaming and on-demand services are quickly gaining ground, and many watch TV and the internet simultaneously. Social media campaigns can also work effectively. And kids from 2 to 15 are a prime market for online ads via gaming platforms such as Webkinz and Farmville.

Marketing medical products to children might require its own set of criteria, but vendors seem to be finding their way through the maze.

“They’re finding subtle and sophisticated new ways to target kids — a demographic that can bring them hefty profits now, and could grow up to be loyal, even more lucrative, adult customers,” writes Rebecca Robbins on “Drug and device companies have been trying to reach kids for decades … but these efforts are taking new forms.”

BlogLindsey Kuhl