Socially responsible advertising: A marriage proposal between science and marketing

Three leading child development scientists offer some ideas on how to advertise to kids better

Somewhere between a commercial and an interstitial exists a tremendous opportunity. That opportunity lives in a currently untapped market for businesses to attain tremendous reach and brand awareness while — at the same time — they promote the betterment of today’s children and families.

Imagine a diaper commercial that spent a little less time on the padding and a little more demonstrating the kinds of parent-child interactions that build strong language skills. Fancy a campaign for construction toys that illustrated the types of family games that sharpen STEM learning. Might we design a commercial for sugary cereal that actually portrayed the value of regulating a child’s wants and desires, or a commercial for a useful gadget that underscored the value of childhood discovery and creativity? Just think of the good that could come from commercials with a deeper positive purpose.

We have seen companies step up to the proverbial plate before — at least on social issues. There was the famous Cheerios commercial that aired two Super Bowls ago that started a national conversation about the changing portrait of today’s families. And there was the Dove campaign that transformed our culture’s definition of "Real Beauty."

More recently, Always’ #LikeAGirl and Barbie’s "Imagine the Possibilities" campaigns seek to broaden the dreams of young females. With the reach and power of well-done and well-intentioned advertising, we can not only speak to cultural trends, but can spark awareness of best learning practices for families, teachers and communities — all informed by the latest science.

We come to you from a planet very different than yours. We are not advertisers. We do not have our MBAs nor do we have positions in the C Suite. We have not designed campaigns to run during the Super Bowl and our everyday conversations do not contain the words "brand," "revenue" or "client."

Nope, we are a group of researchers devoted to studying how children develop into successful and happy adults. And we are unique in promoting what we call edible science that is accessible, digestible and usable. Indeed, we translate the scientific findings that speak to how children learn and how they become socially skilled citizens. Marrying social responsibility with good outreach can transform attitudes and behaviors and might — just might — better the lives of all children.

We have applied this philosophy before. In one bold project, scientists united around our concept of the Ultimate Block Party, where over 50,000 visitors came to Central Park to partake in activities all born from nuggets of science. In another, we transformed supermarkets in Philadelphia and Delaware into children’s "museums" where signs prompted conversations among parents and children. When the signs were up, low-income parents spoke 33% more time talking to their children than when the signs were down!

And a new project, UrbanThinkscape, transforms everyday cityscapes into opportunities to spread the science with concepts like the puzzle bench (where three puzzles form the back of the bus-stop bench) and the animation streetlight (where the turn of a dial on a doctored street light shines animation on the sidewalk below).

Infusing homes, schools and communities with lessons from the science of learning brings us from the lab to the living room and to the community. The same principle can apply to what we might call social responsibility advertising (SRA). What scientists need is the ability to reach wide audiences with learning principles that have "sticking power." What the corporate-responsibility movement suggests is that Millennials want to shop at businesses that give back to the community. An arranged marriage? Or at least a first date?

Advertisers have the potential to reach millions of people — in their homes, their cars, on their tablets — each and every day. By marrying, we may just have the ability to positively influence the lives of today’s children and families in a way that simply hasn’t been done on this scale before. At the same time, we can help create a new format (SRAs) that feeds effective campaigns and enhances company trust while increasing the reach of well established scientific findings.

Worth considering? Give it a try. Vroom, an outreach supported by the Bezos Family Foundation, has already collected tips from scientists that offer a first stop for collecting bite-sized pieces of information that could work for your company. Let’s build brand and social impact together through an SRA movement.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (a professor at Temple University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Roberta M. Golinkoff (University of Delaware) are longtime collaborators who study early learning, play and STEM learning. Jenn Zosh is a professor at Penn State University Brandywine studying early cognitive development.

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