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The Inconvenient Youth Effect: How Kids Become Pro-Social Brand Evangelists

4 Minute Read

Anyone with children knows this: When they want you to do something, they will nag you relentlessly. Kids will make it their sole mission in life to get you to buy that product, take them to that place, or do that thing. In nag mode, nothing else is more important than getting what they want. For me, it was Coco Pops (or Chocolate Rice Krispies in the UK, where I grew up). The persuasive youth effect is well-utilized by sugary cereal manufacturers, snack companies, and the like, but are other sectors missing out on this powerful evangelism coming from our young people?

The Inconvenient Youth Effect

In a recent study from the journal Sustainability, researchers reviewed the results of a state-wide high-school clean-air poster contest in Utah to help tackle the state’s air pollution issues. They discovered an unexpected social influence dimension: In the course of developing and producing their posters, two-thirds of teens surveyed became natural evangelists for the cause. They reported encouraging others to carpool, trip-chain (e.g. picking up groceries on the way home rather than making a separate trip), refrain from car idling, walk, bike, and take the bus, even though they were never instructed to do so.

The Wall Street Journal coined the term “inconvenient youths” (a riff on Al Gore’s well-known climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth) to refer to the power that young people have in influencing pro-social behaviors in their parents and families.

Researcher Edwin Stafford says: “Social influence is often instrumental for encouraging pro-social behavioral change in others. Who else are the most influential but children—with whom we want to maintain mutual love and respect?”

So what made these kids such big evangelists for the cause?

inconvenient youth effect

Image attribution: Jessica Podraza

The Power of User-Generated Content

In a study from the Journal of Advertising Research, researchers found that consumers’ perceptions of a brand’s co-creation, community, and alignment with their self-concept had a positive impact on their involvement in user-generated content, which in turn had a positive effect on consumer-based brand equity.

Brands that enable and encourage co-creation—the consumer’s participation in the production of value at all points in the value chain—evoke feelings of empowerment. A perception of community gives a sense of belonging and social connectedness, while alignment with self-concept means consumers can see how a brand fits within their lifestyle and world view. All of this leads to involvement in user-generated content, and it seems to work in a continual feedback loop.

It’s likely that the act of creating content for the cause leads to greater feelings of empowerment, belonging, and ownership for the Utah high schoolers who participated in the poster contest, molding them into authentic clean-air evangelists.

Incorporating user-generated content into marketing campaigns is easier than ever with younger demographics in our online world. This is where the digital native generation often chooses to express themselves, where they create their own grassroots communities, and the medium through which they build their identity as they grow up. Add to this the persuasive power of young people and you have a marketing strategy with which to reach older, more offline generations too.

Educational Partnerships in Marketing

One of the less conventional marketing opportunities comes in the form of educational partnerships for brands and organizations. Working with educators to develop partnerships that involve curriculum-relevant projects and assignments can be a great way to tap into engagement in a way that will enable young people to go on to engage others.

Stafford says this ought to be a creative, time-intensive endeavor, and there’s emerging research that take-home assignments are one of the best vehicles to achieve this carry-over engagement effect. In their study, over 40 percent of the students surveyed claimed they actually changed people’s behavior through their new-found evangelism.

According to the scientific literature, adults are susceptible to children’s influences when: “(1) it makes sense; (2) the child appears mature enough to understand the issue and speak with authority; (3) the child makes logical arguments, is passionate, expresses responsibility, and/or conveys vulnerability on the issue; and (4) the adult wants to maintain a relationship with the child.”

This offers some clues for companies in how best to design projects as part of educational partnerships, including a proper assessment of age and maturity level. Such initiatives should include instructions and engagement that speak to the logical arguments behind the case, demonstrate passion, and address responsibility.

Educational partnerships are a promising avenue for non-profits, but they’re also an opportunity for all companies to extend the reach and potency of corporate social responsibility initiatives.

We have an opportunity to wrangle the sugary cereal companies from the throne of nag-factor marketing and encourage a more positive persuasion effect among our youth. I think we should take it.

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Featured image attribution: Loren Joseph

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at

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