What Children's Programming Can Teach Content Marketers
Storytelling Content Creation

What Children’s Programming Can Teach Content Marketers

Back when I was thinking about radio shows as part of the original content marketing, I remember being struck by an episode of Little Orphan Annie that depicted Annie’s birthday party. In the middle of the narrative, Annie receives a birthstone ring from Daddy Warbucks, after which the announcer devotes six minutes to describing how listeners could send away (with their Ovaltine labels and ten cents) to order an exact replica of Annie’s ring. The sales pitch takes the entire remainder of the episode, although it feels much, much longer to the listener.

“Imagine creating children’s programming just to sell tie-in products,” I thought to myself.

Children’s Programming and the Rise of Toyetics

My own childhood included a deep love for one cartoon in particular: My Little Pony. Sure, I flirted with other shows and built up a collection of other toys, but My Little Pony was first and last in my heart. I watched the shows, I asked for the toys for Christmas and birthdays, and I invited friends to come over and play with these toys. Because the marketing—I mean show—was so successful, my friends and I had a large shared experience of the characters and their world to explore.

Saturday morning cartoons rose to prominence in the 1960s and held their audience through the ’70s and ’80s, although the cartoons themselves changed through the years. Over time, those cartoons carried a few competing interests: tell great stories, sell ad spots, and sell tie-in merchandise. Saturday morning became the focal point of most children’s weeks—or at least their television-viewing weeks—until cable and after-school programming splintered the viewership. Children’s programming can still be found in abundance, but nowadays, shows are not limited to any single time period.

Boy with parents with toy in shop In the 1980s, especially, cartoons were judged on how “toyetic” they were. “Toyetic” is a term that had been coined to describe properties with high merchandising potentials. Hot Wheels is often referred to as the first toyetic show, but it was soon followed by many others. An interesting regulation prohibits airing ads for toys during the show they’re based on, so shows don’t turn into 30-minute commercials. During the ’80s, some cartoons began incorporating public service announcements into their episodes in an effort to mitigate the idea that they existed only to sell toys, and to comply with laws that regulated how much educational programming had to be aired by each station in a certain week. The public service announcements did little to change the public’s view that cartoons were toy-selling vehicles. However, most people in my generation did learn how to stop a nose bleed, and what to do with a tooth that gets knocked out, from these spots.

Despite the criticisms lobbed against these shows as mere properties for selling toys, it never mattered to the audience: the kids. Mention Ninja Turtles to most people and they’ll wax poetic about which was their favorite turtle. I have fond memories of watching the My Little Pony movie, and then going with my mom to get one of the toys that the movie introduced. On some level, maybe we all knew that the shows were intended to sell us something, but we didn’t care, because they had gone beyond advertising and into storytelling.

What Content Marketing Can Take Away

So how does children’s programming fit into content marketing? In some ways, these stories are the ultimate content marketing products, and there are many lessons that modern marketers can take away from these programs. If, as we do here at Skyword, content marketers strive to become storytellers, and to tell moving stories to our audience, then the cartoons are a perfect example. Sure, the story lines seem silly and dated now, but I can still remember how much they affected me or recall certain episodes with perfect clarity.

If we strive to help brands become what readers love, then the affection I still have for the cartoons I watched as a child is evidence of how successful that can be. In fact, many of the most popular toys from my childhood have reappeared in recent years, perhaps because parents remember how they felt about a cartoon or a toy line and want to pass it on to their own children. Maybe the best proof that I can give is that I’m wearing My Little Pony socks as I write this.

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