When a child is targeted to receive a marketing message, it's overt. After an episode of Dora the Explorer, there's a bit that encourages the child to "get the coloring book, the puzzle and the videogame". Commercials on the cartoon network bleat to their audiences to buy cereal, shoes, videogames and non-toxic calorie substances that resemble food. These ads have been tested, screened and measured for response. The magazines for kids also have similar ads in them. Again, these are planned media purchases that specifically target kids. Even on Nickelodeon's website, there are three dynamic ads located right in the periphery along the path of a scanning eye.
While marketers directly target kids with their message, the purchasing power is, statistically speaking, with the mother of the family. The purchasing pathway usually starts with an ad that creates the desire in the child. The child then informs the mother that they want the new Thomas the Tank Engine videogame. The mother then scans the information on that game and makes a decision. Another pathway to videogame purchases is that the mother knows their child wants a new game. She scans the children's section at a department store, filters out a few games that look interesting, looks at the back for a description, and then makes a purchase.
Overt marketing is about creating an awareness of the videogame, then communicating value to the purchaser. It's the opposite of subliminal and when marketers look at measurements like response rates and increased purchases after ad exposures, they mainly work when the value of the videogame is communicated to the parent and they're able to make an informed decision.
The second part of the equation is exposure marketing. This is when a product isn't explicitly targeted to children, but children sometimes get in the way of that marketing. Just recently, I was made aware of this as I was shopping with my 5 year old son at Target. He's gotten to the point where he loves anything Star Wars, making his geek dad very proud. He was in the middle of telling me that he wanted to find a Darth Vader action figure. We were looking through the display, when he noticed the next section. Adjacent to the Star Wars action figures were the Halo Reach action figures. He asked me which "Star Wars guys" they were. I responded that they weren't Star Wars, but characters in the videogame Halo, "one of the games that daddy plays". I noticed that the proximity and the thematic similarities between those two action figures could be considered a form of marketing to kids via exposure.
This kind of marketing could be exploitive. My five year old knows that I play grown up games that he's not ready to play yet. Since he's five, he's only discovering the difference between fantasy and reality. Just the other night, he told me that his Lego robot had ten thousand guns. As a responsible parent, I responded to his "ten thousand gun robot" by telling him, "Superman and Batman are good guys, and they don't need guns. They need strength and smarts". My son responded, "Han Solo's a good guy and he uses a gun". My logic shattered in his eyes, I moved on and decided not to teach him about the moral ambiguities of smugglers. He's starting to see the separation of fantasy and reality, but he's not there yet. Therefore, I don't let him play games right now that involve killing or shooting yet. Meanwhile, as he's looking at these terribly cool Halo action figures, he told me, "Someday, I'll be able to play Halo too". While this type of branding by proximity didn't directly target kids, I noticed that the display created a curiosity and a new familiarity with the Halo franchise, which is rated "M".
Another example of this is purely accidental. When I'm picking up a new game at any retail location, the game Disney/ Pixar's Cars is nestled between Call of Duty and Castlevania. It's these kinds of exposures to brands and games that can cause a desire in kids because of the active and attractive package design.