December 12th, 1999
Kids' Buying Power Lures Advertisers
By Joan Lowy
Scripps Howard News Service
Kids’ buying power lures advertisers
By Joan Lowy, Scripps Howard News ServiceStar Wars. Pokemon. Big Bird. Legos. Fruit Loops. ToyStory 2. DonkeyKong. Britney Spears. Anything Disney.
From the television to the Internet to the school cafeteria, children are bombarded with an unending stream of pitches for products, and never more so than the holiday season. And that has an increasing number of parents, child advocates and psychologists concerned.
Critics warn that advertising directed toward children may be contributing to alcohol abuse, violence, an epidemic of childhood obesity, increased childhood diabetes and compulsive buying by young adults.
But more important and more ominous than whether individual products are good or bad is the sheer volume of commercial messages reaching children, said clinical psychologist Allen Kanner, who teaches at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif.
“Advertising is contributing greatly to a consumer identity in children in which they believe and behave as if they can’t be happy unless they continue this array of goods and services,” Kanner said.
“It’s not just selling Barbies and Nikes and jeans,” said Timothy Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “It’s selling a set of messages that say to the child that what’s important in life is buying things.”
Actually, the reverse is true, said Kasser, who has researched the effects of materialism on people. There is an accumulating body of research that shows materialistic people use more alcohol, drugs and tobacco, are more depressed and have poorer quality relationships than people who are less materialistic, Kasser said.
Kanner and Kasser are among a group of 60 psychologists, medical doctors and other experts who recently wrote the 137,000-member American Psychological Association asking it to denounce psychologists who use their training to advise corporations on how to sell to children.
The letter also asks the APA to conduct a public awareness campaign on the perils to children of “commercial manipulation and exploitation by psychologists and those who use the tools of psychology.” The association’s ethics board is expected to take up the issue at its March meeting.
Others, however, question whether children’s materialism is primarily a result of marketing or the influence of their parents.
Children start asking for brand names at about 24 months of age, said James McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A&M University who frequently consults with businesses which sell to children.
“By the time that little baby can follow the drool down to his chest, he sees OshKosh B’Gosh written on it,” said McNeal, referring to a popular infant and toddler clothing line.
Commercialism is intrinsic to American culture, but marketing to children has reached an unprecedented intensity. Where there used to be a few TV channels, now the typical home has 78, including 24-hour channels directed at children like Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.
The Journal of Advertising Research reports that nearly one out of every four children under age 6 has a television set in their bedroom. The average child sees between 20,000 and 40,000 commercials a year.
Schools used to be an oasis from advertising, but not any more. Fast food chains have entered cafeterias and vending machines dispense Cokes and Pepsis. Channel One, a news network designed for schools, reaches 8 million students in their classrooms each day, interspersing news with commercials.
Some parents have complained that a math textbook in use in schools in 15 states, including California and Texas, is salted with positive references to name brands ranging from Mattel’s Barbie to McDonald’s Big Macs. Students are asked to calculate how long it would take to save enough to buy a pair of Nike sneakers and to express the diameter of an Oreo cookie as a fraction in its simplest form.
ZapMe!, a California Internet service provider, offers schools free Internet access, but the catch is that the company snoops on students as they go on-line and delivers the information to advertisers and marketers, breaking down the data by age, sex and zip code.
“Going on-line is often thought of as an educational experience for kids, but increasingly it’s a shopping experience,” said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C. “There is content, but there is also a huge amount of marketing and e-commerce and sales.”
In the early days of the Internet it was presumed that limitations inherent to kid commerce, like lack of credit cards, would keep a lid on on-line sales to kids and teens, but cybertots have become big business. Parents can now open on-line accounts for their kids at sites that cater to a crowd too young for plastic.
When they’re not shopping, kids are often visiting manufacturer Web sites where brands are reinforced. They’re lured to the sites by arcade games, puzzles, sweepstakes and prizes.
An estimated 6 millions kids are on-line today and that number is forecast by Cambridge, Mass.,-based Forrester Research Inc. to reach 13 million by 2003.
“We’re losing sight of what this is doing to our children,” said Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for the New American Dream in Takoma Park, Md., a non-profit group concerned with excessive commercialism and consumption. “It is becoming so pervasive that we’re not seeing it anymore.”
A poll conducted by the center this fall found that almost two-thirds of parents say their children define their self worth in terms of possessions, and 87 percent of parents of children aged 2 to 17 said they believe advertising and marketing is making kids too materialistic.
Advertising to children is a $2 billion a year industry, double what it was 10 years ago. Product promotions to kids account for another $4.5 billion and are doubling every five years. McDonald’s Happy Meals toys, which are promoting the movie “ToyStory 2,” are one example. Add another $5 billion for public relations and specially designed packaging for kids.
Teaching companies how to tap into the kids market is also big business, as demonstrated by a recent explosion of firms that specialize in marketing to kids, including children as young as 2.
From Burbank to Beijing, kid marketers are responsible for a proliferation of conferences where corporations are advised on the latest techniques for pushing the right buttons to make kids clamor for their products. It’s known in the industry as “pester power.”
Companies hire cultural anthropologists to observe kids and their parents as they cruise supermarket aisles and navigate toy stores. There are focus groups of kids and their parents. Discreetly located video cameras capture children at play in their natural habitat, their home, and then the tapes are dissected by child psychologists for insight into what holds a child’s attention.
Why? The answer comes down to dollars and cents. Kids between the ages of 4 and 12 have an annual economic clout of more then $525 billion, according to McNeal, who has been tracking the economic impact of children since the late 1960s.
American children spent about $27 billion of their own money in 1998, said McNeal, author of “Marketing to Kids: The Myths and Realities.” And that was primarily just toys and snacks. McNeal estimates children also directly influence about $200 billion in purchases by their parents, i.e., mom buys Johnny a pair of Wrangler jeans because Wranglers are his favorite brand.
Kids also indirectly influence another $300 billion in family purchases, including about $20 billion in new car purchases a year. Kids may not have the final word on which car their parents buy, but parents often ask their children for input after they’ve narrowed the search. That explains why carmakers advertise in children’s magazines like Crayola Kids.
Compare that to the 1960s, when children influenced about $5 billion of their parents annual purchases. One difference is lifestyle changes. With more single-parent families and families in which both parents work, kids do more chores at home, receive larger allowances, are being given more responsibility for money at an earlier age, and are being sent to stores to make purchases for the family at a younger age.
Today’s families are also more egalitarian. Parents frequently ask children for their opinion when selecting a restaurant or where to take the family vacation.
Psychologists tell marketers that at six months of age, the same time when children first begin to say “Dada” and “Mama,” babies are beginning to form mental images of corporate logos and mascots. This has led to an explosion in “cradle-to-grave” marketing strategies, lowering the age at which advertisers aim right down to infancy. Retailers know that a single lifetime customer could be worth $100,000 to them.
“In the last decade there has been an acknowledgment and recognition of the importance of the kid consumer and the need for professional marketing people who really understand the wants and needs and cognitive ability of children,” said Julie Halpin, CEO of The Geppetto Group.
Formed two years ago by WPP, an international communications and advertising conglomerate, Geppetto specializes in marketing to kids ages 4 to 12.
“The whole issue of (advertising’s) affect on kids is the reason a company like ours exists—to make sure that ads we are developing are responsible and appropriate for children,” Halpin said. “We spend a lot of time and money learning about children so we can do what’s in their best interest —things they can understand, things that are meaningful.”
For example, Halpin said, to market yogurt to children, she wouldn’t talk about its calcium content.
“I’m going to talk about the colors and how colors relate to flavors. I think it’s in the best interest of kids to present things they understand and care about,” Halpin said.
“Kids are learning how to be consumers, how to critically assess the values and benefits of products,” Halpin said. “It’s a mistake to think that kids don’t analyze, think and really consider which products they want.”
Some psychologists, however, contend that children don’t differentiate between programming and commercials until about age 7.
Advertising to children “is all about understanding the psychology of the child and how to play on the child’s vulnerabilities,” said Taylor.
Gar Roper, a psychologist in New Haven, Conn., who specializes in advising companies on how to develop and market products to kids, said the criticism of the use of psychology in marketing is misplaced. Used properly, a knowledge of psychology creates better products and better ads that are more useful to children.
“Psychologists, I would say, reach the higher needs of kids, the better instincts,” Roper said. “I would rather see psychologists involved in steering advertising to see how it can be both positive and effective rather than see psychologists drop out of the mix.”
While he shares critics’ concern about rampant materialism, Roper noted: “There is nothing that limits the parent’s ability to say, ‘No, we’re not going to buy the 87th of whatever those toys are.’”
Other psychologists, however, said relentless marketing to children is putting many parents in an untenable situation where they are nagged constantly to buy. They give in at times against their better judgment because they don’t want to say only “no” to their children.
Marketers “take all their accountability and put it on the parent,” Kanner said. “They say the parent should ‘just say no’ when they are coming at your kid with everything they’ve got.”
- Posted by Dr.Hugo Dalence C on August 10th, 2005