October 17th, 2007

Babes in BrandLand

By T.L. Stanley
Brandweek

Each day in the United States, millions of kids will sit in front of a TV (often, their own sets parents have placed in their bedrooms) on which they will watch thousands of TV commercials slotted into their favorite programs. There’s little to raise eyebrows about that, of course—certainly not for marketers, who’ve long realized the value of pitching their products to adolescents, tweens and grade-schoolers. Increasingly, however, those “kids” are not adolescents, tweens or grade-schoolers. Because each day in the U.S., according to research from Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., 75% of the youngsters watching ads for toys, sneakers and snacks are under 6 years old; 43% of them are younger than 2.

And that is where things start to get dicey.

According to a 2004 study by the American Psychological Assn., when the viewer is 8 years old or younger, the whole notion of “commercial” means nothing. A fuzzy puppet hawking a sugar-laced breakfast cereal is as credible as a newscaster recapping the day’s headlines. In the mind of a toddler, it’s all the same and, what’s more, it’s all fact.

“[Children under 8] tend to accept ad claims as being truthful,” explained Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona and the main author of the Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children. “They process it as legitimate information. They can’t understand the motives and persuasive intent.”

The report echoes what is conventional wisdom in numerous European countries like Sweden, Belgium and Norway, that kids under a certain age (the cutoff ranges between 8 and 12) can’t recognize advertising as such. But many marketers counter that they’re targeting the guardians of kids and not the actual kids. They also maintain that it’s unrealistic—even anachronistic—to expect to shield kids from commercial media content, and that the data linking kids’ exposure to ads with psychological ills is weak.

“We target moms exclusively,” said Josef Mandelbaum, president and CEO of American Greetings Intellectual Properties Group, home of Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. Shows based on those characters, aimed at 3-6-year-olds, air in the CBS Saturday morning block. “Our TV shows reinforce the brands to kids, but we don’t target kids with our ads.”

But a great many marketers do target them, and are not apologetic about it. Paul Kurnit, founder of KidShop, a marketing communications firm in Chappaqua, N.Y., whose clients have included Disney, McDonald’s and Hasbro, said: “Most marketers today would tell you that 5-year-olds are their gateway, and 6-11 is certainly a reasonable target.”

Increasingly, however, child-welfare advocates say there’s nothing reasonable about any of it, and they are adding to the chorus of voices demanding reform in the kid-targeted advertising and marketing fields. The controversy surrounding marketing to children is, of course, hardly new (the debate has been going since the 1970s, at least). But the APA’s report has splashed fuel on the fire, as have a spate of just-released books, including Susan Gregory Thomas’ Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds and Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five, by Lisa Guernsey.

As public awareness of advertising’s purported effects on the youngest consumers grows—and the steady rise of Web advertising continues to make inroads into the playtime of American children—a number of old questions about advertising are being given new relevancy and sharpness, among them: Is it acceptable for a brand to aim marketing messages at children younger than 8? If so, what should those messages look like, and should existing guidelines be strengthened? Perhaps most critical: In the current climate of scrutiny, what can any marketer do to promote his brand to children without being accused of exploiting them?

Welcome to Their World

On a typical weekday for a 6-year-old, there’s a little TV before breakfast or maybe 20 minutes with a computer game or an online visit to Neopets. Licensed cartoon characters, free advergames built around sweet treats and messages for snack food abound on both screens. The trip to school is accompanied by a dose of Bus Radio, with ads from blue-chip marketers like News Corp., Disney, Cartoon Network and AT&T. The school grounds are dotted with corporate sponsor logos, branded vending machines, and book covers sponsored by PepsiCo, Hasbro and Cadbury Adams. Ronald McDonald might pop into the classroom for a chat about literacy. Finally, an evening visit to KFC touts a buy-this-DVD message about PBS’ Curious George, with coupons in 4.5 million kids meals. As Marian Salzman, the CMO of JWT Worldwide, observed: “At a really young age, kids speak three languages now: English, digital and brand.”

She’s not joking. Today’s kids are learning how to be consumers almost before they learn how to be kids. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, based in Boston, children between 4 and 12 years old spent $30 billion in 2002, a massive increase from the $6.1 billion ($8.8 billion adjusted for today’s inflation) that they parted with in 1989. The power of the purse does not stop there. As research conducted at Texas A&M University demonstrates, kids influence another $600 billion a year in family spending on small and big-ticket items.

In this day and age, screen media in all its forms is the prime way to reach all those kids. According Kaiser’s 2006 report, The Media Family: “By the time they hit the 4-6-year-old age group, children are living richly media-centric lives.” Within this demographic, the study discovered, a third of the children owned their own DVD player, a portable handheld videogame player and a TV set in their rooms. A staggering 90% of these youngsters used some form of screen media every day for an average of two hours.

Marketers are sparing no expense to reach these little consumers, shelling out an estimated $15 billion a year on kid-focused marketing. Current efforts range from traditional, character-laden products such as McDonald’s Shrek Happy Meal to sophisticated, interactive activities that kids can find on the Web. A colorful example is Pepperidge Farm’s “Goldfish Central” in which “Finn,” a spokesfish for the popular snackfood, invites kids into a virtual world of “adventures” featuring Finn’s many fishy “friends.” There are also games aplenty on the Chuck E. Cheese site, including Pizza Panic, in which a large pepperoni pie figures prominently into the digital proceedings.

And, of course, there are TV commercials, of which kids see about 40,000 each year, according to Kunkel’s report. A study of food commercials during the most popular shows for children ages 6 to 11, including those outside of the traditional children’s programming blocks, found that 83% were for snacks, fast food or sugary treats, said a 2005 report in the Journal of Public Health.

Leave Them Kids Alone

Against this complicated backdrop, the uncompromising standpoint taken by Susan Linn, CCFC’s co-founder, is increasingly typical: “There is no moral, ethical or social justification for advertising to children,” she said. “And it’s not good for them.”

Her argument is literal, and she’s hardly alone. In a study that formed the backbone of her 2004 book, Born to Buy, Juliet B. Schor found that the more kids are exposed to consumer culture, the likelier they are to become depressed, suffer from anxiety or experience low self-esteem. She’s concerned about ad tactics that she says tap into kids’ anxieties and pressures to get them to buy stuff. “The role of consumer culture in fostering discontent is extremely powerful,” said Schor, a professor at Boston College. “And advertising is a key component in drawing kids into consumer culture.”

Citing findings like these, advocacy groups such as CCFC and Commercial Alert are ever more strident in their demands for reform. In addition, much of what these advocates take issue with isn’t only the presence of kid-targeted marketing, but what they call the deceptive forms that it takes, including brand integration into entertainment, links between big-budget kid movies and snack foods, and product peddling by licensed characters. Not only can children between the ages of 4 and 5 not understand content/commercial separation devices such as, “We’ll be back after these messages,” they argue, but sometimes the programming itself (Channel One in middle and high schools, for example) is little more than a thinly disguised product pitch.

For those on this side of the debate, the solution isn’t a matter of regulating the amount or content of kid marketing, it’s outlawing it, as numerous European nations have done. “There should be a prohibition on advertising to children under age 12 across the board,” said Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, which is fighting for the same age cutoff currently in place in much of Europe. “There’s been a transformation in the quantity and quality of kids marketing in the last two decades,” he added. “Marketing is more aggressive, more pervasive and more insidious.”

Advertising has a level of protection as free speech in the U.S. that it doesn’t have in other countries, which might not be such a good thing when it comes to campaigns aimed at kids, added journalist Eric Clark, author of The Real Toy Story: Inside the Battle for America’s Youngest Consumers. “Their childhood is disappearing, and that’s damaging,” he said. “Kids are being treated like little adults but they’re not yet equipped for it.”

Not So Fast

To some (including many marketers), however, the debate over advertising to young children is far more nuanced than its foes suggest. While readily admitting that they answer to shareholders in a highly competitive environment, marketers maintain that there is such a thing as responsible advertising to children under 8, and that that’s what they’re doing.

“In 20-plus years, I’ve never had a meeting with a client who said, ‘How can we exploit kids today?’” said Julie Halpin, CEO of the Geppetto Group, a New York-based marketing firm that works for such blue chippers as Coca-Cola, Reebok, ConAgra and Unilever. “We serve the clients’ business objectives and the best interests of kids.”

Marketers like Halpin argue that not only would banning kid-directed ads decimate much of kids entertainment (which is commercially sponsored), it would be nearly impossible, given the proliferation of media. “How you’d create a situation where kids under 6 don’t see advertising is a real head-scratcher,” Kurnit said.

In Kurnit’s view, it would be “wrongheaded” to ban advertising to kids under 8. Contrary to what the anti-marketing groups maintain, “I haven’t seen any conclusive data that shows kids are damaged by advertising,” he said. “We live in a commercial world. The issue is how to make it the most responsive and responsible, not how to turn our back on the world we live in.”

But what exactly does “responsible” kid-targeted marketing look like? While not every brand claims to hold itself against a self-imposed moral code, some have taken measures to keep child-targeted marketing behind a certain line. Toy brand Fisher-Price, which aims about 20% of its ads at children as young as 3 or4, tests its marketing not just on focus groups of kids, but parents, too, using the latter’s input as a guard rail for content and approach. “We want to do what sells our product,” said Shelly Glick Gryfe, vp-marketing research (who’s also a developmental psychologist). “But we also want to do what’s right.”

Similarly, executives at MGA Entertainment, which now owns the Little Tikes preschool brand, added that toddler-targeted ads are acceptable if they don’t overpromise, don’t misrepresent and fully explain the products. “If you advertise appropriately, it won’t harm kids,” said Isaac Larian, MGA’s CEO. “Advertising can be part of education.”

While some parents might scoff at that notion, some marketers are quick to point out that the duty to protect kids belongs with parents, not brands. It’s parents who should act as the filters for any media content, they say, be that programming or marketing.

Isabel Kallman echoes this point of view, both as a marketer and a parent. “Parents are smart enough to educate their children,” said Kallman, CEO of Alpha Mom TV, a cable channel aimed at moms and a Web site that covers a raft of family topics. “They have to take the primary responsibility in regulating what kids do. It’s our job to teach our kids about the world.”

Others in the marketing camp maintain that, as today’s children are growing up in a media-rich world, they’re savvier and less naïve than the generations of children who preceded them, and don’t need the protection that some are calling for. “Society doesn’t give kids as much credit as they deserve,” said Larian, whose MGA Entertainment is home of the successful and still controversial Bratz dolls. “They’re much smarter than we think.”

Happily Ever After?

While nobody’s saying that American kids are stupid, it’s unlikely that, given the intensity of the current debate, marketing aimed at them will not change in some significant ways. Indeed, that has already started happening.

In June, for example, Kellogg announced that it would phase out advertising its foods to kids under 12 unless those foods met specific nutrition guidelines. The move came 16 months after advocacy groups CCFC and the Center for Science in the Public Interest threatened to file suit against Kellogg and Viacom, parent of the Nickelodeon kids’ channel, unless reforms were undertaken. Last November, 10 food and beverage companies including General Mills and McDonald’s pledged that half of their advertising aimed at children would promote exercise and that spots for products exceeding certain sugar and sodium thresholds would be yanked. Some critics complained that the companies had installed loopholes into the rules, however. For example, while ads for Cocoa Krispies (14 grams of sugar per serving) would get the axe, those for Frosted Flakes (with 11 grams) would not.

Kellogg’s move came on the heels of a Federal Trade Commission workshop that convened this past summer to study the alleged relationship between food advertising aimed at kids and the country’s growing childhood obesity rate. Among other things, the group found that kids were actually exposed to 9% fewer food ads today than they were in 1977, even as the obesity rate had doubled over roughly the same period. Marketers hailed the finding, while groups like the CCFC cried foul, pointing out that food marketing directed at children has found many new media channels to use that simply didn’t exist in 1977.

Going forward, Kurnit says he expects marketers to start age-ing up their campaigns voluntarily while also creating better-for-you products and speaking to the family as a whole rather than kids separately. He says those moves have already started and that the advocacy community isn’t giving marketers enough credit for their corrective actions.

Others agree with the assessment that marketing is here to stay, even if junk food ads are phased out over time. Much of the current debate centers on TV ads, where marketers have tended to spend the biggest bucks. But there are, of course, many other avenues available to marketers who want to reach kids. Those could be come more attractive—and tougher to regulate—as time goes on.

“You’re playing Whack a Mole,” said Kaiser vp Vicky Rideout. “If you stomp it down in one area, it’ll pop up somewhere else.”

JWT’s Salzman agrees: “If marketers can’t buy traditional media, they’ll go elsewhere—to product placement, sampling, seeding parties. The loser could be paid media.”

But stalwarts like Linn argue that the losers will continue to be children, so long as there is no hard-core legislative regulation put into place. “The idea that companies will stop advertising to children because it’s socially repugnant is not realistic,” Linn said. “We need laws, and that could happen if the public outcry continues to grow.”

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