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Electronic marketing: `Here, kiddie, kiddie!'

Susan Linn
The Boston Globe
January 16, 2000

A study released recently by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that American children spend an average of almost 40 hours a week - the equivalent of a full-time job - consuming media outside of school. A majority of those hours are devoted to television, computers, and listening to the radio - electronic media dominated by corporations trying to sell them something.

Children spend most of this time without adult supervision: 32 percent of children between ages 2 and 7 have a TV in their rooms; 65 percent of children 8 and older have one in theirs.

This study is a wake-up call for parents and professionals. As children watch television, surf the Net, or listen to the radio, they are targeted by billions of dollars worth of sophisticated corporate marketing.

Advertising executives make no secret of their aim to capture a share of the youth market: Children directly control $24.4 billion a year in potential corporate revenue; they influence another $300 billion.

Concepts such as "owning" children and "cradle-to-grave" brand loyalty are enthusiastically described in advertising industry publications. Parents should be especially outraged by advertisers promoting the "nag factor" - an ad industry term for children pestering parents to buy them things.

As part of the effort to get children and their parents to part with their money, advertising agencies routinely employ psychologists to improve the effectiveness of their ads. The success of this questionable partnership is evident in all aspects of children's lives, including their health.

Is it any wonder that childhood obesity is a major public health problem? McDonald's alone spends about $570 million a year on advertising. The argument supporting a link between advertising and junk food consumption is made more compelling by the fact that childhood obesity is particularly rampant among African-Americans, who spend more time watching television than any other group.

Cross-marketing, a growing phenomenon, has made media advertising to children particularly insidious. For instance, television programs geared toward "tweens" and teens advertise heavily on their favorite radio stations. And PG13 movies advertise during television programs that children watch. Violent films, such as "The Mummy" (PG13), market toys to children as young as 4.

Product placement, advertising seamlessly integrated into movie or television productions, is a common way of partially financing media projects. So is product licensing, where television programs and movies are vehicles for marketing products associated with them.

One only has to look at

Pokemon, the latest craze among children, to understand how effective cross-marketing can be. Even if children want to escape Pokemon, they can't. It is a television program, a game dependent on collecting trading cards, a computer game, a movie, and, thanks to fast-food giveaways, a reason children eschew McDonald's for Burger King.

The effects of such nonstop advertising are troubling. Children are particularly vulnerable to media manipulation and, unlike adults, they can't understand the long-range implications of their decisions. In other words, children are sitting ducks for advertisers.

Their susceptibility in combination with the overwhelming presence of advertising can strain even the strongest nuclear families. Lifetime brand loyalty - the brass ring of every advertising campaign - requires that consumers make unquestioning decisions about how to satisfy their needs and wants. Such blind loyalty is antithetical to the critical thinking skills that young people need.

The advertising onslaught is so pervasive that parents can't cope with it alone. Institutions - civic, educational, medical, and religious - should come to their aid. We need legislation to regulate corporate advertising to children, school curriculums to foster critical thinking, and media-free after-school programs. Families need to work together, through schools or community groups, on the difficult tasks of setting limits on media use and teaching children to resist corporate persuasion.

Issues on all sides of the political spectrum, from preserving the First Amendment to promoting the free market, make it difficult for Americans to face squarely the harmful effects that media advertising has on children. We need to put aside our ideological differences and work together to protect children from the pressure of incessant marketing.

Susan Linn is the associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children's Center.


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