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Marketing and Kid Power


By Josh Golin, March 2006

On May 7-11, marketers from all over the world will gather at the Disney Yacht Club in Orlando at the 13th annual Kid Power Conference and Awards. Kid Power, of course, means purchasing power—it is estimated that children under twelve spend more than $30 billion on purchases and influence more than $500 billion in purchases per year. Given these staggering figures, it's not surprising that Disney, Nickelodeon, Scholastic, and other major marketers to children are gathering for a week of networking and presentations on the latest market research.

For those of us, however, who are not in the business of selling to children, there is something profoundly disturbing about Kid Power and other conferences devoted to helping people market to children. When CCFC's co-founder Dr. Susan Linn attended the Advertising and Promoting to Kids conference in 2002, she was struck by the fact that it was the only conference about children she'd ever been to where no one was talking about what was best for them.

Among themselves, marketers don't have to pay lip service to concerns that child-directed marketing undermines parents' efforts to raise healthy children and contributes to childhood obesity, youth violence, precocious and irresponsible sexuality, and children's diminished capacity to play creatively. Instead, they can focus all their energy on how to exploit children for profit.

Take Firefly Mobile, for instance. Firefly has marketed its phone for preteens as an essential safety device and a way for parents to keep tabs on their children. But it's not the safety features that Firefly will be talking about at Kid Power. Fred Bullock, Firefly's Chief Marketing Officer will discuss the "unique characteristics of wireless communications for kids" and the implications for "marketers and content developers." Cell phones, it seems, are a pretty good way for marketers to stay in constant contact with your kids too.

Bullock will also be part of panel that asks, "Are Kids Getting Older Younger?" In another context, such a panel might entail a serious look at how the various academic and social pressures facing children today are affecting children's well-being. For marketers, however, the oft-repeated mantra "Kids are getting older younger" is a simply an excuse to market sex and violence to younger children.

At "Untapping Kid-fluence", marketers will learn how "kids wield increasing power in families' choice of traditional consumer packaged goods to more non-traditional choices like the family car or vacation destination." But you can bet that no one will be asking if this increased power is a good thing, whether kids should be involved in car purchases, or whether families are well-served by having their children lobby for vacation destinations they've seen advertised on Nickelodeon. Instead, marketers will learn to leverage "the best ways to tap into and use kids' negotiation power." In other words, they'll learn how to get to kids to nag more effectively for their brands.

In fact, just about everything objectionable about child-directed marketing will be on display at Kid Power. Concerned about the growing corporate presence in schools? At "Eyes Up Front Please. Getting Your Message to Kids in the Classroom" marketers will learn how to create "materials that align with National Standards so that the programs are a 'need' to teach and not a 'want to teach'". Appalled by the gendered messages that marketers sell to children? At Kid Power, marketers will learn how to create a "lifestyle brand" from Disney Princess. Horrified by children's nonprofits that sell out children and families by collaborating with exploitative corporations? At Kid Power, marketers will learn about "Partnering with Organizations and Building Alliances" from US Youth Soccer Director of Marketing Chris Branscome. It was under Branscome's watch that US Youth Soccer partnered with the lawn care company ChemLawn and sent mailings that were designed to get young soccer players to nag their parents for ChemLawn's potentially toxic products.

And then there are the awards. At Kid Power, marketers will actually celebrate and honor their peers for manipulating young children (only ads aimed at children twelve and under are eligible). According to the Kid Power website, campaigns are evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Objective: the goal of the campaign
  • Strategy: how unique, compelling and insightful
  • Creativity: strategy and originality
  • Implementation: quality of campaign execution
  • Effectiveness

Notice anything missing? Campaigns are not judged on whether they positively or negatively influence children. There is no evaluation of the message - whether it implies that children need a product to be happy or popular; whether it propagates gender or racial stereotypes - or even whether the product being advertised is good for children. That's why, in the midst of growing concerns about the role junk food marketing plays in the childhood obesity epidemic, last year's winner of the Best Campaign in Food and Beverage category was Burger King.

As disturbing as the Kid Power Conference and Awards are, they offer an important lesson: If we are serious about protecting children from exploitative marketing, we cannot look to the marketing industry to take the lead or expect self-regulation to work. It is clear from the way the child marketers talk to each other and evaluate their peers, that the well-being of children is simply not a priority. It is up to those of us who value children for more than what they can buy to advocate for policies that will limit corporate marketers' access to children. If we really want to empower our kids, we'll allow them to grow up without being undermined by commercial interests.


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