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Susan Linn
American Prospect

Oct 23, 2000

It's the relentless marketing to kids that's indecent.

The FTC's recent report on Hollywood's violation of its own voluntary rating codes had politicians of both parties expressing indignation about how the entertainment industry targets children with violent and indecent material. Both Gore and Bush promised to increase pressure on industry executives; Gore even threatened regulation if the industry failed to "clean up its act?" But few critics have focused on the deeper problem-that media executives routinely exploit children for profit by marketing kids' products the industry officially rates as unsuitable for them.

Children are big business. And that means my daughter is a popular kid these days. Taco Bell wants her, and so do McDonald's and Burger King. Abercrombie & Fitch has a whole store devoted to her. Pert Plus has a shampoo she'll love. Ethan Allen is creating bedroom sets she can't live without. ALPO even wants to sell her dog food. Even while I, like all American parents, am held responsible for the safety and behavior of my preteen, corporations spend over $12 billion each year to bombard her incessantly with messages that undermine my efforts.

With a single-minded competitiveness reminiscent of the California Gold Rush, corporations are racing to stake their claim on the consumer group formerly known as children. Brandishing near-Orwellian advertising jargon-"cradle-tograve brand loyalty" and "owning" children-retailers aim to carve a profitable "share of mind" from the "youth market."

Their motivation is, naturally, money. American children ages four to 12 spent over $28 billion of their own money in 1999, and they influenced a whopping $500 billion of their parents' purchases. According to a survey by the Department of Labor, teenagers spend over $1 billion a week. Trade journals and newsletters are awash in statistics about the buying power of children: "Children aged 12 and below earned $31 billion in wages and income, including gifts, allowances and jobs," announced Progressive Grocer. "Spending by children is expected to reach $35 billion by 2001," Mass Market Retailer trumpeted, "and the children's market will more than double in economic power over the next ten years.'

The lure of their dollars, their easy access to electronic media, and a lack of regulation make advertising a ubiquitous presence in children's lives. Comparing the marketing of yesteryear to the marketing of today is like comparing BB guns to smart bombs. Honed with the help of child psychologists and aided by technology, advertising reaches far beyond mere commercials to penetrate almost every media nook and cranny. Not just billboards, but clothing prominently emblazoned with corporate logos. Not just endorsements by famous actors, but pervasive product placement within films and television programs. Not just simple ad campaigns for cereal, but sophisticated, carefully managed cross-marketing campaigns that link TV shows and movies with product licensing in multiple commercial niches-toys, clothing, accessories, and even fast-food giveaways based on media characters.

Take the Pokemon empire, which has generated more than $1 billion since its 1998 launch in America. Pokemon is not just a trading-card game, but also a popular TV cartoon, a series of Nintendo games, a movie-movies, actually; the first installment is titled Pokemon: The First Movie-a line of stuffed animals, a Radio City Music Hall extravaganza, a line of Halloween costumes, and even a set of cake decorations (perfect for your child's birthday party, at which he or she will no doubt receive many of the aforementioned Pokemon toys and games as presents).

What makes such ubiquity all the more disturbing is that children-especially young children-are even more vulnerable to advertising than adults. Advertisers today know that preschoolers have trouble differentiating between commercials and regular programming (and now that Simon & Schuster and other reputable publishing houses market books to babies like The Cheerios Play Book or Sun Maid Raisins Play Book, they're going to have even more trouble). Slightly older kids still think in concrete terms, tending to believe what they see, and have trouble grasping the concept of future consequences. Preteens and teens might be cynical about advertising, but studies suggest that knowing advertising is false does not seem to affect tendencies to buy.

The advertising industry itself has funded dozens of studies on children designed to enhance marketing effectiveness. According to Selling to Kids-an industry newsletter, unfortunately, not a watchdog group-Saatchi & Saatchi hired clinical psychologists and cultural anthropologists to record more than 500 hours of interviews and observations of children between the ages of six and 20. Increasingly, such research is taking place in schools: According to USA TODAY, grade schools in Connecticut accepted $5,000 from a company in exchange for permission to interview 10- to 12year-old students in classrooms after school. The Gepetto Group conducts focus groups and consults with psychologists to help businesses better understand how to market to teens by exploiting their vulnerabilities. "Teens are ... an oppositional subculture, interested in shutting out the adult world," the firm's chief strategic officer explained in a Selling to Kids interview. "[T]here are enormous opportunities for the marketer who is able to understand both the reality and fantasy of teen life."

Supporting all this is a burgeoning industry of free-lance marketing experts-often psychologists-who teach corporations how to market successfully to children. Books like Street Trends advise companies in the fine art of co-opting alternative youth culture, while What Kids Buy and Why, by psychologist Dan Acuff, patiently explains the developmental theories of Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget (who must be turning over in their graves) to help marketers understand different stages of child development in order to target children more effectively.

One of the most egregious misuses of psychological research is a recent study on nagging-not to help parents prevent nagging, but to help retailers exploit it to boost sales. Conducted by Western International Media, in conjunction with Century City and Lieberman Research Worldwide, The Fine Art of Whining: Why Nagging is a Kid's Best Friend identifies which kinds of parents are most likely to give in to nagging-not surprisingly, divorced parents or those with teenagers or younger children top the list-and enumerates the purchases attributed to nagging: four out of 10 trips to "placed entertainment establishments like the Discovery Zone and Chuck E. Cheese"; one out of every three trips to a fastfood restaurant; and three out of every 10 home video sales.

It gets worse. Over the past 10 years, coinciding with the intensification of corporate marketing to children, childhood obesity has become a major public health problem. Forty percent of fifth-grade girls report dieting. More eighth-graders smoke now than in 1990, and more of them consume alcohol as well. Is there a connection? A 1998 study in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders suggests that obese kids are more susceptible to the message implicit in food commercials-that food will enhance their life. Researchers in Italy and Scandinavia show that girls with eating disorders are more susceptible to messages about body image and are more psychologically dependent on television than girls with normal eating patterns. A joint study of adolescent girls at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that their discontent about body image was directly correlated to how often they read fashion magazines.

While advertising for cigarettes has been restricted on television, tobacco companies still advertise heavily in magazines. In 1998 the Journal for the American Medical Association reported that the cigarette brands teenagers are most likely to smoke are the brands most heavily advertised in magazines with high youth readership. And in 1997, a study in the American Journal of Health Behavior showed that smoking and drinking in teenagers can be correlated to their viewing of sporting events such as car racing, football, and basketball, events often sponsored by alcohol and tobacco companies.

The industry spin on advertising to children is that it's up to parents to control its influence. But given the reach and sophistication of modern marketing, it is increasingly difficult for parents to mitigate its effects.

One thing they can do is to set some limits on children's overall access to media. According to a study released last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids spend almost 40 hours a week consuming media outside of school-most of which is filled with advertising.

Parents can keep the TV off during meals (65 percent of children say that theirs is on), resist the temptation to give children their own televisions (32 percent of kids between ages two and seven and 65 percent of kids age eight or older have one in their room), and set strict rules about television viewing (61 percent of kids say their parents don't).

But it's unfair to put parents in the position of playing David to the corporate Goliaths. Parents do need to limit media consumption, but someone must set limits on corporate exploitation of children as well. The United States regulates advertising to children less than most other industrialized democracies. It's time for us to catch up.

The new administration should begin by convening a White House conference on marketing and its effects on children. At the very least, such a conference will serve as a springboard for national dialogue. At best it will lay the groundwork for creating appropriate policy.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation should fund research on the psychosocial and health consequences of intensive marketing to children. Without government funding, most of the research on how children are affected by marketing is done to benefit the marketplace.

And speaking of the marketplace, we need to consider the ethics of companies mining children for information when they may be too young to understand either how this information will be used or that advertising may be harmful. We should apply safeguards to market research, such as informed consent-a standard procedure for informing potential subjects in any academic or medical study about the potential risks of participating and the use of collected data.

Legislation, at the state and national levels, should be enacted to ensure that schools are advertising-free zones. Congress should pass the bill before them, sponsored by Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd and California Representative George Miller, that would require parental permission before schools can sell access to students for market research.

In the long run, our children's immersion in the commercial culture has implications that go far beyond what they buy or don't buy. The very traits that today's advertising encourages-brand loyalty, impulse buying, and cynicism-are antithetical to the qualities necessary in a healthy democratic citizenry. Is it a coincidence that 18- to 24-year-olds, the first children to grow up in the era of ubiquitous and ultrasophisticated advertising, also demonstrate appalling voter apathy? Proponents claim that advertising is a mainstay of American life, but marketing to children may actually be eroding its foundations.

SUSAN LINN, Ed.D., is the associate director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.


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