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Marketing to children: Big business, big problem

Staff Writer
Nashville Tennessean
Published: Tuesday, 10/04/05


Catherine McTamaney tries to limit her children's TV time, but knows she's outgunned by an industry that spent an estimated $15 billion last year marketing directly to children.

"You can't go anywhere without companies trying to trick our children into thinking that they need something that they don't need," the 33-year-old says.

The average child sees about 40,000 commercials a year on television alone, and that figure doesn't include product placements in movies, television shows and, most recently, songs. Ads are now in airports, elevators and even bathrooms. Co-branded products such as McDonald's Play-Doh and SpongeBob SquarePants cereal are another form of marketing, and some companies are now using children as advertisers by enlisting them to tell their friends about new products.

McTamaney is part of a growing grassroots movement that says this pervasive marketing is more than an annoyance. Citing research suggesting that today's advertising plays a role in societal ills as varied as the obesity epidemic, eating disorders and youth violence, they're pushing for restrictions on advertising to children.

A different approach

The American Academy of Pediatrics, a professional group representing 60,000 physicians, says that before age 8 children don't have the ability to differentiate between regular programming and the persuasive intent of commercials. For this reason, the group describes marketing to children under 8 as "inherently deceptive."

Yet the number of ads children are exposed to has exploded in the past 20 years. Most of today's parents saw commercials during Saturday morning cartoons but didn't have cable networks such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

Susan Linn, a psychologist and founder of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says today's ads also are more effective because advertisers routinely use child psychologists to exploit vulnerabilities such as a teenager's insecurity or the need of children to belong to a larger group.

Children also see ads online and are exposed to more cross-promotional marketing and product placements than ever before. Cartoon characters such as SpongeBob SqaurePants, for example, are on boxes of macaroni and cheese, cereal and ice cream. Last month, Advertising Age reported that McDonald's is planning to pay rappers to mention "Big Mac" in their songs.

Cell phone text messaging has been used to promote Pepsi and Doritos. And viral marketing campaigns, in which children are given products to tell their friends about, also are becoming more popular.

"Comparing the marketing of yesteryear to the marketing of today is like comparing a BB gun with a smart bomb," says Linn, author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.

Unhealthy partnerships

Most of the ads on children's television are for candy, cereal, soda and fast food. Researchers say these ads undoubtedly influence children's preferences.

Linn warns that when cartoons partner with food products to create products such as SpongeBob SquarePants cereal, the television show itself becomes a food ad. Even playtime becomes an ad for food when characters such as Barbie partner with fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's.

Linn and other groups say that magazines such as CosmoGirl! promote body image dissatisfaction that can lead to eating disorders when they run ads with models that seem impossibly thin. Early sexuality is promoted when companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch market thong underwear in children's sizes. And action figures modeled after PG-13 movies such as the most recent Star Wars film encourage children to view violence they're too young for.

Elisabeth Dykens, associate director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development and a professor of psychology, says that another consequence of today's barrage of marketing is a recurring sense of disappointment when children realize that the new toy they thought would make them happy doesn't.

"What young children especially need is not more toys but adults to sit down and play with them," she says.

Educating kids about ads

The ubiquity of marketing means that simply unplugging the TV set or the computer isn't the answer.

McTamaney says a large part of the solution lies in parents educating their children about advertising. She has taught her children, Che, 6, and Timberlake, 4, that there are people called advertisers whose job it is to trick them in 30 seconds into parting with their money. She says her children are already pretty good at knowing when they've been duped by an ad.

"My daughter will say, 'I want to have that,' " McTamaney says, "and my son will go, 'busted!' "

McTamaney stresses that it's not that she doesn't let her children have toys or games. Rather, she wants the choices she and her children make to be their own and not the result of a clever ad campaign.

McTamaney is the Nashville area coordinator of the Child Friendly Initiative, a grassroots effort that recognizes businesses that support families by providing accommodations such as children's menus with healthy items. She hopes that parental support of good business practices combined with outrage over exploitive practices will be enough to change the way companies behave.

The advertising industry argues that it is responding to the growing uproar from parents. Last month, the National Advertising Review Council, a group representing the advertising industry, created a task force to examine product placement and cross-promotions. The group has stepped up its self regulation by making it easier for people to file and review complaints.

Last month, McDonald's launched Passport to Play, a physical education curricula that's being used in 31,000 elementary schools across the country.

Janet Colson, a professor of nutrition at Middle Tennessee State University, says the campaign seems like a genuine effort to encourage physical activity, and points out that the fast-food chain is now offering healthier menu options as well.

Linn says schools should be a sanctuary where kids are free from corporate influences, and that the new campaign is clearly a marketing ploy.

She notes that the advertising industry's self-regulatory arm was created in 1974, and since then the amount of marketing that children are exposed to has skyrocketed. She says self-regulation is a failed experiment and that the government should step in.

In 1980, Congress restricted the Federal Trade Commission's ability to regulate advertising to children. This year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced legislation called the Help America Act that would once again expand the agency's power to restrict ads for junk food. The legislation is currently being reviewed by a Senate committee, and has the support of advocates such as Linn.

"Being a parent is one of the most challenging endeavors that any of us can undertake," Linn says. "And we have to ask ourselves, 'Is it OK for corporate America to make it so much harder for parents?' "



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