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Imprinting Infants

Media, Brand Marketing Aimed At Under-3 Set Is Exploding, And Critics Are Crying `No Fair'

By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ
Hartford Courant, July 24 2006

The video clip opens with the school's mascot logo bouncing across the screen before a saccharine female voice states plainly, "The University of Kentucky Wildcats."

Out rolls a montage of cheering fans, a waving mascot and an ecstatic basketball player scoring - all interspersed with shots of smiling children decked in Kentucky blue and cuddling Wildcat stuffed animals.

"Basketball," the voice-over coos.This is Team Baby Entertainment, a line of sports-themed DVDs meant to start collegiate fans young - that is, before they can even wrap their tiny mouths around the words, Go Team! "

To parents, their children are obviously the most important things to them," says Team Baby founder Greg Scheinman. "So they want to be able to offer products to their children that can potentially make them smarter or more athletic or closer to their parents. "These are all positive things. As long as they're done responsibly."

Scheinman is tapping into what's proving to be a lucrative, if controversial, market of products geared to infants and toddlers. Never mind that they can't walk or talk. This niche has tremendous buying power. And advertisers and manufacturers are homing in like never before, expecting only more market growth, industry observers say.

Trendy clothing, tot-friendly snacks, educational videos, even personal-care products - all specifically tailored for and marketed to the under-3 set.

For clothing and footwear alone, spending on infants, toddlers and preschoolers reached close to $17 billion in 2005, up 4.5 percent from the previous year, reports MarketResearch.com, a New York research firm.

Equating dollar signs with children is older than Ronald McDonald and his Golden Arches. But some industry watchers say something has shifted. It's more aggressive, more targeted. And it's younger.

"When markets get saturated, they have to go somewhere. And with kids, the only place to go is down," says Susan Linn, author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood".

The aim, say critics, is twofold: Cater to fretful parents keen on raising healthy, wholesome, brainy children; and hook future consumers by instilling early on a brand loyalty likely to continue into adolescence, and maybe beyond.

It leaves critics like Linn worried, not just about the ethics, but also the impact of having children toddling their first few years through one big commercial advertisement. Just consider, she says, the cartoon characters smiling at them everyday from diapers and T-shirts, from wallpaper and snack crackers. In many cases, they recognize these logos before they're even watching TV, before they've set a baby-bootied foot in a McDonald's.

"It's all disturbing. But targeting babies is more disturbing because of how rapidly their brains are developing," says Linn, a psychologist and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group.

"It's difficult enough when you're coping with a child who has been exposed to SpongeBob at school and then starts nagging for SpongeBob products. But the babies aren't asking for it."

Not all industry watchers see the reach as damaging - just good business. And, in many cases, providing consumers with products that serve them well.

"I don't think it's malicious in intent. I think it's a smart marketing thing to do," says Michelle Poris, director of quantitative research at Just Kid Inc., a Stamford children's marketing group.

"I don't think any company feels comfortable marketing to 2-year olds. They're really marketing to moms," says Poris, a child psychologist. "But the fact of the matter is, they know that 2-year-olds are in the grocery stores with mom and that 2-year-olds establish patterns. And if they have a product that a 2-year-old likes, that 2-year-old moves with that product as they get older."

And with more media aimed at this age group than in previous generations, opportunities to communicate with them abound, she says.

TV For Toddlers

It's that technological terrain that's drawing the most attention, and scrutiny. The so-called kid-vid market is booming at $4.8 billion, according to MarketResearch.com. That includes DVDs like the wildly popular Baby Einstein line, which purports to be a teaching tool, with titles such as "Baby Mozart" and "Baby Monet."

Making a controversial leap into the fray last May was BabyFirstTV, the first 24-hour cable and satellite network for children under 3, purporting to educate and stimulate young minds.

"[Parents] want their children to be smarter, and they will bend over backwards to bring that about," says Daniel Acuff, founder and president of Youth Market Systems and co-author of "Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children."

"But actually, they don't really need anything to stimulate their brains except to play."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television viewing for children under 2, with only one or two hours a day of "quality screen time" for older children. Yet, 59 percent of children under 2 watch just over two hours of television on a typical day, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported last year. It also found that 30 percent of children under 3 have TVs in their bedrooms.

"There's no evidence that any screen media is beneficial to children under the age of 2," says Linn. "But parents are bombarded with marketing that says [they are]. So they end up feeling justified putting their babies in front of this media in order to get things done."

The claims of educational benefits prompted the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in May against Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, another top producer of infant DVDs. The complaint, which is still pending, seeks to prohibit the companies from marketing their products as educational tools and to require them to display the AAP's recommendations.

Among Linn's concerns is that children are being taught to soothe themselves through digital means, rather than learn their own coping mechanisms. Even road trips in the family car can mean long stretches in front of a TV screen.

But if Linn's group stands on the argument that no studies show that these media are of benefit to children, their producers point out there's no evidence to show they are not.

"I think if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that further research needs to be conducted," says Sharon Rechter, a founder of BabyFirstTV.

"The fact of life is that babies are watching TV," she says. "We're not out to make them watch more TV. We're giving them a better alternative."

At $9.99 a month, the commercial-free network, created with a team of child psychologists, it says, aims to inspire learning and interaction between parents and their children. Many programs are built for joint viewing, so parents can guide their children through lessons on colors and shapes, for example.

"Parents are looking ... to give their kids an educational advantage. And high-quality content might help," she says. "And sometimes parents just need a quiet moment for themselves to stay sane." Leaving them with 20 minutes of children's programming, she argues, is better than plopping them in front of standard prime-time television.

Rechter wouldn't give figures but says subscriptions have exceeded expectations. Plans are to expand offerings into Spanish and include parent-oriented programming.

Scheinman, of Team Baby Entertainment, also argues that it's a matter of balance. He doesn't purport that his products are educational tools. Used thoughtfully and in moderation, he says, his 30-minute videos, made in consultation with child psychologists, are just good family fun.

"We don't want children to be placed in front of a television watching anything for hours on end," said Scheinman, himself a father of a 3-year-old son, with another child due next month. "What we want is for ... parents to be pointing things out to their children, watching with them."

Founded last year, the Houston company is taking off. With 20 collegiate videos on the market, it's launching a line of professional sports DVDs with organizations such as NASCAR, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. Last month the company announced its acquisition by Michael Eisner, the former CEO of the Walt Disney Co. and now head of Tornante Co., a media and entertainment venture firm.

Still, the notion of teaching children to associate with a sports team from the crib is lost on some, including Acuff.

"To me, that's just silly," he says. "I just don't get it."

In his own marketing business, Acuff won't take on clients whose products concern him. That means videos that are violent, snacks that are too sugary. He admits he wouldn't necessarily take on clients today that he took on years ago.

He recalled one major toy company that recently wanted his firm to help market action figures to inner city youth. "We declined vehemently," said Acuff. "We don't want to contribute to the problem. We want to contribute to the solution."

 
 

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