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Parents, teachers deal with trend of aggressive marketing to kids

For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/19/06

The antics of SpongeBob SquarePants, the ubiquitous, underwater fry cook of Nickelodeon's popular kids' show, are so familiar to Roswell mom Tricia Lane she almost feels he's part of the family.

Although she limits TV time for daughter Sydney, 8, and son Sam, 5, both are devoted fans and sport several pairs of SpongeBob jammies.

"I almost don't feel like he's a character anymore," Lane said. "He's just a part of our lives."

Lane approves of SpongeBob but keeps a close eye on the amount and type of media her kids are exposed to.

"There's so much marketing to kids,' she said. "They end up wanting things solely because it's sold on TV and has a character they like. It concerns me how easily children can be influenced to buy products."

Many children's health experts think Lane is on target.

"Marketing is pervasive, unchecked and escalating in children's lives," said Susan Linn, instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of "Consuming Kids, The Hostile Takeover of Childhood."

In 1983 advertisers spent $100 million on TV in marketing to kids, Linn said. "Now that figure is at least $15 billion annually."

Jeff Dess, prevention specialist for Cobb County schools and author of "Turn Up the Music Prevention Strategies To Help Parents Through the Rap, Rock, Pop and Metal Years," works locally to raise awareness of the steady increases.

"Sometimes parents don't realize how things have changed," he said. "A lot of the same products are being pitched as when we were young, but they are pitched today in so many more venues."

Dodgen Middle School in east Cobb and Campbell Middle School in Smyrna teamed up last year with Kennesaw State University to teach students to be media savvy. With support from a short-term grant, the college students were trained in media literacy and then taught the middle schoolers how to look at ads with a critical eye and to consider what the company is selling, why it's targeted at kids and how kids might be influenced by the ad.

"Kids need to have skills to look at media critically," Dess said. "Advertisers are trying to impact your heart, and you need instead to learn to react with your head."

East Cobb mom Debbie Gaster is unsure just how much marketing is affecting her teenage daughters' behaviors. "My kids have been exposed to the same things, yet one is very anti-label and the other very tuned in to specific brands," she said.

Gaster's 12-year-old daughter, Allie, likes to shop (in addition to playing tennis, watching TV and hanging with friends). She's usually drawn to products when she admires something a friend has. "If I see someone with a cute purse I like, then I'll go to the Web site to check it out or sometimes cut pictures out of magazines," she said. "I don't know if advertising really has anything to do with it."

Parents must take control

Ultimately, media literacy needs to start at home, Dess said. "We need to talk with our kids about these issues and consider changing our own habits."

That's a theme picked up by ad and company executives parents are shirking their duties.

"It's my responsibility to determine what food my 12-year-old eats," said Julie Burmeister, president of Burmeister Group, a Marietta advertising agency. "Companies have a right to develop and market products any way they see fit, and they're going to as long as there's a demand. If parents don't buy them, companies won't make them."

Many companies argue they police themselves. Coca-Cola, for example, follows a policy dating back to the 1950s of not marketing soft drinks via children's media. They also follow the beverage industry policy of not providing soft drinks in elementary schools and not making them available until after-school hours in middle schools.

"The people who run corporations are parents and aunts and uncles, too," said Tracy Gray, president of Gray and Associates Diversity Advertising and Public Relations in Marietta. "The idea of the unfeeling corporate entity is a product of stereotyping."

Through his company's involvement with promotional and community outreach efforts with Coca-Cola and the Greater Atlanta McDonald's Operators Association, Gray said he sees a strong commitment by the companies to help young people.

"I don't think advertising is the villain here," Gray said. "Kids are intelligent enough to know what they like and what they want. If they see a product that isn't authentic to them, they won't buy it. If it doesn't fit with their social and affinity group, they won't buy it."

No corporate limits

Harvard's Linn believes it's the advertisers taking the easy way out. "Of course parents are responsible for their children, but what about corporate responsibility?" she said.

"The message is that corporations can do whatever they want and parents just have to cope," Linn said. "... SpongeBob is entertaining, but he's also a tool to sell kids stuff, a lot of which isn't good for them.

"... Meanwhile, we know that marketing is a factor in a lot of childhood ills such as eating disorders, youth violence, obesity, erosion of children's creative play, family stress and materialistic values," Linn said. "There is absolutely no evidence that marketing is beneficial to kids and mounting evidence that it's harmful."

In east Cobb, Timber Ridge Elementary Principal Tracie Doe sees the impact of marketing in the feverish rush about the latest toys and what she describes as an I-have-to-have-this mentality.

"I'm concerned about materialism among kids," Doe said. "Our teachers often report that students are losing the concept of doing good for others or even just getting good grades because it's the right thing to do and not because you expect a reward."

Doe also limits materials sent home from companies urging parents to buy things. "I get at least four or five calls a day from companies wanting to send information about their products home with students," the principal said.

Kids are an attractive market segment, and getting them to buy-in to brand loyalty is an advertiser's dream, referred to in the industry as cradle-to-grave marketing.

"It is getting harder and harder to provide children with commercial-free space. Everything from books to clothing, diapers, wallpaper and school supplies, are linked to media programs," Linn said. "Children are growing up in a world where everything is designed to sell them something."

In Roswell, Lane feels she could use help in pushing back the marketing juggernaut.

"Ultimately, I'm responsible, but it would be great if the companies could help us out a bit,' she said. "I'd like to see regulation of the number of commercials during kids' shows."


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