Advertising To Minors Is Major Endeavor

Enola Aird and David Blankenhorn, Orlando Sentinel, 5/6/2001

One of today's most remarkable trends is the growing saturation of all aspects of daily life by commercial advertising. Moreover, advertising today is extending its influence not only spatially, dominating more and more inches of cultural turf, but also psychologically and developmentally, primarily by bidding with increasing intensity for the loyalties of young children, including toddlers and pre-schoolers.

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Subjects: Civil Society, Family

More by: Enola G. Aird and David Blankenhorn

If an anthropologist from Mars in the year 1900 had searched for the most influential messages shaping the character of the young Earthlings, the alien probably would have returned home with a McGuffey Reader, the era's popular schoolbook.

It was packed with sentiments such as: "You must not lie. Bad boys lie, and swear, and steal." The Scout Oath and the latest materials from the then-growing YMCA and Sunday School movements probably also would be included in the Martian's report.

But if this same research were taking place today, our visiting scholar would almost certainly return home with a lot to say about advertising and entertainment products connected to advertising.

And what is today's advertising telling our children?

That you should "have it your way." That you should "obey your thirst." That you should "make your own rules." That you should "just do it." The essential philosophy of contemporary advertising is that we deserve whatever we want, that the relationships we can trust the most are relationships with certain companies, and that we can best assert our individuality by buying certain products.

One of today's most remarkable trends is the growing saturation of all aspects of daily life by commercial advertising. Moreover, advertising today is extending its influence not only spatially, dominating more and more inches of cultural turf, but also psychologically and developmentally, primarily by bidding with increasing intensity for the loyalties of young children, including toddlers and pre-schoolers.

For example, according to the Wall Street Journal, Ford Motor recently unveiled its "spokespuppy" for ads on Nickelodeon, the children's TV channel. George Murphy, the firm's general marketing manager, put it this way: "Everybody is trying to figure out how to develop impressions in kids. Nickelodeon programs [for] kids 2 to 11, which is when brand preference is developed."

According to General Mills executive Wayne Chilicki, quoted in Mothering Magazine, one of contemporary advertising's most important goals is "getting them early and having them for life."

In 1990, advertisers spent $100 million on advertising to minors. This year, they will spend more than $2 billion on that task. With good reason, advertisers view children as an increasingly independent and lucrative market. Children under age 12 spent about $28.4 billion in 1998. Overall, direct spending by minors has tripled since 1990. Not to mention the growing billions of dollars of parental purchases each year that are at least partly determined by children's pleas and whines.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children on average spend about 40 hours per week outside of school plugged into television and other entertainment media, courtesy of which they encounter an estimated 40,000 advertisements per year. Researchers report that 3-year-olds today are typically capable of recognizing as many as 100 brand names.

Advertisers are aggressively developing the children's market. Today, children are subjects of focus groups and other market-research activities nearly everywhere they go, from daycare centers to schools to camps. The advocacy group Commercial Alert and 60 psychologists recently wrote to the American Psychological Association to describe "the use of psychological insight and methodology to bypass parents and influence the behavior and desires of children" as a "crisis for the profession of psychology." The signers urged the association to amend its ethics code "to establish limits for psychologists regarding the use of psychological knowledge or techniques to observe, study, manipulate, harm, exploit, mislead, trick, or deceive children for commercial purposes."

Last year, the Institute for International Research and Parenting magazine hosted a conference for corporate marketers in New York called "Play-Time, Snack-Time, Tot-Time: Targeting Preschoolers and Their Parents." The conference brochure described the event as "two days of marketing education dedicated to enhancing your preschool brand." The conference's introductory theme was "KGOY" – "Kids Getting Older Younger." Which led to discussions such as "Preschoolers – The New Marketing Target?" and brainstorming sessions such as "New media for 0-3: TV, the Internet, and more."

One workshop presented "anthropological research" techniques that can help marketers "find out the desires of toddler age consumers." For it turns out that "moms, dads, and grandparents are often unaware" of what young children "really need." But new research "allows you to identify their `real' needs and motivations" in order to "develop products that answer these desires."

If all of this sounds somewhat disturbing, consider the finale. The conference chairperson was Susan Royer, Vice President of Sesame Street Research at the Children's Television Workshop. The people from Sesame Street even ran a workshop called "A Behind The Scenes Look At The Creation of Elmo's World": "Elmo's World" is a 15-minute show within Sesame Street that has preschoolers glued to the television.

Workshop participants can "discover what it takes to produce a lovable character within a top-rated program," which in turn will reveal "the strategic implications a strong brand has on producing a new product."

What does it mean when the Children's Television Workshop, which presents itself as the very embodiment of child-friendly television, actively helps corporate advertisers to "target" preschoolers for their product pitches? To us, it means that enough is enough.

Fortunately, a growing number of initiatives are springing up across the country to address this problem. Last September, a group of educators, psychologists, physicians, and parents, including the noted psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint and the media ecologist Mark Crispin Miller, organized a public protest in New York against the "Golden Marble Awards" held annually to honor "the best" in advertising to children.

The protesters sought to call attention to what they said were the facts "that intensive marketing harms children. It harms their health and sense of well-being. It compromises their safety and undermines family life. In this era of unprecedented and rampant exploitation of children as a consumer group, it's time for people who care about kids to take a stand."

As a first step, the public should insist that advertisers develop codes of ethics in which they voluntarily agree to stop manipulating and exploiting children. If advertisers refuse to adopt and abide by such codes, the public should demand stringent government regulation of advertising aimed at children.

Two decades ago, the Federal Trade Commission proposed a ban on advertising to children on the grounds that such ads are inherently exploitative. But Congress, wrongly in our view, prevented the agency from imposing the ban. It may be time for the Congress to reauthorize the FTC to protect children from harmful advertising.

In the last 20 years, things have gone from bad to worse. The floodgates have fully opened. It is time to close them.

This article originally appeared here.

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