Is advertising to kids wrong? Marketers responds

With a U.S. national election this month, much debate in the consumer press and a recent FTC report accusing studios of pitching violent entertainment to children (see 'FTC blasts kids marketing,' page 22), marketing to kids is now officially under the...
November 1, 2000

With a U.S. national election this month, much debate in the consumer press and a recent FTC report accusing studios of pitching violent entertainment to children (see ‘FTC blasts kids marketing,’ page 22), marketing to kids is now officially under the gun.

Now that reporters are returning their calls, members of advocacy groups across the U.S. have found an audience for concerns many have been voicing for years. Even First Wife and New York Senate candidate (at press time) Hillary Clinton put in her two cents last month, publicly stating that ‘too many companies simply see our children as little cash cows that they can exploit.’

When it comes to protecting the kids, emotions can run high, but marketing to kids isn’t going away anytime soon: Advertising is simply the price to be paid for ‘free’ children’s programming. Unless the government steps in with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, or parents decide it’s worth paying substantial pay-per-view fees for kidshows, programming such as Bear in the Big Blue House, Rugrats and Blue’s Clues will temper the election-year rhetoric.

But even if kid marketing is accepted as a fact of life, there is still much to be debated. Groups such as Washington D.C.-based Commercial Alert and The SCAM Project (Save Children From Advertising and Marketing, based in the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, Massachusetts) have targeted QSR tie-ins, advertising to preschoolers and in-school marketing, and even some members of the marketing community have found much to criticize about the way their contemporaries operate.

The core issue, of course, is whether kids are defenseless and easily manipulated or more media savvy than ever.

‘Marketing in and of itself is inherently manipulative, that’s the whole point of it,’ says Susan Linn, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center. ‘It’s unfair to manipulate children for profit because they don’t have the same kind of defenses and cognitive understanding that adults do. Young children in particular have trouble distinguishing between commercials and regular programming, they have trouble understanding the intent of an ad-to sell-and they tend to believe what they see.’ Linn, who helped organize a protest against the KidScreen-sponsored Golden Marble Awards in September, adds that she would like to see the U.S. government ban marketing to kids under 12 outright.

Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal, a New York ad agency specializing in advertising to kids, sees it differently. Calling the cry to ban kid-directed marketing ‘wrong-headed’ and ‘naive,’ Kurnit says: ‘It’s a point of fact that today’s child is more savvy than ever before about what it’s like to live in a commercial society. We’ve probably done more recent original research on kids, life stages and recognition of brands than anybody. And what parents are telling us is that kids are requesting brands and are brand-aware almost as soon as their verbal skills set in.’

Nickelodeon has also done research showing that kids know their brands, know what marketing is all about, and what’s more, are capable of critically evaluating the marketing they see. ‘Kids have a kind of truth meter,’ says Lisa Judson, senior VP of programming and executive creative director. ‘They are able to tell when marketers are being truthful and straightforward and they can tell when marketers are trying to trick them.’

In particular, stats from a 1999 Nickelodeon/Yankelovich Youth Monitor study show that only 25% of kids ages nine to 17 trust TV commercials, a strong indication that kids don’t believe everything they see on the tube.

Even Linn’s associate, Alvin F. Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center, agrees that kids ages eight and up can critically evaluate advertising. It’s the kids under five that worry him. And while various studies pinpoint different ages when kids develop the cognitive abilities to recognize and understand marketing, everyone knows that if you go young enough, you’ll eventually hit kids who don’t get the marketing thing.

Poussaint says the campaign that most concerns him is the ‘Teletubbies Hugs’ QSR tie-in with McDonald’s, orchestrated by The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company earlier this year. It’s the combination of the young target demo and the link to fast-food that he finds most troubling. ‘These toddlers were nagging their parents, and their parents were feeling pushed to go to these fast food places to get the toys with whatever the current special meal is,’ he says. ‘And in that way, these kids start eating very high-fat food at a very early age.’

Strangely enough, itsy bitsy president and CEO Kenn Viselman and Poussaint are in complete agreement on many kid marketing issues, although not surprisingly, they have different takes on the QSR tie-in.

Viselman agrees that no marketing at all should be directed at preschoolers because they don’t have the cognitive skills to understand that they’re being marketed to. He says that itsy bitsy has a policy of only targeting caregivers with its marketing efforts, a policy that goes as far as prohibiting trailering on their videos in favor of enclosed letters to caregivers that detail other Teletubbies offerings.

The birth of marketing to preschoolers took place about 10 years ago when a study was made public showing that in households with preschoolers, something like 75 cents of every dollar spent was somehow influenced by the needs or wants of the child, says Viselman. ‘And ever since that study came out, the concept of advertising to kids has become more and more widespread. It’s become a way of life in our country and it’s totally wrong. It’s sacrilegious. We should be doing whatever we can to protect our youth, and instead we’re just selling them out so we can make a few dollars.’

So what about the Teletubbies tie-in?

‘For them to jump on that is just so stupid and so irresponsible, because it creates a kind of fear and paranoia among young caregivers which is completely unacceptable,’ Viselman responds. ‘What these doctors should be doing is trying to show parents how to work with the system instead of trying to reinvent it, because caregivers are going to take their kids to McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s anyway.’

Itsy bitsy’s solution, Viselman says, was to highlight the fact that kids could substitute milk or orange juice for soda in their Happy Meals and provide tips for healthy living. ‘We’re not encouraging parents to take their kids to McDonald’s for every single meal. It’s a treat, and kids should be entitled to a little treat as part of their weekly routine.’

Asked about the claim that QSR tie-ins lead to childhood obesity, Viselman is candid. ‘The reason that there’s childhood obesity is because caregivers don’t have enough time to spend with their children. So what they’re doing is giving their kids eight hours of TV a day.’

The idea that marketers are being blamed for the failings of parents is not a new one, and it opens up a whole new can of worms. Many marketers feel that it’s up to parents to control the amount of advertising kids are exposed to and to stay in control when it comes to purchases. Harvard’s Linn, however, argues that parents are feeling overextended and under attack, thanks to the sheer amount of advertising streaming at their kids. The proliferation of kids marketing on various media, she adds, including TV, radio, on-line and in-store, makes it impossible for parents to monitor.

Peter Reynolds, CEO of Wisconsin-based toyco Brio says that’s nonsense. ‘Parents aren’t losing control, they’re giving it up,’ he says flatly. ‘If your child nags you to let him play in the middle of the freeway, do you do that? The responsibility of the purchase always lies with the adult. Yeah, 72 times a day you’re going to be asked: `Can I have that toy? Can I have that toy?’ But if the answer is `no’ 72 times a day for three or four weeks, then they stop asking.’

But despite the fact that Reynolds sees parents as the gatekeepers, he still doesn’t believe companies should market directly to kids under 12. He says that Brio, which makes educational toys for kids ages 10 and under, doesn’t ever market directly to kids, aiming its messages at parents instead. ‘I want to save the children from the parents who don’t take responsibility,’ he says.

Another educational toy company with a policy of not marketing to kids is Illinois-based Learning Curve International, perhaps best known for its line of licensed Thomas the Tank Engine products. Learning Curve president John Lee has spent a lot of time debating the issue personally, as well as discussing it in his capacity as an executive committee member of Playing for Keeps, a coalition of parents, industry leaders and professionals he co-founded to help foster a climate of ‘constructive play.’ In the end, he decided to adopt a policy of not marketing to kids under 12 at all, because he felt that kids under five couldn’t differentiate between advertising and programming, and even eight- to 12-year-olds were so naive and trusting that they weren’t a fair target.

He says he doesn’t find the policy restrictive, but admits that Learning Curve’s educational message flies better with parents anyway. And even then, like itsy bitsy, the toyco’s policy against aiming for kids is tempered by promotions, such as an in-school Robotix-building contest, an on-line presence via the site, and demo toys strategically placed in museums.

The fact that Lee, who has voluntarily adopted strict marketing guidelines, still has an in-school program shows how idealism can quickly run against the realities of the marketplace, because in-school marketing as a whole is one of the most hotly debated marketing practices there is.

There are several advocacy groups in the U.S. founded just to fight in-school marketing, such as Milwaukee’s Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, Alabama’s, the New York Coalition of Commercial-free Schools and Oakland, California’s Center for Commercial-Free Public Education. Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Oakland group, says that at the moment, his organization is actually more interested in regulating than banning in-school marketing altogether. The enactment of statutes and regulations in 19 states addressing commercial activities in schools (with five states adopting comprehensive laws on the practice), coupled with the September publication of the United States General Accounting Office report on Commercial Activities in Schools shows that the issue is already getting serious attention at various government levels.

Hagelshaw says he has two main concerns when it comes to marketing in schools: The idea that parents and students are losing local control, and the disrupting of the educational environment.

‘What I mean by local control is the fact that when a school district signs a commercial contract, in some ways it takes away control over certain decisions from parents,’ says Hagelshaw. ‘For instance, you might have a parent who doesn’t let his kids drink soda, but suddenly the school is marketing soda to the kids. Or a parent who doesn’t want her kids to watch TV, but suddenly the school signs a contract with Channel One, and now the kids are exposed to TV that includes advertising.’

Hagelshaw also provides examples of disrupting the learning environment. ‘Teachers may be trying to teach a curriculum about nutrition, and then the school district goes and signs a contract to promote junk food. Or even using sponsored educational materials, which sometimes have messages in them that are different from what the schools are teaching. The more advertising we have in schools, the more the companies are controlling that environment.’

New York-based Primedia’s Channel One, as one of the most visible in-school marketers, has suffered the brunt of the attack on in-school marketing, being singled out by protest groups and having to endure legislation kicking it out of New York State’s schools altogether in the early `90s.

But Fred Sawabini, Channel One’s president of sales and marketing, says most of the criticisms he hears don’t hold water. First of all, he points out, Channel One doesn’t advertise to kids under 12 at all: The 12-minute in-school newscast is limited to kids ages 12 to 17. Secondly, he says that Channel One is an ‘invited guest’ in schools, and even if a principal or school board signs a contract for Channel One to provide free TVs and a satellite link, individual students still have the option of leaving the room while the programming airs. Finally, Sawabini says that he’s tired of the two minutes of advertising getting all the attention at the expense of the 10 minutes of ‘very serious news programming,’ which boasts over 200 awards for journalism, including a George Foster Peabody award. He says that Channel One’s programming was designed from the top down to address teachers’ concerns that U.S. kids were becoming culturally illiterate because they weren’t keeping up with current events. He adds that a reach of 8.1 million kids in 12,100 schools plus a 99% renewal rate shows that most educators like what they see when Channel One’s blue glow lights up classrooms.

When you take the TVs out of the classroom, a lot of the controversy falls away, but there has still been criticism levied against kid cablers such as Nickelodeon for their relentless self-promotion to kids. While Nickelodeon’s Judson says Nick is proud to take credit for ‘pioneering modern communications with kids,’ she adds that the network is kept on the level by the kids themselves. ‘We spend a lot of time talking to kids, to understand where they’re at, what they’re thinking about and how to create product that’s appropriate for them. By doing so, we’ve found ways to communicate about that product-be it TV, be it movies, be it toys-that is respectful of them and age appropriate.’

Judson says that in the end, kids marketing is a neutral tool-it can be used both responsibly and irresponsibly. While critics assume that the drive for profits always lies at odds with the desire to be socially conscious, she says that when you look at the big picture, that’s not always the case. ‘The whole premise of our company was founded on serving kids,’ she says, ‘and what we’ve found is that when you do good things for kids, it happens to be good for business.’

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