Jewish World Review June 20, 2002 / 10 Tamuz, 5762

Catherine Seipp

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Consumer Reports


Welcome to the brave new world of cradle-to-grave branding


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Four-year-old Jeremy Brandt of Austin, Texas, was watching television when he suddenly began yelling excitedly for his parents in the next room: "Mom, Dad! Come quick!" Recalls Jeremy's father, Brian, "When we arrived, he informed us, 'There's a minivan that drives like a CAR!'"

Welcome to the brave new world of cradle-to-grave branding, to use one of the youth marketing trade's favorite catchphrases. No longer are children seen as customers merely for breakfast cereals, fast food, toys, cartoons, candy and other time-honored childhood staples. Now they're targeted by purveyors of designer clothes, luxury cruises, new antibiotics, teen idol CDs, and even big-ticket items like cars.

Advertisers are now riding the crest of a huge wave that began with the economic slump of the early '90s, when companies realized that children, being the ultimate impulse buyers whose income is by definition entirely disposable, were a perfect recession-proof market.

Then there's the fact that a children's media company (like Nickelodeon, for instance) already does business with pretty much every big toy company in existence. For more commercial dollars, it needs to look elsewhere.

Obviously, people who still transport themselves by being powered by their own feet aren't about to get loans for new minivans approved any time soon. But even the smallest consumers do have big input about purchases. "Last year children had a market potential of $500 billion," says marketing guru James U. McNeal.

"It's the age vs. lifestyle deficit," says Ira Mayer, publisher of the New York-based children's business newsletter Youth Markets Alert. "Sometimes, because of two-earner families or single-parent families, it becomes necessary for kids to carry more than their share of the weight. Eight-to-12-year-olds may be doing research on the Internet about what kind of car to buy, and that would actually be kind of healthy."

But children's health professionals are skeptical about the benefits of exposing young children to a steady diet of commercials, whether through computers, TV or other media.

"It's too pervasive now and parents need help," says Dr. Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and associate director of Harvard's Judge Baker's Children's Center, which promotes the health and well-being of children. Marketers refer to catching the attention of these youngest consumers as "the drool factor." Explains Linn: "They drool and look down at their overalls and see the brand."

So in the past few years, protest groups like Obligation, (started by Jim Metrock, an Atlanta businessman unhappy about the growing barrage of ads in schools), the Oak Park, Ill.-based White Dot (dedicated to television-free child-rearing) and Stay Free! (against marketing in general), an award-winning magazine out of New York, have sprung up in response to the commercialization of childhood.

"It's harder for parents to control TV now," says Jean Lotus, who founded White Dot five years ago, naming it after the old white dot that used to form when the TV was turned off. "It's like a spigot of candy going on all the time."

Most companies' studies on this phenomenon are proprietary, but Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research and planning for MTV Networks (the parent company of Nickelodeon), notes that back in the '80s, a Harvard study found that up until age 6 or 7, children generally cannot distinguish between programming and commercials. "This resulted in a lot of marketers rethinking their strategy at the time," Frank adds.

Then there's the commercial invasion of schools, which you might notice when literally the first thing you're handed at back-to-school nights is a fundraising package touting the benefits of a click-through site like Schoolpop.com. It's for a good cause, of course, but still.

Linn pointed out that advertising even makes its way into lesson plans now, with oil companies contributing ecology lesson plans, and fast-food chains touting nutrition.

Disney is widely admired in the advertising industry for how skillfully the company cross-markets its many products. But parents sometimes also wonder about Disney's constant hype, even outside of schools. Michelle Bradley-Orozco, of Monrovia, Calif., recalls a recent family trip to Disneyland with her 6-year-old daughter: "Much to my horror, when we pulled in the parking structure, along with our parking ticket, they handed us a brochure promoting the fall lineup on ABC."

Marketing consultant McNeal has a simple explanation for why companies are focusing so sharply on children: "There's only one way to increase customers," he says. "Either you switch them or you grow them from birth. Parents who are concerned about in-school marketing are complaining about something they created. They begin taking babies to the mall at a median age of 2 months. They've produced a legitimate, bona fide consumer at around 100 months."

So when a Mercedes ad featuring sulkily expectant teenage girls ("If their Daddies could buy them CLKs, so could yours," read the tagline) infuriated many parents a couple of years ago, industry insiders realized that despite the unexpected backlash, such marketing won't vanish anytime soon.

Nor was the Mercedes campaign even all that groundbreaking. A few years ago, Porsche began targeting its Boxster and 911 models at first- through fifth-graders, dubbing these future car buyers "Generation Tech."

Meanwhile, drug companies vie for the attention of pediatric patients with fun new animal characters touting antibiotics: Max the Zebra for Pfizer's Zithromax, Auggie the Froggie for SmithKline Beecham's Augmentin, Bix the Bulldog for Abbott Laboratories' Biaxin. If it makes a trip to the doctor easier, is there really any harm in this?

Some people think so. "There may be good reasons for kids to take antibiotics but the association with adorable cartoon friends is not one of them," observes Carrie McLaren, editor of Stay Free! Magazine. "Pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of kids by marketing these medicines, which have serious health implications, as toys."

"The thing that is so insidious is coming between parents and children," says Harvard's Linn. "There's a woman named Cheryl Idell who did a study for Western media that discussed the effectiveness of importance nagging, as opposed to mere persistence nagging."

Idell, who has since moved on to Intermedia Advertising, is indeed something of a legend in the children's marketing business for her research about the fine art of whining. But chatting over the phone from her office in New York, she comes across not as an evil exploiter of children but as a friendly, relaxed expert in her field.

"The study was called 'The Nag Factor,'" Idell explains cheerfully, "and it basically distinguished between 'Gee, I want the pink Barbie because she's pretty' and 'Gee, I really want the Barbie Dreamhouse so Barbie and Ken can have a family.' We found more products were bought when kids whined with importance rather than persistence. You have to put copy into the ad that gives kids all the reasons they should want this, in language they can express to parents."

As it happens, Idell is a mother herself, with a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old. How does she deal with advertising's effects on them?

"I do think there are places ads should be off limits," she said. "Maybe schools, but the flip side of that is schools need money. I remember a couple of years ago my daughter was telling me about a product that couldn't be very good because she hadn't seen it on television. We had a very frank discussion about that."

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JWR contributor Catherine Seipp, who writes the weekly "Cathy's World" column for UPI and is a columnist for Pages, the books magazine, has also written features, commentary and media criticism for Mediaweek, American Journalism Review, Penthouse, Forbes, the Weekly Standard, TV Guide and Reason, from where this is reprinted. Comment by clicking here.

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