Purple ketchup, blue squeeze butter, and French fries that are flavored with cinnamon or chocolate—these were all products that were developed specifically to be marketed to children. But products marketed directly to children are nothing new. In the 1950s, the products were toys like Silly Putty, Monopoly, and Barbie. Today, those toys still exist, although the new holiday wish list includes items like iPods, cell phones, and video games.
Even the use of celebrity characters as advertising spokespeople is not a recent phenomenon. Today we have SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, and Blue from Blue’s Clues; in the 1950s, there were Tony the Tiger, Cinderella, and Mickey Mouse.
Every one of us at one time or another has probably nagged a parent until a favorite toy was purchased. However, in today’s society, there is growing concern over the increased consumption and spending by children. Some critics believe that companies are too aggressive in targeting children. Marketers respond that they are only providing the product; it is the parent’s job to monitor how much the child spends.
But are children today really different from children of past generations? Are marketers today taking unfair advantage of children, or is the growth in children’s consumption just a trickle-down effect of a larger consumer culture?
I. Children as Consumers
II. Children Learn to Spend
III. Criticism of Children’s Marketing
IV. Social Issues
V. When Marketing Tactics are Questionable
VI. When Marketing Tactics are Used for Good
VII. The Marketer’s Position
Children as Consumers
Children are becoming consumers at an increasingly younger age. Just a few decades ago, children were considered to be consumers, or brand aware, by the age of 7; now it’s more like 3. Not only are they becoming more brand aware at an earlier age, but they are also spending their own money and influencing family spending in a significant way. In the United States, children ages 4 to 12 spend more than $50 billion directly and are estimated to influence more than $500 billion each year in family purchases, from furniture to the family minivan (Dotson and Hyatt 2005). In fact, kids influence about 62 percent of minivan and SUV purchases, which may be why a number of major manufacturers have run ad campaigns featuring animated cartoon characters such as Jimmy Neutron or Shrek inspecting a vehicle and approving its features (see, e.g., Chrysler 2008).
Children Learn to Spend
Older children are turning to making their own money in order to support their spending habits. Over 55 percent of U.S. high school seniors work more than three hours each day, compared to 27 percent of their foreign counterparts. While many parents may feel that teen employment instills a work ethic early in life, it has been shown that grades and participation in school activities suffer when teens work during the school year (Quart 2004). It is difficult to determine which comes first, however: the positive work ethic a child develops as a productive member of society or the consuming culture that tells the teen he or she has to have the latest and coolest brand.
Similar logic has been used by parents to justify their children’s use of debit and credit cards. Marketers promote the cards as ways to teach children how to spend money. However, they may also encourage them to spend money they don’t have. Children as young as 8 years old have been targeted by marketers with their own credit card. Hello Kitty, a popular children’s brand, has licensed its brand name to MasterCard, which markets the service directly to the parents. The card can be used at stores like a regular credit card or at an ATM to withdraw cash. Kids love it because it makes them look cooler than if they were just using cash (Bodnar 2005). Even the youngest consumers are taught to use plastic in their play. One toy company has a toddler’s “first purse” play set that comes complete with a debit card and case. And the Hasbro company recently announced a British version of Monopoly that will use a debit card—no cash play money.
Marketers may tell parents that giving a child plastic helps them learn how to spend, but sociology experts tell parents that direct teaching episodes are a better way to teach children how to become good consumers. Some TV networks that target kids and teens have turned to an old-fashioned way to offer these teaching episodes by promoting “coviewing,” where the child and the parent watch TV together. Marketers actually promote their products—brands and products whose purchase children significantly influence—to both the parent and the child at once. Cartoon Network shows commercials for automobiles, vacation destinations, and sit-down restaurants alongside those for McDonald’s, Cheerios, and Mattel. To better understand this interchange of information, Disney ABC Kids Networks Group commissioned a research study of children’s influence on purchases in which mothers and children between the ages of 6 and 14 were interviewed about their purchasing behavior (Downey 2006).
Criticism of Children’s Marketing
The growth in the spending power and influence of children has prompted criticism of marketers, parents, and legislators. Juliet Schor, an expert in consumerism and family studies, is one of those critics. In Born to Buy, she describes how children as consumers are changing: “Kids can recognize logos by eighteen months, and before reaching their second birthday, they’re asking for products by brand name” (Schor 2005).
The increase in brand recognition by young children is at least partially due to the impact of television. In the 1950s, families typically had one television per household, and the programs directed at children were mostly Saturday morning cartoons and a few daily morning shows. Today, there is a proliferation of children’s programming, some educational, some not so, and most accompanied by commercials. The typical commercial during a children’s program is 15 seconds, half the length of a commercial targeted at older consumers. Children’s attention spans are shorter, requiring only a brief ad message. The commercials are also more colorful and action oriented.
In addition to the increased number of ads directed at the children’s market, there also has been an increase in the number of hours that children spend watching television and a decrease in the amount of parental control over what is viewed. Schor (2005) says that approximately 25 percent of preschool-age children have a TV in their own bedroom, and they watch that TV for a little over two hours each day. It is estimated that American children watch a total of 40,000 television commercials annually.
One research study by doctors at Stanford University found that children’s demands for specific toys and foods increased with the time they spent in front of the television. The third-grade children who were interviewed averaged 11 hours of TV time each week, and another 12 hours spent on video games or computers. The children were able to identify where the ideas for their requests for toys or food items came from—whether it was from the television or their peers (Murphy 2006).
The quest for brand loyalty is moving to increasingly younger television audiences. Marketers once targeted 7- to 12-year-olds. However, companies realized that they need to attract consumers to their brands at an even earlier age. The new target segment is the preschooler—children ages 2 to 5. In fact, the preschooler market has become increasingly competitive, and television has become a primary medium for advertising messages. “It is estimated that a successful preschool TV show generates more than $1 billion in retail sales in any given year across all related categories, including recorded media, in the U.S.,” says Simon Waters, vice president of Disney Consumer Products, Disney’s global franchise management branch (Facenda 2006).
Moreover, as more and more children at a younger and younger age spend greater amounts of their time social networking via the Internet (e.g., MySpace) or using handheld devices such as smart phones, the higher is the likelihood that marketers will continue to expand their efforts in these areas in addition to those they already undertake in the television industry.
Although parents are accountable for the consumer behavior of their children, there is still the question of corporate and social responsibility. The number of advertisements for children’s products embedded in television programs and the increase of product placements and movie tie-ins have made the parent’s job increasingly more difficult. SpongeBob SquarePants has his own toothpaste and toothbrush product line; Dora the Explorer has a lunch box and other products; and every time a children’s movie is released, it is now paired with some type of premium at a fast-food restaurant.
But parents have had to contend with spokescharacters like SpongeBob SquarePants for decades (i.e., the Donald Duck lunch boxes of the 1950s). What is it about today’s environment that makes it different from that of previous generations? Two factors that have an impact on the consumer behavior of children are time and money. Parents spend less time with their children today than they did in previous decades. Many children living in single-parent or two-income households obtain a large portion of their skills from their peers at day care or at school. And even schools, once a sanctuary from pervasive marketing tactics, have become the new frontier for commercialism. Faced with declining budgets, schools are turning to subsidies from corporations, which are allowed to come into the school with a program, albeit it educational, that is sponsored by their firm. These sponsorships are considered by some to be subtle forms of advertising.
Children are also more active in sports and other extracurricular activities than they were in previous decades. Many parents find themselves shuttling their children from one event to another after school, the children’s calendars booked almost as tightly as their own. Parents are also feeling pressure from longer working hours, which leave them less time and energy to spend with their children. Add to that the fact that the square footage of the average home in the United States has increased significantly, which requires more upkeep and maintenance, and parents have more to do during their off hours. We are working more and spending more, yet relaxing less. In fact, U.S. workers spend more hours at work each week and have less vacation time than workers in any other industrialized nation in the world.
Marketers know that parents who spend less time with their children are willing to spend more on them, a relationship that has been substantiated by researchers. It is probably no surprise that children are moving from reasonably priced toys to more expensive electronic products at an ever-decreasing age. Younger children are requesting expensive products like Wiis, cell phones, iPods, and laptops—the type of products that used to be reserved for teenagers and adults. Marketers say that the market for electronic products aimed at tweens grew 46 percent in 2004 (Kang 2005).
When Marketing Tactics are Questionable
Marketers can use subtle messages to get to young consumers that parents may find difficult to overrule. When the tobacco companies were required to remove cigarette ads from media and even withdraw their sponsorship of the Winston Cup NASCAR race, they were forced to look for other ways to promote and increase the sales of their products. One such way is through the product itself. R. J. Reynolds, the company that first used Joe Camel in questionable advertising campaigns, went on to market its products to younger smokers in a different way. R. J. Reynolds introduced in 1999 a new line of candy-flavored cigarettes. They came packaged in a shiny tin box and had names like Beach Breezer (watermelon), Bayou Blast (berry), and Kauai Kolada (pineapple and coconut). The cigarettes were flavored with a tiny pellet that was slipped into the filter (Califano and Sullivan 2006). R. J. Reynolds was criticized for marketing its product to children, who are more likely to begin to smoke if the product tastes better. They maintained that they were only marketing the product to the adult who already was a smoker but wanted a change of flavor. It is common knowledge that most adult smokers begin prior to their 18th birthday. Currently, the average age at which young people begin to smoke is 11 (Mansfield, Thoms, and Nixon 2006).
The flavored cigarettes were once advertised heavily in magazines read by young boys and girls; however, pressure from federal legislators made them retract the ads, and in 2006 the company discontinued this line of cigarettes.
When Marketing Tactics are Used for Good
Not all marketing is necessarily evil, however, even when it is directed toward children. Marketing programs throughout the years have helped children to learn basic skills. Think of McGruff taking “a bite out of crime.” Today one area of concern in the United States is the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. In response to this epidemic, several corporations have developed new marketing campaigns to offset the negative effects of their products. Both Coca-Cola and McDonald’s launched fitness programs that are presented in schools and encourage healthy food choices and exercise. Fast-food restaurants like Wendy’s and McDonald’s have added selections like apple slices and mandarin oranges to their children’s menus as an alternative to French fries. General Mills now produces its cereals with whole grains. Other companies are reducing the trans fats in their cookies, crackers, and other baked goods. While the trend toward more healthful eating is at least for now being directed at children, it will be interesting to see how many of the products that are typically sold to this target audience will actually change.
The Marketer’s Position
The KidPower Conference meets annually to discuss the latest techniques, successes, and failures of marketing to children and teens. Marketers come to learn the latest on how to maximize the appeal of their brand—more specifically, to target certain age groups and create ads that appeal to different ethnic targets. Additionally, there are sessions on how to do social marketing. Social marketing is using traditional advertising and other marketing techniques to change a child’s behavior on issues like refusing drugs, exercising more, and becoming more tolerant of others. While the social marketing conference sessions are definitely targeted at improving society, the overwhelming majority of the conference is on how to market products and brands to kids.
Marketers feel that they are just offering a product that is for sale and that ultimately consumer education needs to start at home. Some consumer advocates agree that parents have a significant portion of the responsibility. Jeff Dess, a prevention specialist for schools in Cobb County, Georgia, says, “We need to talk with our kids about these issues and consider changing our own habits” (McAulay 2006). Some ad agency executives are in agreement with Dess’s statement and assert that it is parents and other relatives who are working in ad agencies and in corporations who are advertising the products, so they are also concerned about what the children in their lives are exposed to. Ultimately, it is the parent’s job to determine what food his or her children eat and what they buy (McAulay 2006).
Phylis M. Mansfield and Michael Shally-Jensen
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