Kids Are Obedient — to Advertisers

Children May Give Their Parents Problems and Headaches. But for Advertisers They Are Cooperative to a Fault.

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December 7, 2000
Charlotte Observer

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If you want to get a sense of the spirit of this Christmas season — the commercial version, at least — you might pick up a copy of Advertising Age magazine. There you will find such articles as “Young Girls Targeted by Makeup Companies,” which describes the efforts of cosmetics firms to make eight year olds feel a need to paint their faces – to sell “kid makeup,” the magazine says.

Christmas cheer for advertisers means nagging, pouting, insecure kids throwing tantrums until their parents relent. It creates tension and chaos in the family, yet in reality it is a form of training — obedience training — that is taking place on a societal scale. Kids may
give their parents problems and headaches. But for advertisers they are cooperative to a fault.

If you doubt this, listen to what your kids are nagging for this holiday season and then ask yourself “Where did they get that idea?”

Each year, advertisers and marketers spend billions of dollars to put kids through a kind of cultural obedience school. Sessions become especially intense during Christmas season. More than half of the toy industry’s annual $30 billion in sales happen in the holiday season, and this is not an act of nature. The toy industry will “put their promotional machines to work to try to make something a demand item for Christmas,” said Alan Dorfman, president of Basic Fun, a toy company.

But it’s not just the toy industry that targets kids these days. Marketers have realized they can harness the nag potential of children to move all sorts of products.

“Virtually every consumer-goods industry, from airlines to zinnia-seed sellers, targets kids,” says James U. McNeal, a retired professor at Texas A&M University, and the dean of the marketing to children movement.

The central strategy of the obedience trainers has been to interpose themselves between parents and kids – and supplant the role of parents as guides to values and behavior. In just about every venue in children’s lives — the home, the school, and all points in between —
marketers have set up an authority structure to deliver messages that is outside of parental control. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that children spend 38 hours a week watching or listening to media — most of which carries advertising — with little or no parental supervision.

Marketers use sophisticated psychological techniques to influence kids once they have their attention.

“There are a lot of agencies and kids’ marketing firms that have psychologists on staff and on retainer,” said Debbie Solomon, senior partner and group research director at the ad agency J. Walter Thompson.

These professional kiddie influencers know what they are doing. McNeal, who has spent 35 years studying how to market to children, articulates what every parent already knows — that advertising “works very effectively in the sense of implanting brand names in their minds and creating desires for the products.”

The results of this obedience training are pretty much what you’d expect: whining and hyper-stimulated children, fights over gifts, family strife and stressed parents. In other words, Happy Holidays.

Some 76 percent of Americans feel that excessive holiday advertising and marketing to kids is taking the joy and meaning out of the season, according to a recent poll. But parents are overwhelmed. They wage a grim daily battle with a commercial culture that is hostile to their deepest values, and they need some help. As the psychological tools of the obedience trainers grow more sophisticated, things are only going to get worse.

The time has come for some disobedience — commercial disobedience. If we really value kids and families — and Christmas itself — we will start to disengage from the psychological miasma that the advertisers have launched upon our kids. And we ought to get the politicians involved, too.

Here’s a question for the new president and members of Congress to start the new year: what they are going to do to give parents more power and more tools to combat the advertisers and their assault upon the nation’s kids?

Gary Ruskin is director of Commercial Alert, an organization protecting children and communities from commercialism, advertising and marketing.

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly.

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