Nicole Crosby still remembers when her son was 6 and asked her to buy a particular brand of vacuum cleaner because he saw it advertised on kid's network Nickelodeon. It is one of many items he's begged for in the past five years after watching commercials.
"It creates the greatest source of friction in our life -him requesting a product he sees on TV," says Ms. Crosby, an advertising copywriter from New Rochelle, N.Y.
Today children are influencing the purchase of everything from new cars to frozen pizza - up to $500 billion a year in family buying. Whether they are spending their own money or asking mom and dad to spend theirs, advertising aimed at kids is now more prevalent and effective than ever.
More media outlets, coupled with a growing understanding of teen motivation, are helping advertisers separate kids from their allowances at an unprecedented rate - sometimes for products that are violent or unhealthy. As it does, the psychology of youth advertising is coming under new scrutiny.
"Over the last 10 to 12 years advertising to children has just mushroomed, it's skyrocketed," says Allen Kanner, a psychologist from Berkeley, Calif. "They're being advertised to all day."
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission released a report condemning the entertainment industry for peddling violent entertainment to children, and on Thursday the Federal Communications Commission put forth a proposal that would limit advertising during kids' shows.
"These advertisements not only encourage kids to demand toys from their parents, but they encourage boys to celebrate violence and girls to consider their self-worth by how they look," said Mark Crispin Miller, director of the Project on Media Ownership in New York, at a protest held outside a New York hotel where a ceremony honoring excellence in advertising to kids was taking place.
Children and young adults represent a lucrative market to advertisers. Kids ages 2 to 18 now outnumber baby boomers and are big spenders. In 1999, four- to 12-year-olds took in $31.3 billion in income from allowance, jobs, and gifts, and spent 92 percent of it, says James McNeal, a market researcher who specializes in the children's market. He says that percentage is the highest he's recorded in three decades of tracking the spending habits of kids.
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Children and teens are also estimated to influence between $130 billion and $500 billion in family purchases annually. Mr. McNeal says $17 billion in new cars alone are sold because of children's preferences. The minivan was created, for example, because children demanded more room. Then they decided the three-door behemoth was uncool, helping give rise to the SUV. "Every auto manufacturer has a strategy to target children," he adds.
Though an ad's approach usually depends on the age of the child targeted, commercials often appeal to a sense of fun. Cereal is better if a lively character is selling it, for example; so are cigarettes, as Joe Camel proved.
"The emotion advertisers most often play on for kids is their funny bone," says Kathy Lalley, senior vice president at Kid-Leo in Chicago, which handles accounts like McDonald's and Nintendo.
Some kids think they know when they are being handled, says David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. "Kids will say, 'I know what they're trying to do' - as if that makes them immune."
For Whiton Paine, a psychologist with Kid2Kid in Philadelphia, the criteria for advertising to young kids goes something like this: "Telling [children] of the existence of a product and accurately describing that product is under most circumstances probably ethical," he says. "Convincing them that they have to have the toy if they are going to be successful with their friends, or that they must immediately rush to their parents and start begging for the toy, or misrepresenting the toy - [then] you are no longer ethical."
While psychologists highlight the problems they've observed with the glut of advertising - from increased materialism to obesity - those at ad agencies maintain that they alone are not to blame.
"I don't feel we're manipulating kids," says Ms. Lalley. She says they don't get kids to do anything they already wouldn't want to do. "This society is a consumer society," she says. "Advertising and marketing and making brand decisions are part of life."
"To say that marketers are doing this is to say that society and parents are not taking responsibility for their own consumerism," adds Debbie Solomon of J. Walter Thompson, another Chicago ad agency.
Long before today's boom in walk-in closets, advertisers have been figuring out how to use emotions to influence buyers. Though adults have grown wise to the ways of marketers through the decades, there was an attempt to restrict television ads aimed at children under 13 in the late 1970s, after studies showed they couldn't tell the difference between TV programs and commercials.
Companies hire psychologists to do a range of things, from leading focus groups to playing with a toy with children. "A psychologist could say that kids who are three and four don't understand double-entendres. With two-year-olds, animal figures with curvy lines are better because they associate curvy lines with the good guy and straight lines with the bad guy," says Mr. Kanner.
This summer, the American Psychological Association named a task force to look into the ethics of members helping firms that target children, after some members filed a formal complaint. In a letter, they said such consulting violates their mission to "work to mitigate the causes of human suffering."
"How is it ethical to share your psychological knowledge with people who will use it to get children to nag their parents - to create ads so that children will believe that owning something will make them happy?" asks Susan Linn, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass.
Mr. Paine, who says he has advised clients in the past against taking approaches that employ sex and violence, disagrees. "Psychologists exist not simply to help people, but they also exist to help organizations use psychological knowledge in ethical and appropriate ways."
He says psychologists never have the last word when it comes to what is ultimately marketed to kids, and companies already know how to get kids' attention. "There is absolutely no way you're going to stop people from reaching out to kids, so we're right back to the issue of 'OK, if it's going to occur, how can it be done more ethically and do less damage?' "
Even ad writers like Crosby say they can't control the effects on their own children. "I'm in the industry and I'm ashamed of what the industry is doing."
Kim Campbell and Kent Davis-Packard, The Christian Science Monitor. September 18, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Christian Science Publishing Society. All rights reserved.