Marketers have long had the nation's schoolchildren in their sights. Now toddlers in preschools and day care centers are getting special attention from companies eager for new customers.
Two big efforts under way this summer incorporate characters that appeal to small children: Clifford the Big Red Dog and the Care Bears. The 40-year-old Clifford appears in dozens of easy-to-read picture books in various languages, with an estimated 100 million copies sold worldwide. The Care Bears had their moment in the early 1980's with a generation that is experiencing parenthood now. Both properties are linked to a kind of basic morality, and both are being harnessed in the business of selling.
The Care Bears, licensed by American Greetings, are featured in a program meant to rekindle interest in the characters among children ages 3 to 7. American Greetings plans a major home video and DVD line for the characters next year.
The program was created by Youth Marketing International, a Manhattan-based company that has worked with corporations like Kraft Foods and Barnes & Noble to market products to children from the barely hatched (as in 2 years old) to the well advanced (enrolled in college).
"I looked at this as an opportunity to provide materials to 25,000 schools," said Michael Brown, the vice president for licensing at American Greetings, which is perhaps best known for its card business. "Schools have budget cuts all the time and teachers use their own money to buy supplies. Preschools are less apt to have large budgets."
Into the vacuum will go posters, worksheets and other materials featuring the Care Bears, who number 10 in all and have names like Funshine Bear and Good Luck Bear. Each character is supposed to represent a different emotion, Mr. Brown said, and one idea behind the program is that children will learn a kind of preschool social compact. Suggested activities include a penny drive and other public service projects.
Parents will also receive a letter highlighting a corporate creation called National Care Week, scheduled for November, and including a certificate for parent and child to sign, declaring that they care.
"The Care Bears live in a star-speckled, rainbow-trimmed cotton candy world called Care-a-lot," the literature, prepared for teachers by Youth Marketing International, reads. "Talk with your students about the tummy graphic for each bear and how it helps us understand what that bear represents. To reinforce their meaning, play a matching game with your students. Help them name emotions that go with each graphic." The literature adds, "During small-group time, help your students decide what kind of Care Bear they would be."
Marketing for small children isn't quite at the level it has reached in, say, Taiwan, where a chain of kindergartens named for Tweety, the Warner Brothers cartoon character, features pictures of the quick-thinking canary in schools and provides Tweety uniforms for the children to wear. But there is no question that marketing to the very young, which has been escalating for the last two years, is a focus for the makers of consumer products and the purveyors of educational materials.
Joel Ehrlich, the president of Youth Marketing International, said the Care Bears material was created by his company after American Greetings paid a fee. He would not disclose the fee, but said companies typically pay an amount "in six figures."
Mr. Ehrlich, a former New York City schoolteacher who was more recently named "Kid Marketer of the Year" by Brandweek, said the Care Bears package would be promoted to about a third of the nation's 75,000 preschools, many of which are run by profit-making companies. The materials are provided free to the preschools.
"We go to about 25,000 of them and say, `We have a wonderful program,' " he said. "We work very closely with the organization, decide who the audience is and what the materials should be. We go directly to teachers with it."
While the messages may promote empathy and other worthwhile emotional development, one critic said that presenting such materials to children barely out of diapers represented a new low in marketing.
"This is all part of advertisers' brazenness," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an advocacy group in Portland, Ore., that regularly battles marketing in schools. "The assault on our youngest kids is vicious and growing in intensity."
He said the effect on children included "marketing-related diseases," including diabetes and other health problems that can result from overconsumption of sugary snacks - implicitly endorsed, he said, by schools that allow snack sales or their advertising presence in cafeterias, hallways and classrooms. And there is another effect, he said: "The aggregated message is to glorify materialism," which can produce children who want things excessively and whine if they don't get them.
"Obviously, we're in business," Mr. Brown said. At the same time, he added: "We're not in this, though, to make a bazillion dollars. At the end of the day, American Greetings is a company that specializes in marketing social-expression products."
Clifford is to be part of a wider curriculum sold by Scholastic. Akimi Gibson, the company's vice president and general manager for early childhood education, said the dog character would take the form of Clifford's Kit for Personal and Social Development, which teaches responsibility and other values. It is part of "a full-day, integrated, research-based curriculum," Ms. Gibson said, which is priced at $2,600 and will be in preschools across Texas starting this fall.
Clifford is being used because "the parents know Clifford," Ms. Gibson said. "He is a beloved character and has withstood the test of time. He espouses the same kind of values that parents want to engender in their children." Nevertheless, "We didn't really build it around Clifford," she said. "What we did was pay attention to what Clifford does well."
The entire curriculum has been used for months in the Children's World chain of day care centers. Now Children's World is marketing itself vigorously to parents by highlighting that curriculum.
"When it comes to preparing your child for school success, you expect the best and Children's World understands," the company's Web site declares. "That's why we're pleased to bring you our new Pathways Pre-Kindergarten Program, filled with fun and educational activities carefully designed to help bring out your child's natural curiosity and encourage a lifelong joy of learning. Developed by Scholastic, the curriculum uses themed learning units that incorporate reading, writing, math, science, social studies and more."
The Clifford component promises "materials on building character like learning respect," as well as cooperation and responsibility.
"The Scholastic name is well known in the education market, well known by parents, and that's part of the appeal," said Sharon Bergen, vice president for education and training at the Knowledge Learning Corporation, which is based in Golden, Colo., and acquired Children's World in May.
But Mr. Ruskin says he thinks parents are being ill served. "So many parents do grim daily battle with so many of our nation's largest corporations," he said. "Schools should stand on the side of the parents in that battle."
Posted on aef.com: July 14, 2003
Constance L. Hays, The New York Times. July 11, 2003
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