When an arts and crafts company placed an ad in Discovery Girls magazine for Tulip Glam-It-Up iron-on crystals, it hardly seemed controversial. The ad, which ran last summer, showed a young girl wearing a T-shirt swirled with paint and crystals. “I glam rock it up,” the girl was saying.
But when the reviewers assigned to monitoring children’s advertising at the Council of Better Business Bureaus saw it, they saw problems. It was not clearly marked as an ad, for instance, and they worried that children might think they could mimic the design from crystals alone. The Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the bureau contacted Duncan Enterprises, which ran the ad, and suggested several changes last month.
“We don’t want to deceive anyone,” said Alyson Dias, director for marketing communications at Duncan Enterprises. “They’re just asking for more clarity and more disclosure than ever before, and if that’s what’s needed to advertise to the tween and under-13 crowd, then that’s fine — we’ll do it.”
Still, she said, “it is difficult, advertising to children.” Wary of getting into hot water with advocacy or standards groups, advertisers are increasingly cautious about taking out ads aimed at children. And that is hammering magazines like Sports Illustrated Kids, National Geographic Kids and Boys’ Life.
At the same time, all the attention about advertising to children has an interesting side effect. Publishers and advertisers are becoming more creative about such ads, and are running games, contests and events where the advertiser has only a subtle presence — exactly the opposite of what some of the advocacy groups were aiming for.
“Obviously there have been all sorts of issues that have arisen as a consequence” of directly advertising to children, like “childhood obesity, diabetes and other social issues — and that’s why it’s a much more difficult environment to advertise directly in,” said Stuart Hazlewood, the chief strategy officer of the advertising agency DDB New York. “They have to be a lot more subtle about it these days.”
Marketers began paying closer attention to how they advertised to children in the 1970s, when consumer advocates complained about the ways commercialism permeated society. In 1974, the industry created the Children’s Advertising Review Unit. Today, that unit has about seven reviewers who contact companies when they judge ads are misleading or inappropriate.
“Especially where advertising is concerned, children have certain vulnerabilities because of their age and how they perceive things, their cognitive abilities,” said Wayne J. Keeley, director for the program.
More recently, regulators pressured the industry to limit food advertising in response to concerns about childhood obesity. In 2006, major food marketers began joining the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, another program from the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Four marketers — Coca-Cola, Mars, Hershey and Cadbury Adams USA — said they would not advertise at all to children. Others announced nutritional standards that their products had to meet if they were advertised to children. While these tended to ban products with the highest fat and sugar levels, each company could set its own standards, and the list of approved products includes processed foods like Kid Cuisine Constructor Cheeseburger, Apple Jacks and Cocoa Puffs.
The debate over what is appropriate for children continues, with the Federal Communications Commission seeking opinions about online marketing to children, and the Federal Trade Commission holding a hearing in December on food marketing to children.
All the scrutiny has put children’s magazines under pressure.
While almost all magazines suffered in 2009, magazines for children posted some of the lowest overall ad-page numbers. Nickelodeon magazine ceased publication with its December 2009/January 2010 issue.
In response, some magazines are taking a more expansive view of how advertisers can reach children.
“We’ve really built our business around a strategy, when it comes to advertising partners, of allowing them to really make use of our ability to get this youth audience in all the ways that they’re out there, so we get them in school, we get them in print, we get them when they’re out of school and having fun through sports,” said Bob Der, managing editor of Sports Illustrated Kids and who also oversees editorial content in Time for Kids.
That means programs like “Sports Dad of the Year,” sponsored by Wendy’s, and a design-your-own-game contest for Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish crackers that S.I. Kids helped create.
“The days of single-page advertising, it doesn’t exist that way anymore,” said Eileen Masio, executive director of integrated marketing for S.I. Kids and Time for Kids. “It’s really making their messaging and what they stand for come to life.” National Geographic Kids is taking a similar approach.
That magazine began taking advertising in 2002, when it changed its name from National Geographic World. After initial success with advertisers, things slowed down more recently, largely because of the economy but in part because of heightened concern about food advertising, said Claudia Malley, senior vice president for global media and advertising at National Geographic.
So, like Sports Illustrated Kids, National Geographic Kids rethought its tactics. It created a contest, initially sponsored by Purell hand sanitizer, to find the top “hands-on” adventurers among American youths, for instance. In another recent program, it created print ads and a site about travel for Camp Hyatt, the Hyatt hotel chain’s children’s program, including games linked to specific Hyatt locations.
“Instead of just a straight selling of a product,” Ms. Malley said, “it’s all about how we tell the message in the magazine and how we engage with the kids.”
But these kinds of strategies, created in part to sidestep advocates’ criticisms, are upsetting them all the more.
They are “powerful and incredibly insidious,” said Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “The goal is to incorporate a brand into a child’s identity.”
Because of such concerns, some children’s magazines refuse advertising.
“We don’t have that potential conflict in the needs of our readers, in the wants and desires of our readers, with those of our advertisers,” said Kent S. Johnson, chief of Highlights for Children.
But other publishers argue that it is a commercial world anyway, and children should be exposed to that early.
“We believe this is part of the learning process: why shield them from any of the marketing experience that comes with making a purchase decision?” said J. Warren Young, the publisher of Boys’ Life.
While Ms. Linn and other children’s advocates say children are not equipped to recognize and analyze ads, Mr. Keeley, of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, said it was too late.
“We certainly appreciate the groups that have children’s interests, like we do, in mind, but the fact is that advertisers do do it, it’s a multibillion-dollar business,” he said. “The cow’s out of the barn.”
Stephanie Clifford, The New York Times. February 14, 2010
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