While staying with friends last year in San Francisco, I was asked by their son to help him with his homework. It seemed like a good way to show my appreciation of their hospitality and I tried not to wince when he handed me a math book with a Frosted Flakes cover.
"They were giving them out free," I was told by an impressed 11-year-old. "It was either this one or Lay's Potato Chips." I smiled and told myself not to be too cynical -- after all, what was a bit of extra color on a textbook. It was only when we looked at the first problem that I really lost it.
"Will is saving his allowance to buy a pair of Nike shoes that cost $68.25. If Will earns $3.25 per week, how many weeks will Will need to save?"
As Danny, a bright kid, pencilled in 21 weeks, I flicked through the pages of the book in horror. Subsequent questions invited us to calculate the grams of fat in a Burger King Whopper, followed by some geometry questions involving an Oreo cookie, at which point the textbook helpfully reminded us that "the best-selling packaged cookie in the world is the Oreo cookie."
Marketing targeted at kids in the U.S. is nothing new but -- did you know? -- it's the fastest growing area of advertising in the country today. In 1990 around $100 million was spent on advertising targeted at kids on television and just a decade later that number was up more than twenty times to over $2 billion.
It's Not Just TV Ads
In addition to the carefully crafted TV commercials, companies are hiring ad space on school bus radios, screensavers on school computers (Pepsi has one that encourages "a thirst for knowledge!") and are tying in products for cross-promotion more than ever -- witness the Barbie accessories that include cans of Coke or the Teletubbies merchandise licensed to McDonalds.
But why would companies bother seducing a section of the population that doesn't even work for a living?
The answer, according to the marketing industry book, Kidfluence, is "persistence pestering" and "importance pestering". The former is all about kids whining until they get what they want ("pester power"); the latter is about parents feeling guilty that they rely upon the television to bring up their children to alleviate their guilt they satisfy whatever material craving their kids want.
Plus, let's not forget, American kids today have their own spending power.
Studies conducted a few years ago showed that kids 4-12 were spending around $40 billion a year, while those from 12-18 plow through $170 billion a year. Whether that money is spent on toys, breakfast cereals, clothes or cigarettes (check out the new range of watermelon and cherry flavors introduced by Reynolds Tobacco), no big company is going to pass up that share of the market.
And when you consider that an estimated $600 billion of household spending is influenced by children, then it's clear why the big companies aren't shy about getting the corporate message across to children who aren't yet able to walk, never mind think for themselves.
And therein lies the second part of the plan. Research by child psychologists such as Dr. Allen Kanner of Berkeley has suggested that by the time a child is 3 years old he's able to recognize around 100 brand logos. Kids are getting smarter all the time but it's a bit much to ask an infant to make an informed decision about products he's not even aware exist yet.
My friends limit Danny from watching TV unsupervised, preferring to make their favorite shows a family event but the average American child is thought to see around 40,000 television commercials a year. Products tie in with popular cartoons and television characters, establishing an insidious brand loyalty in children before they're able to distinguish between a plotline and a sales pitch.
The Jesuit saying might well these days be, "Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the consumer."
Shaping Young Minds
I took Danny out one Saturday to teach him how to play soccer (I look good playing against an 11-year-old) and afterwards I proposed that we grab a bite to eat. I don't think I quite managed to hide my frown when Danny pulled out some McDonald's tokens. He looked down at the coupons and murmured:
"I got them at school for doing well in my reading program."
This was news to me -- apparently, McDonald's, Burger King and Domino's pizza were sponsoring reading projects in school with free meals. I thought back to when I was Danny's age and the excitement I'd had at a friend's birthday party at McDonald's how was I supposed to communicate things like an unhealthy diet, non-biodegradable packaging and abuse of the rainforest to an 11-year-old who was proud of his reading skills?
Across America, schools struggling with their budgets are accepting outside help from companies like Nike who sponsor open days and sports training. The kids are taken out on coach buses, handed cans of soda and entertained for hours by enthusiastic sports teachers, all decked out in Nike gear from head to foot.
What's the catch?
Apart from watching some prospective Nike ads and giving their feedback there is none -- but how many of those kids will resist thinking of Nike with special affection thereafter for taking them out of the school for the day?
The fastest-growing area of marketing for kids is, of course, the Internet. Parents often lag behind their children in understanding the function of new technology and fail to appreciate how saturated kids' sites can be with advertising.
Cult toy and collectible sites draw millions of children every day and many use deceptive navigation and tricks to steer the juvenile surfers into a never-ending barrage of ads -- hit the "back" button or even the small "x" in the corner and you're less likely to leave the site than trigger another pop-up window.
As a fledgling industry, there doesn't yet exist the same kind of restrictions or code of decency for advertisers on the Internet as in other media. Through sign-up forms and tracking cookies, many take advantage of children's surfing behavior to collect consumer information and target kids with personalised advertising.
Europeans Are Stricter
Some countries in Europe take marketing aimed at kids very seriously and have laws in place to limit this kind of ruthless advertising. Sweden and Greece have banned television commercials aimed at kids, at least during daylight hours.
In the U.S., however, such laws are perceived to be a breach of that all-important First Amendment. The likes of Nike, McDonald's and Toys'R'Us clearly have only their profits in mind though when it comes to marketing and will make the most of every possible avenue available to them, the ethics be damned.
On the other hand, in the true American spirit of independence and freedom it's worth remembering that the responsibility is also in our hands. The corporations cannot beat down our doors and stuff promotional pamphlets in our hands -- our children are only exposed to commercials if we allow them to watch television. And if we allow material compensation to replace genuine love and care then we only have ourselves to blame.
Likewise, however strapped for cash a school might be, it doesn't have to allow the multi-nationals in through the gates. Education doesn't depend upon Nike-sponsored field trips and there are other ways of raising cash than selling ad space on school radios.
If schools are reluctant to acknowledge that then who other than the parents and children themselves can get the message through?
It took quite a while for me explain all this to Danny but, as I said, he's a bright kid so we went home and sat in front of the television with a notepad and pen and started analysing all the different hooks used by the commercials to pull us in. Whether it was catchy music, beautiful women or people looking cool while using the products, Danny quickly got the idea and grinned as he'd outsmarted the marketing.
But I had a feeling he'd be the only one at school the next day who did.
Tom Glaister is the founder and editor of www.roadjunky.com - The Online Travel Guide for the Free and Funky Traveller.