Marketing to Children
Citation: Sharon Beder, 'A Community View', Caring for Children in the Media Age, Papers from a national conference, edited by John Squires and Tracy Newlands, New College Institute for Values Research, Sydney, 1998, pp. 101-111.
This is a final version submitted for publication.
Advertisers spend 100s of billions of dollars a year worldwide encouraging, persuading and manipulating people into a consumer lifestyle that has devastating consequences for the environment through its extravagance and wastefulness. Advertising exploits individual insecurities, creates false needs and offers counterfeit solutions. It fosters dissatisfaction that leads to consumption. Children are particularly vulnerable to this sort of manipulation.
Young children are increasingly the target of advertising and marketing because of the amount of money they spend themselves, the influence they have on their parents spending (the nag factor) and because of the money they will spend when they grow up. Whilst this child-targetted marketing used to concentrate on sweets and toys, it now includes clothes, shoes, a range of fast foods, sports equipment, computer products and toiletries as well as adult products such as cars and credit cards.
In Australia, children under 18 have an average $31.60 to spend each week and they influence more than 70 per cent of their parents' clothes and fast food purchases. Advertisers attending a conference on Marketing to Kids and Youth were told that children and teenagers between the ages of 10 and 17 spent $3.3 billion every year.
In the US there are over 57 million school age children and teenagers who spend about $100 billion each year of their own and their family's money on sweets, food, drinks, video and electronic products, toys, games, movies, sports, clothes and shoes. Additionally children 12 and under spend more than $11 billion of their own money and influence family spending decisions worth another $165 billion on food, household items like furniture, electrical appliances and computers, vacations, the family car and other spending. For example, one study estimated that children influenced $9 billion worth of car sales in 1994. One car dealer explains: "Sometimes, the child literally is our customer. I have watched the child pick out the car."
This means that car manufacturers cannot afford to ignore the children in their marketing. Companies such as Nissan sponsor the American Youth Soccer Organisation and a travelling geography exhibit in order to get exposure for their brand name and logo in child-friendly settings. Chrysler distributes 100s of thousands of glossy cardboard pop-up promotional books by direct mail that will appeal to children who love pop-up books. And Chevrolet has used advertisements featuring children. Some car dealers have added children's play areas and arcade games to their facilities.
US advertisers are now beginning to recognise the potential of the international children's market. James McNeal in his book Kids as Customers estimates that there are about three quarters of a billion children in other industrialised countries: "Letting one's marketing imagination run wild for a moment, if these children spend only half of what U.S. children spend, their market potential would be equal to around $86.5 billion."
Brandweek magazine, also enthusing about "the marketing opportunity that kids around the world represent" pointed out that even in China where children don't get much income and save most of it, their total spending amounts to $2.6 billion per year, "second only to the US". Brandweek cited a survey that showed McDonald's was the favourite fast food all over the world and Coke the favourite drink. It argued:
Average Income and Spending for Children aged 7-12 yrs
Regular Income Annual Income# Savings Total Spending $US/month/child $US/year/child $US/year Germany 32.30 569.40 46% 0.9 billion UK 31.50 506.20 26% 1.7 billion US 29.10 493.10 21% 8.9 billion France 22.50 377.90 30% 2.2 billion Japan* 10.70 407.90 62% 1.0 billion China* 9.00 182.00 60% 2.6 billion
* urban areas only # including special income
Source: Laurie Klein, `More than play dough', Brandweek, Vol. 38 (24 November 1997)
McNeal argues that "in many nations the competition for the children's market is not as aggressive" as in the US: "It has been said that in the United States when you get a competitor down you kick him; in Asia you help him up." He suggests that US firms using US-style competition will therefore have an advantage:
Children represent three different markets. In addition to the direct money that children spend and the money they influence, children also represent a third major market and perhaps the most significant and that is the future market. Advertisers recognise that brand loyalties and consumer habits formed when children are young and vulnerable will be carried through to adulthood.
Retailers and manufacturers have two sources of new customers, those who they can persuade to change from their competitors and those who have not yet entered the market. Those who switch are less likely to be loyal than those who are nurtured from childhood. According to the CEO of Prism Communications, "they aren't children so much as what I like to call `evolving consumers'." McNeal outlines the stages in the evolution of a child consumer.
From age 1: Accompanying Parents and Observing. Children are taken with their parents to supermarkets and other stores where all sorts of goodies are displayed.
From age 2: Accompanying Parents and Requesting. Children begin to ask for things that they see and make connections between television advertising and store contents. They pay more attention to those ads and the list of things they want increases.
From age 3: Accompanying Parents and Selecting with Permission. Children are able to come down from the shopping trolley and make their own choices. They are able to recognise brands and locate goods in the store.
From age 4: Accompanying Parents and Making Independent Purchases. The final step in their development as a consumer is learning to pay for their purchases at the check-out counter.
From age 5: Going to the Store Alone and Making Independent Purchases.
According to Direct Marketing magazine, by the age of eight children make most of their own buying decisions. Modern children can often recognise brands and status items by the age of 3 or 4, before they can even read. One study found that 52 percent of 3 year olds and 73% of 4 year olds "often or almost always" asked their parents for specific brands. Advertisers recognise that brand loyalties and consumer habits formed when children are young and vulnerable will be carried through to adulthood. Kids `R' Us president, Mike Searles, says "If you own this child at an early age... you can own this child for years to come."
Children's advertising covers all types of media outlets from newspapers to television stations. By the time most US children start school they will have spent 5000 hours watching television. They will spend more time watching television than they spend in class for their entire schooling. Similarly in Australia, where in one in four homes children have their own television sets, children spend an average of a quarter of their spare time in front of the television.
A version of the infomercial aimed at children is the television show whose main characters are modelled after toys. By 1988 64% of television toy advertisements were for toys related to children's television programmes. Often cartoon characters would be launched as movies, be followed up by television series and then be merchandised on hundreds of products from t-shirts to toys. The head of Disney explained to Advertising Age in 1989 how the Disney Corporation's activities all reinforced each other: "The Disney Stores promote the consumer products which promote the [theme] parks which promote the television shows. The television shows promote the company."
Advertisers not only feature cartoon or other characters from children's television programmes to gain their endorsement for their products (known as host selling) but they sometimes even place those advertisements in the breaks of the television programmes about those characters, thus blurring the distinction between programming and advertising and taking advantage of the affection children feel for those characters.
Television advertising makes up about 70% of the total amount spent on advertising to children in the US but total advertising expenditure makes up only about 15% of the total amount of money spent on marketing to children. In fact much marketing to children now consists of sales promotions such as direct coupons, free gifts and samples, contests and sweepstakes, and public relations such as using celebrities and licensed characters which visit shopping centres and schools. New technologies have also provided new opportunities such as the Internet and telephone services that enable "new, personalized promotions" aimed at children. Marketing in schools is also a rapidly growing arena.
Kids clubs, organised by retailers, producers and media outlets, have proliferated in recent times. They offer an opportunity to develop a more personal relationship with each child, get information about the children for marketing purposes that can be used for mailing lists and data bases, and to promote products to children of particular age groups and geographical locations.
These additional forms of marketing have supplemented rather than replaced advertising as the importance of the children's market has grown. Their aim however is the same as advertising, to create brand loyalties and customers amongst children. Also, those wanting to sell goods recognise that some older children become somewhat cynical of advertisements and therefore publicity in children's newspapers and magazines as well as other marketing strategies are alternative ways of reaching these children.
A new arena for advertising is the internet. It is estimated that about four million children are using the internet world-wide and this figure is bound to increase dramatically over the next few years. According to the director of Saatchi & Saatchi Interactive, "This is a medium for advertisers that is unprecedented... there's probably no other product or service that we can think of that is like it in terms of capturing kids' interest." In their advertising material Saatchi and Saatchi explain their Kid Connection service:
Children as young as four are being targeted by advertisers on the internet and often the interaction with the children is unmediated by parents or teachers. These advertisers elicit personal information from the children by getting them to fill out surveys before they can play and offering prizes such as T-shirts for filling in "lengthy profiles that ask for purchasing behavior, preferences and information on other family members."
Advertisers then use this information to "craft individualised messages and ads" targeted at each child. The ads are integrated with the other content of the internet site which is designed to keep the children engrossed in play for hours at a time. There are even product "spokescharacters" to interact with the children and develop relationships with them so that long lasting brand loyalties can be developed. Michael Brody, spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, told a US Federal Trade Commission workshop on privacy that preadolescent children do not understand what personal information is. What is more, he pointed out, they look up to fictional characters and tend to do what they ask of them.
The Centre for Media Education (CME) studied 38 children's sites "commonly found on lists of popular places for children" on the internet. It found that 90% of them collected personal information from children and forty percent used incentives such as free gifts and competitions to encourage children to give that information. One in four subsequently send children an email after they visit the site and 40 percent send `cookies' to those visiting the site to get unsolicited information from them.
There are questions about the ability of children so young to understand advertising and its intent and not be deceived and manipulated by it. Experts say that children don't understand persuasive intent until they are eight or nine years old and that it is unethical to advertise to them before then. According to Karpatkin and Holmes from the Consumers Union, "Young children, in particular, have difficulty in distinguishing between advertising and reality in ads, and ads can distort their view of the world." Additionally children are unable to evaluate advertising claims.
At the same time, Richard Mizerski, an Australian professor of marketing, observes; "their cognitive structures are beginning to form and they are most sensitive to external influences." This is especially a problem when advertisements appear on school walls and posters and book covers and gain legitimacy from the supposed endorsement of the school so that children think they must be true.
One study by Roy Fox, Associate Professor of English Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia, found that children watching athletes in television commercials thought that the athletes paid to be in the advertisements to promote themselves rather than the products. They believed children in advertisements were real rather than paid actors and they often confused advertisements with news items. Generally they did not understand the commercial intent and manipulation behind advertisements.
Older children pay less attention to advertisements and are more able to differentiate between the ads and TV programs but they are also easy prey for advertisers. Around puberty, in their early teens, children are forming their own identities and they are "highly vulnerable to pressure to conform to group standards and mores." At this age they feel insecure and want to feel that they belong to their peer group. Advertising manipulates them through their insecurities, seeking to define normality for them; influencing the way they "view and obtain appropriate models for the adult world;" and undermining "fundamental human values in the development of the identity of children." Advertisements actively encourage them to seek happiness and esteem through consumption.
It is for these reasons that marketing to children should be carefully restricted. In particular advertisements aimed at children under the age of 9 years old, including on the internet and during children's television programmes, should be banned. Such advertising subsidises the cost of these services at the cost of our children's values, sense of well-being, health and integrity. Moreover the future of the planet is at stake if we allow advertisers and marketers to turn children into hyper consumers of the future.
 Amy Aidman, `Advertising in Schools', (University of Illinois, Illinois: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1995); David France, `This lesson is brought to you by...', Good Housekeeping, Vol. 222 (February 1996)
 Betsy Wagner, `Our class is brought to you today by...advertisers target a captive market: school kids', US News & World Report, Vol. 118, No. 16 (1995), p. 63; France, op.cit.; Rhoda H. Karpatkin and Anita Holmes, `Making schools ad-free zones', Educational Leadership, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1995).
 Paul M. Fischer, Meyer P. Schwartz, John W. Jr Richards and Adam O. Goldstein, `Brand Logo Recognition by Children Aged 3 to 6 Years: Mickey Mouse and Old Joe the Camel', The Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 266, No. 22 (1991)
 Stephen Frith, `What's the Problem?', in Tracy Newlands and Stephen Frith (eds), Innocent Advertising? Corporate Sponsorship in Australian Schools (Sydney: New College Institute for Values Research, University of NSW, 1996), p. 13.
Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb