News & Politics

Attacking the "Best" in Kiddie Ads

As the advertising industry held its Golden Marble Awards in New York this week -- a ceremony that honors the "best" in marketing to kids as young as 18 months -- a group of protesters in the streets raised a ruckus about the industry's seedy practices. But is there any way to protect kids from rampant commercialism?
September 14 -- A spread in Advertising Age, the industry's primary trade magazine, shows a grainy picture of an inquisitive preteen girl. "Who Am I?" the copy asks, suggesting the girl's existential coming-of-age dilemma. But the next page tells us exactly who she is: "I am the Internet generation. I am spending billions each year. I am building brands right now." Then the kicker: "And I am here for you."

Indeed, the prospect of millions of kids handing over a chunk of the $400 billion they represent in annual sales has corporations salivating to the tune of $12 billion a year in advertising and marketing. Over three hundred industry professionals showed up in New York this week to discuss the finer points of roping in this highly lucrative market at the "Advertising and Promoting to Kids" conference, an annual event sponsored by Toronto-based KidScreen.

The two-day conference had participants from heavy-hitter advertising firms like Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett listening with perked ears to seminars like "Ethnic Marketing: It's Not So Niche!", "Marketing in the Classroom" and the astonishingly blunt "Guerrilla Marketing: How to Get Street Cred."

The conference culminated on Thursday with the Golden Marble awards, which recognized the best in advertising to kids -- "best" meaning ads that best "educate, inform and entertain" according to official conference jargon, but in reality seemed to be those that best yield the coveted "pester power" which keeps kids nagging and parents buying. Big winners at the Golden Marble Awards included Leo Burnett, which won two golds and four certificates of merit for spots on Kellogg's, McDonald's and Nintendo, and other firms for their campaigns for Gatorade and Kids Foot Locker.

But outside the ceremony, vocal protesters were demonstrating against the non-stop propoganda machine that was appluading itself inside. A coalition of health care professionals, educators, media activists, children's advocates and parents who hailed from as far away as California, Alabama, Chicago and Boston had come together as the newly formed Save Children from Advertising and Marketing (SCAM) Project. SCAM believes that the average American child's media diet of forty hours a week, including 30,000 television ads a year, spells dangerous brainwashing for the kids -- and red-handed guilt for the advertisers.

"It was for many years a tacit understanding that children ought not to be bombarded with commercial messages," said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University and outspoken media critic. "There were certainly a number of television shows geared toward children but they weren't about selling products. In today's climate of rampant deregulation and hypercommercialization, the fact is that these companies and advertisers are engaged in a huge propaganda exercise whose sole purpose is to raise corporate margins. Anyone who's really concerned about what they call family values really ought to be directing attention to this trend."

The demonstrators expressed particular alarm over the early age at which advertisers now target kids, mentioning industry reports that proclaim children as young as 18 months psychologically available for marketing.

"For little kids, the world is what they see, and they can't distinguish between an ad, a TV show and reality" said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor of education at Lesley College and mother of screen actor Matt Damon. Carlsson-Paige cited research showning that until the age of seven, children cannot differentiate between commercials and shows. "All they see is something colorful to watch, so they're desensitized to ads before they even learn to put them into context. That's what we need to get people dialoguing about."

Another issue which got its due amount of flack from the SCAMers was the explosive trend of advertising in schools. This most recent foray into childrens' consciousness has plastered virtually every waking moment of their lives with ads, as marketers push products on the sides of school busses and in locker corridors, arrange profitable contracts between schools and soft drinks companies, and put free Channel One televisions in classrooms in exchange for compulsory commercial broadcasting. Alvin F. Poussaint, an organizer of the demonstration and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School called these tactics "nothing less than an invasion of the hearts and minds of our children, convincing them that who they are is what they buy."

Coming only a few days after the Federal Trade Commission issued its report concluding that the entertainment industry intentionally markets violence to children, demonstrators said that the report only revealed the tip of an iceberg. Although the contribution of violent media to violent behavior has been confirmed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is not alone as a social ill with commercial origins. Childhood obesity has been linked to excessive television viewing, for instance, and eating disorders in girls have been correlated with exposure to fashion magazines and unrealistic beauty standards in the media.

The demonstrators set forth recommendations for protecting children from the ravenous chops of marketers, including a White House conference on the effects of corporate marketing on children, a system of uniform age-based ratings across all movies, television shows, video and computer games, and careful federal regulation of all marketing to children. Crispin Miller took it even further, suggesting that we need a 'hands-off' policy like Sweden, which bars all advertising to children.

"They recognize that children are too young, too impressionable and have far better things with which to occupy their minds than advertising," he said. "It's a shameful enterprise, and certainly nothing to give awards over."
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